In last week’s article, I outlined the potential Psychological and Social Risks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today’s article focuses on how organisations can support their employees during and after the pandemic. We focus on perceived organisational support, employee perceptions on how well the support is being delivered, understanding the emerging complex needs of employees and some of how organisations can support their employees.
Perceived Organisational Support refers to employees’ beliefs concerning the extent to which their organization cares about their well-being and values their contributions. POS has been found to have important consequences for employee performance and well-being (Eisenberger et al., 1986).
Employee perceptions of a lack of support from their organisation can result in increased absenteeism, disengagement, conflict, turnover, fatigue, stress, burnout and anxiety among other issues. Lack of psychological support can result in loss of productivity, increased costs and greater risk of accidents, incidents, and injuries (A Workplace Guide to Psychological Health and Safety, n.d).
In 2019, less than 10% of business leaders from G20 and OECD countries considered a pandemic as a looming global risk, nor did they anticipate that a pandemic might test their public reputation as a responsible employer. While presently there is a major focus on the public health and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the workforce and societal implications are no less profound (WEF 2020).
During a complex emergency like the COVID–19 pandemic, leaders find themselves in a position where they are expected to ensure that business operations continue, while at the same time ensure that support staff delivers. It is therefore commonplace to find that most of the support provided to staff is geared toward ensuring they are able to continue working comfortably. Whilst this is necessary, leaders must not lose sight of the psychosocial needs of their staff. Understanding these needs will help in reducing the negative effects of the pandemic and sustain their functioning so that they can participate in the recovery process post the pandemic. Research has shown that where employees feel they are supported by the organization, the greater their job attachment, job commitment, job satisfaction, job involvement, desire to remain with the organization, organizational citizenship behaviours (discretionary behaviours that are beneficial to the organization and are a matter of personal choice), and job performance (A Workplace Guide to Psychological Health and Safety, n.d). Organizational support is a critical factor in ensuring organisational Resilience.
Vogus and Sutcliffe (2007) define resilience as ‘the maintenance of positive adjustment under challenging conditions such that the organisation emerges from those conditions strengthened and more resourceful.’ Extreme or ongoing stress often impairs people’s ability to concentrate and to make good decisions. You may find that your staff members and yourself are unable to function at your usual level, right at a time when extraordinary performance is needed. Addressing personnel’s psychosocial needs to the extent possible is not merely kindness, but an essential step that will help them recover their professional capacity. (Psychological Support, n.d. & leadership In Emergencies Toolkit, n.d.).
The following are some of the ways in which organisations can support their employees:
Employees are likely to experience a variety of negative reactions during and post the pandemic. Psychoeducation helps to create awareness about typical reactions so that people understand they are not overreacting, being weak, or going crazy. Organisations can organise awareness sessions for the employees by a staff counselor or available resources within their location. In some organisations, ice-breaker sessions have been organised every 2 weeks where employees, from top to lower management, talk about social issues other than normal work challenges. This creates a stronger bonding capital for the organisation and social capital necessary for the firm to survive post-COVID-19.
Provide education and training to all staff to heighten professional and mental health awareness (i.e., mental health literacy). The critical question is how this training can be done and where it can be accessed? Some institutions are currently offering free sample online courses and it is the duty of the line manager to ensure employees engage in relevant staff development courses (i.e. according to professional and mental health needs). In addition, the organisation can provide information on mental health issues to all staff whose role involves leading, supporting or managing. Some organisations have provided links to social media sites and media channels that offer aerobics and physical exercises within limited (home) spaces.
3. Social Support (Formal and Informal)
During a particularly prolonged or intense crisis response, leaders can consider creating a ’buddy system ‘within departments to help with monitoring each other for warning signs of mental health issues. It is important to provide a sense of safety and a supportive recovery environment for your staff as quickly as possible, recognising that they may need time to take care of their family needs. If possible, organize online ceremonies where personnel can come together, first to acknowledge and mourn shared losses, and then mark positive developments as the recovery continues. Even if progress is slow after a large-scale event, celebrating small milestones can help keep staff members focused on recovery rather than dwelling on what was lost.
Organisations need to support their employees through clear communication during all phases of an organization’s response to COVID-19. Respectful workplace communication should be encouraged especially such that psychological health concerns can be discussed safely and openly. Efforts should be made to ensure awareness is created of company benefits and programs that employees can access to address their psychological health concerns. Where employees who are off work due to mental health concerns, team leaders should make an effort to maintain regular and supportive communication with them. Regularly check-in and keep all staff informed about the emergency situation and work arrangements
5. Formal Policies & Programs
At the organisational policy level, leaders need to consider providing comprehensive benefits that support employee mental health (i.e., coverage for the following: psychologists or other regulated mental health professionals; Employee and Family Assistance Programs; prescription drugs).Develop programs and procedures to address occupation-specific risks to psychological health and safety. It would be useful for organizations to identify a contact person who is knowledgeable about mental health issues and is responsible for facilitating healthy and successful work-returns. Organisations should formulate detailed return-to-work plans that include a range of options for coping with mental health concerns (e.g., graduated return-to-work). It is important to ensure coordination among key participants in the return to work process.
6. Clear Leadership & Expectations
A work environment where there is effective leadership and support that helps employees know what they need to do, how their work contributes to the organization, and whether there are impending changes, increases employee resiliency and well-being. It also important the leaders protect their staff from organizational and political stressors while recognizing organizational limitations. Effective leaders are transparent, empathetic and create trust, and their behaviors help calm, support and even energize employees so that they feel vested in a common mission and purpose, and embrace new ways of working (WEF 2020).
7. Self Care
Educate staff members about the need to practice self-care. In as much as it is possible leaders should model good coping mechanisms for staff during normal work periods and throughout crisis response.
There are also a few things organizations should avoid:
(Psychological Support, n.d., leadership In Emergencies Toolkit, n.d., & WEF 2020).
It is important that leaders are aware of these stressors as they are also likely to face them as they support their teams and they too need to maintain their own personal and professional resilience. Leaders need to pay attention to how the pandemic may have impacted them at a personal level so that they also maintain their own resilience.
Experiencing a complex emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic does not always result in negative outcomes. Research has shown in some cases there could be positive outcomes such as feelings of empowerment during times of crisis and chaos, emotional connection with survivors, colleagues, and the community; a sense of competence and mastery in overcoming unique challenges; a sense of privilege and honour to serve during times of need; increased self-knowledge and self-awareness; personal growth and being part of a meaningful effort larger than oneself. Organisations can use this time to grow employees at an individual level and by implication the whole firm (Psychological Support, n.d., leadership In Emergencies Toolkit, n.d., & WEF 2020).
A Workplace Guide to Psychological Health and Safety (n.d.). Retrieved April 8, 2020, from https://www.guardingmindsatwork.ca/about/about-psychosocial-factors
Eisenberger et al., 1986, Perceived organizational support Journal of Applied Psychology, 71 (1986), pp. 500-507
LEADERSHIP in EMERGENCIES TOOLKIT (n.d.). Retrieved April 8, 2020, from https://www.un.org/epst/sites/www.un.org.epst/files/leadership_in_the_emergencies_toolkit.pdf
Mees B, McMurray A & Chhetri P 2016, Organisational resilience and emergency management, Australian Journal of Emergency Management, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 38–43. At: https://ajem.infoservices. com.au/items/AJEM-31-02-08
Psychological Support- Workplace Strategies (n.d.). Retrieved April 8, 2020, from https://www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/content/images/agenda/pdf/1_Psychological_Support_EN.pdf
Vogus TJ & Sutcliffe KM 2007, Organizational resilience: Towards a theory and research agenda. IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, 2007, New York, IEEE, pp. 3418-22.
World Economic Forum (2019): Workforce Principles for the COVID-19 Pandemic Stakeholder Capitalism in a Time of Crisis: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_NES_COVID_19_Pandemic_Workforce_Principles_2020.pdf
Article by Dr. Angela Ndunge, Deputy Executive Dean, Strathmore University Business School.
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