Stress levels around the world have been high since COVID-19 began, as people juggle the disruptions of working from home with fears for their health and safety, then fears for their income and job in the burgeoning economic recession. Unsurprisingly, workforce resilience is emerging as a major consideration for many companies. But what exactly does a resilient workforce look like, and how can employers make their people more resilient?
"A resilient workforce is where employees are healthy, motivated, and productive," says Jean Drouffe, CEO of AXA Insurance Singapore. Speaking at a virtual roundtable discussion hosted by AXA earlier this week, he observed that employees in Singapore experience some of the highest levels of stress in Asia as they are expected to perform at every moment in their career while carrying just as many worries about their personal life, even during the current period of uncertainty. At this point, he suggested, health becomes a linchpin for their ability to cope: "The keyword in resilience for me is to make sure people are healthy."
Address mental and emotional health with communication
Physical health has been a major stressor for months, with surveys throughout the year to date finding that employers and employees alike are worried about health and safety in the workplace. While a combination of safety, sanitization and social distancing is helping to address this, employers now need to worry about the mental and emotional health aspect as the months of uncertainty take their toll.
The uncertainty is one of the most damaging factors to employees' mental health, according to Sam Canavan, general manager for the Middle East and Asia Pacific with ClassPass. "A person who's laid off is actually in a better headspace than someone who's furloughed," he commented at the same roundtable discussion. "Honesty becomes very important at a time like this."
Other speakers concurred on the importance of engaging employees through better communication, so as to help address the causes of stress. Azran Osman-Rani, CEO of Naluri, observed that humans deal with stress by bonding together, and leaders play a significant role in helping their team members establish and strengthen these connections. While the method of doing so might vary from person to person—some might do better with one-to-one coaching while others might be more comfortable spending time with a group—the main philosophy, he said, remains the same: "How do we increase connection at a time when we're distanced?"
"For me, it's very important to engage employees, talk to them, and address the root cause of their distress," said Drouffe. A common situation he has encountered with his own employees at AXA, he added, is that they feel isolated and have trouble managing the boundaries between personal and work life—something that has repeatedly been flagged out over the months of remote work. "We need to reorganize how we communicate, make it two way, because we are not necessarily communicating what's important to them."
Show caring with tangible actions that employees want
Besides stepping up the quality of communication, there needs to be a point where employees see some tangible improvement in their situation—whether this comes in the form of pay, benefits, or simply an extra day off here or there.
"What's going to keep and attract employees is the care that the company can give them," Drouffe said. "People think that now is the time to cut costs by reducing benefits—there is nothing more wrong than that."
Agreeing, Canavan pointed out that benefits can be viewed in terms of an investment: companies that do not offer benefits, or do not offer benefits that employees want, will simply lose those employees. "There is no greater ROI in the world than a talented employee who's 30 years or younger," he said.
He also pointed out, though, that it is increasingly less feasible for leaders to push top-down employee welfare programs, and that more attention needs to be paid to what employees themselves actually want. "You need to listen to employees from the ground up," Canavan advised. "Don't assume from an executive level that you know what they want."
The discussion also highlighted several trends that have emerged in how benefits help to keep employees engaged, starting with being able to match the needs of a multi-generational workforce. For example, data from AXA indicates that employees aged 40 and older prefer traditional medical and insurance coverage benefits, while younger employees prefer wellness-oriented benefits—meaning that some flexibility and customization is needed.
Another important factor is the use of technology to deliver that flexibility, whether through the use of analytics or engaging AI to predict who might most benefit from a particular initiative at what time.
"Digital technologies allow us to apply a much higher level of quantification and data to derive insights," Azran observed. "We can find trends over time, and deliver much more tailored and precise interventions to the workforce."
Ultimately, an organization's ability to build resilience and engagement among its workforce comes down to its ability to understand employees' needs—not merely financial, but health-related, including mental and emotional health—and to meet those needs.