Facing unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 crisis, organizations and their leaders struggled to financially survive, while also protecting the health and safety of their workers. The actions employers took will affect employees’ loyalty and engagement long after the COVID-19 crisis is over.
During crises like the pandemic, employers should be listening to their employees as well as demonstrating empathy and compassion to ease their struggles…. but are they?
Research conducted by faculty from the University of Oklahoma during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic found that while employers were hitting the mark in some areas, more than 73% believed their companies could do better.
“The study’s results raise concerns about leaders not meeting the needs of their workforce during a crisis. If organizations aren’t careful, in the short-term, they’ll ‘win the battle’ of surviving the pandemic, but ‘lose the war’ by overlooking and losing a significant portion of their workforce.”
In “One Size Does NOT Fit All: Understanding Differences in Perceived in Organizational Support During the COVID-19 Pandemic," Organizational Leadership instructors Dr. Leslie A. Miller, Dr. Michael Zia Mian and Dr. Ruby Daniels report surveying nearly 1,000 workers from 22 industries regarding actions leaders were taking to address employees’ needs during a crisis. The study was published in Business and Society in the Age of COVID-19, a March 2022 special issue of Business and Society Review.
The study’s results suggest leaders should frequently communicate about the organization’s plans, empathetically listen to employees’ feedback, and create appropriate solutions for different employee populations.
“During a crisis, leaders must be strong role models for their workforce,” said Mian, an industrial psychologist. “Employees are always listening and watching. The empathy and compassion shown to them sets the standards for how they will treat each other and how committed they will be to carrying the organization’s plan.”
Workers completing the survey rated the quality of 15 actions focusing on five workforce needs — health and well-being, comfort expressing concerns, listening and care about concerns, support for employees’ decisions and communicating the organization’s response. Respondents also provided suggestions on how leaders could make them feel more supported.
While 60% of workers said their organizations were generally doing a good to excellent job addressing their concerns, many perceived their leaders as failing to listen or show they care, with negative ratings ranging from 56% for essential employees working outside the home to 61% of furloughed workers.
“While recognizing and commending their organizations’ efforts to create a safe work environment, employees in the study shared some very personal experiences indicating leaders need to be doing more,” said Miller, an organizational psychologist and owner of LanneM TM, LLC. “Interestingly, many suggestions cost nothing, such as actively listening to workers’ concerns and showing you authentically care about employees’ well-being.”
More than 40% of those surveyed said their leaders failed to listen and demonstrate that they cared about employee concerns. Some employees said they were not given proper personal protective equipment, workplaces were not properly sanitized, and/or people who reported to work sick weren’t sent home. Others said they had to hear what their companies were doing on television or were told they’d be the first to be laid off if they expressed concerns.
On the flipside, some said leaders were very transparent and reassuring so employees felt empowered to make decisions without compromising personal safety.
Mian said listening is one of the most important skills for a leader.
“During a crisis, most organizations do a good job of communicating messages down to their workforce,” he said. “But leaders under pressure often fail to listen to messages coming up from workers. When leaders make the time to show they care, employees tend to be more engaged and loyal.”
Miller said a national study of workplace empathy found 93% of workers indicated they were more likely to stay with a company if their employer showed empathy.
“Empathy and compassion are critical during a crisis. In addition to demonstrating they truly understand what their workforce is experiencing and feeling, organizational leaders must show they care about their employees’ challenges by decisively taking action to help ease struggles,” she said. “Organizations must realize there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to meeting employees’ needs. Employees who work outside the home were on the front line of the COVID-19 crisis, so they were understandably focused on maintaining a safe work environment. In contrast, remote workers had a greater need for technological and social support during the pandemic.”
Daniels, an international business and research consultant, said it’s important for workers to realize their employers also require patience and understanding during times of crisis.
“Employees must remember managers need empathy and compassion, too,” she said. “Leaders also work long hours and are concerned about their health and well-being, so it’s important for everyone to remember it’s a two-way street.”
Ultimately, employers must do a quality job of adequately meeting the needs of their employees during pandemics. If they don’t, it could potentially harm their employees, organizations and society in general, especially those struggling financially, after the crisis.
“The study’s results raise concerns about leaders not meeting the needs of their workforce during a crisis,” Mian said. “If organizations aren’t careful, in the short-term, they’ll ‘win the battle’ of surviving the pandemic, but ‘lose the war’ by overlooking and losing a significant portion of their workforce.”
To read the full paper and find out more about its findings, visit the Business and Society Review website.
This post has been updated to reflect that the research was published in March 2022 in "Business and Society in the Age of COVID-19," a special issue of "Business and Society Review."