As GP’s vice president of leadership development, I have unsurprisingly been taking part in a lot of conversations about employee well-being growing increasingly vulnerable and how that leads to disengagement and job dissatisfaction. Those discussions can sometimes become a bit academic and abstract, so I decided to ask my own team how I can help them, as individuals, with their well-being. What I heard back surprised me.
Let’s face it: the work environment has been permanently redefined over the past two-plus years. Leaders are navigating uncharted waters, and there is no “going back to normal.” This dynamic of not knowing what the future holds—coupled with the challenges of the moment—has magnified the stress and pressure on leaders.
Connect on a Human Level
Trying to manage everything from meeting the goals of the business to engaging and managing employees who aren’t in the traditional confines of the office makes the idea of a well-being conversation seem big and hard to many leaders. Am I going to hear complaints about things I can’t change? Am I going to hear about personal issues I don’t want to know about? What if I find someone with significant psychological or physical issues?
What I learned from my team this week is that it doesn’t have to be hard at all. Each of their responses could be boiled down to one thing: “I just want to know you care.” They recognize that what we’re dealing with in the work world is bigger than me as their manager. They know I can’t solve their personal and professional problems. They just want me to ask, “How are you doing?” and “How can I help?”
Old-school guidance on these conversations told us, as leaders, to avoid personal issues with employees. Keep it professional. Anything that an employee divulges about personal struggles is an HR issue. While it is true that we must be mindful of employee concerns that should be shared with our colleagues in HR, we can’t use that as an excuse to shy away from connecting with our team members on a human level. We know that both contribution and satisfaction are impacted by an employee’s overall well-being. The consequence of not having a well-being conversation in today’s work environment is sending the message to the employee that we don’t care, that they’re on their own to figure it out, and that we just expect them to get the work done.
While we don’t know what the future work world will look like, in this moment, we’re all struggling with how to draw a line between work and life. One team member told me, “I don’t know if I am working from home or living at work.” As workers and organizations figure out how to redefine the boundaries between work and life, what employees need most from their leaders is care and empathy. Let them know you trust them to manage their workday and that, for example, you don’t expect them to take a quick dinner break and come right back online to work through the evening.
Model Care and Concern
As I personally reflect on this issue, I think of my own manager: how is he having well-being conversations with me? Interestingly, he doesn’t conduct a formal discussion with me at all. He just calls to check in and ask how my week is going and what I need. When I did need to bring a personal issue to him on a recent call, his first concern was for me. I let him know some personal challenges would prevent me from traveling for a few scheduled meetings and rule out any business travel for the foreseeable future. His response? “Lisa, are you okay?” And later in the conversation: “Don’t worry about the travel issue. If you can’t come to us, maybe we can come to you. How would you feel about that?” The way my manager handled this conversation took a significant stressor off of me. My manager made it okay for me to be human, and I genuinely felt cared about.
Thinking about how my manager models care and concern—and hearing from my team what they need from me—has shed helpful light on the topic of well-being conversations. It has helped me feel more connected to my team and enabled me to see that these conversations can be a natural extension of my relationships with my team members.
I see the tremendous power in these conversations. They don’t have to be heavy-handed; the hybrid work world still allows for informal interaction, and the way leaders interact with employees still really matters—maybe more than ever.