The 2022 Top States for Business designation has higher stakes than ever, as companies compete for top talent while balancing inflation, supply chain issues, and other ongoing pandemic side effects. However, the solution to employee recruitment and retention is not an expensive corporate relocation; it is time for a corporate wake-up call. American companies must stop or re-examine existing efforts to engage with their employees and instead meaningfully adjust current practices to appeal to their employees’ new sense of post-pandemic identity.
While employers want to be post-pandemic – companies called their remote employees back to the office, state and local governments dropped mask mandates, and national and international travel increased rapidly – the reality is that life is anything but normal. Exacerbated by strains from increasing inflation, staggering gas prices and crowded commutes, and mass gun violence observed in public spaces, American stress is at an all-time high, as evident through fits of rage in traffic or toward customer service workers.
As the director of an employee and student wellness program at a large academic health system in Chicago, I see firsthand the effects of this stress in our behavioral health clinic and broadly via a health care workforce exodus. The strain of a staffing shortage coupled with our sustained commitment to high-quality care is felt by our employees, who are frequently asked to work beyond their required work shifts and pressured by loyalty to the organization, their teams, or patients to achieve established corporate goals.
This situation is a common reality in many industries in 2022 and is a recipe for any individual to start feeling like a number versus a valued employee. As with many industries, health care is struggling to find a solution to this workforce dilemma. Lately, self-care is leveraged as a response to this rising tide of employee stress.
More “self-care” is not the answer to these concerns and instead is a tool that can isolate or turn off your employees. Instead, employers must reflect on existing employee programs and focus on validation and recognition.
Common tactics to inspire and encourage employee engagement and loyalty – corporate logo giveaways, awards, events – are losing steam in the post-pandemic workplace. As individuals reconsider their personal priorities, these long-standing tactics may have lost their edge as identity is increasingly defined outside of work and personal time is given new priority.
Dollars used to support a corporate-level award program could instead be provided to department leaders to fund employee-led initiatives. A portion of existing PTO days could be re-defined as wellness days to encourage breaks and work-life balance. Professional development dollars could be more broadly defined to incorporate personal development initiatives.
As employers reflect on existing activities to keep or change, their goal should be to encourage investment in the individual.
Employers are often guilty of toxic positivity, or forced cheerfulness, fearing that validating employee frustrations or acknowledging difficult events outside of work will worsen employee outlook and engagement. Counter to common belief, embracing negative emotions like stress, frustration, or anxiety helps individuals to process and deal with the emotion. A 2020 study from the Ohio State University showed that affirming negative emotions can help foster positive emotions.
Employers need to validate their employees by acknowledging stress is at an all-time high, and much of what is going on right now is out of our control. These difficult emotions can be validated effectively via consistent corporate communications and re-emphasizing that message in team and department meetings. Employers need to create space for healthy processing of negative emotions.
Of note: It is OK to not have the answer to a problem. Showing vulnerability is an effective tool to foster trust and connection. Additionally, many employers can leverage existing employee assistance programs or internal wellness programs more effectively to help create these healthy spaces for their teams.
Employees want to hear that their employers care by finding acceptance at work and processing their difficult emotions together.
COVID-19 caused many individuals to reconsider and reprioritize their values, which has shifted how they see their professional values. Employees are more than a title, letters after a name, or contribution to profit share; they are mothers and fathers, congregants, volunteers, or little league coaches.
These personal interests are, in fact, important to work. They bring individual meaning and encourage social connection and belonging, helping combat aggression or other enduring challenges like isolation, burnout, and exhaustion commonly felt in the 2022 workplace.
Recognize your employees as a whole person through sharing interest stories and creating space for their personal interests. Solicit their engagement and participation by providing explicit programs for their input and values. While no one can erase the effects of the last few years overnight, employers can immediately contribute to individual recognition by providing opportunities to create autonomy and grow professionally.
For example, our academic institution is standing up a wellness award program to attract, grow, and retain nurse talent. Nurses and nurse supporters have the opportunity to apply for philanthropic funding to improve their workplace, like creating a quiet employee space on busy units to recharge or starting up support groups to work through ongoing workplace stress. Companies can provide similar opportunities in their workplace by pooling existing funds for employee engagement or wellness initiatives – think flyers, T-shirts, or events – and allowing employees to decide how those funds are used.
The great resignation can be stopped if companies would only shift from traditional thinking and embrace new tactics that value and prioritize employees.
Eve Poczatek is a health care administrator.
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