5 Senior Leader Behaviors to Enhance Employee Engagement and Reduce Burnout

By Gena Cox, PhD - November 24, 2020

In 2020, workers and businesses across the globe are dealing with a variety of new challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. All employees, whether frontline or not, are overburdened and are reporting increased symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. Senior leaders themselves are dealing with many of the same stressors as those they lead; they also have the added challenge of guiding their organizations through financial headwinds. During this time of highly constrained markets and constrained revenue opportunity, leaders need to adopt new behaviors in order to generate the innovations to drive future growth.

How Workers Are Feeling Now

Both frontline workers and those who are working from home offices are feeling the burden of the pandemic’s impact. Essential frontline workers are reporting increased burnout and declining productivity. They are also worried about losing their jobs or having their work hours reduced. The rest of the workforce, those who are mostly working virtually from home, have become more effective in this new work environment and are often more productive than they were in their regular work environments. All employees are doing everything they can to cope with the current demands of multiple roles—health protector for themselves and their loved ones, parent and caregiver, educator, and employee. 

The challenge of executive leadership during the pandemic.

In this disrupted environment, exemplary leaders will be those who understand their employees’ burdens and constantly look for actions they can take to help employees thrive. Proactive executives can and should use the following 5 leadership practices:

Listen to what employees have to say and match actions to what employees want.

Employee surveys are one way to do this efficiently. At Perceptyx, we found that organizations that surveyed their employees during the pandemic and took follow-up action quickly were the most successful.  

Enhance the inclusiveness of their organizational cultures to drive innovation. 

Diverse organizations with inclusive cultures are eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes, and six times more likely to be innovative and agile. The pandemic provides new opportunities for inclusion, as employees work in new work environments and look for more efficient ways to get their jobs done. The more inclusive the culture, the more likely it will be that new ideas will surface. The next big ideas may come from that employee who has a new opportunity to speak up. Inclusion supports pandemic innovation.

Model care, concern, optimism, and resilience.

Employees are constantly looking to their leaders for verbal and non-verbal cues that either generate reactions of optimism, or cause fear and concern about the future. Exemplary Senior leaders who are effective at managing change model a variety of behaviors. They gain the trust of their employees, and, as a result, those employees are more engaged. They share information with care and concern and employees perceive them as caring about their well-being. They model optimism and resilience, and employees follow that lead, moving forward with confidence themselves.

Encourage employee behaviors that reduce burnout. 

Remote worker productivity has been high during the pandemic because many people are working more hours, even though their personal obligations have also increased. Senior leaders can help reduce burnout by:

  • Providing social mechanisms to enable coworkers social support (e.g., virtual book clubs, virtual workouts).
  • Empowering employees to make decisions about when and how they will work (e.g., work schedule flexibility, allowing them to keep their cameras off when they want/need to, etc.).
  • Encouraging employees to take time off rather than working relentlessly.
  • Providing transparent communications that give employees some sense of control of the future.

Plan now for the desired 2021 employee experience. 

Senior leadership should be actively looking around the corner, anticipating how business and employee needs might be different in the first half of 2021. Although senior leaders have the lessons of the first six months of the pandemic under their belts, they cannot assume that their employee experience in January to June of 2021 will be the same as what employees experienced in 2020. They must plan ahead, with the assumption that the only constant will be change and that employees may need even more support in 2021 than in 2020. And, they should communicate in ways that will inspire a shared vision of leadership.

Senior leaders have the opportunity to drive engagement now.

The prolonged nature of the COVID-19 pandemic demands that senior leaders redouble their efforts to support employees. Senior leaders may not be able to provide pay increases or new kinds of financial support, but they can and must stay connected to their employees. They can do this by listening to employees and acting on their feedback; enhancing inclusiveness of their organization cultures; modeling care, concern, optimism and resilience; encouraging employee behaviors that reduce burnout; and planning now for a more enjoyable work experience in 2021.

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