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4 Key Strategies to Help Supervisors Support Employee Well-Being During COVID-19

Leslie Hammer
4 Key Strategies to Help Supervisors Support Employee Well-Being During COVID-19 Maintaining work–life balance has never been more important – or more challenging – than it is right now. The compounding effects of the COVID–19 crisis continue to affect our physical, social, psychological, and economic well–being. We don't yet know what our new “normal” will be or how large an impact the pandemic will have in the end.What we do know for sure is that the pandemic is having significant impacts on individuals' ability to earn income, educate and provide care for their children, maintain their own and their family's physical and mental health, and obtain basic necessities. We also know that for some, such as our critical first–responders in healthcare, police, fire, military, and everyone who is working to keep our lives going in these difficult times, the risks of stress, burnout, and negative health outcomes are insurmountable.By now, everyone knows one, if not multiple, person(s) who are suddenly working 100% remotely or filing for unemployment due to layoffs, struggling with cancellations of contract work, taking additional safety precautions, and/or frantically planning daily learning activities for their children who are now home full–time. You probably know of, or are yourself, someone in a high risk category for getting sick.Those with children and/or aging parents, and those who were already skating on a thin debt–to–income ratio, are ruminating on how they will cope with escalating utility bills, potential missed mortgage/rent payments, food and toiletry shortages, and unplanned medical expenses. Some of these workers have minimal to no access to sick leave!For a substantial proportion of working families, COVID–19 has affected all of the above.And among the “lucky” ones who actually have jobs and are able to continue to work, many have minimal to no access to sick leave.
Management must set the tone and serve as a resource for workers
The rapidly shifting governmental and workplace responses have left many workers displaced and feeling confused about workplace expectations. Managers and supervisors play a critical role in supporting their employees' safety, health, and well–being, more so now than ever before. Such support is consistent with a Total Worker Health® approach.While many businesses have been (or will be) forced to temporarily or permanently close, a large proportion of the workforce has also been able to transition to a remote work format. As these newly remote workers adapt to their home set–ups, they are likely wondering what level of performance you, their supervisor or manager, expect of them given escalating life demands, whether there is flexibility in their current workload and hours, and whether you'll be sympathetic when their kids are screaming or dogs are barking in the background during virtual team meetings. All of these issues can create undue stress on employees.Still other employees do not have a choice but to work in extremely stressful and high–risk conditions. They are our angels on the front–line.The question you may be asking yourself is, how can I as a manager or supervisor – who may be struggling with the some of the same challenges in my own life and with little or no training in pandemic response – provide adequate support for my workers' health and well–being?There is no better time to begin (or continue) practicing the following 4 evidence–based strategies (Hammer et al., 2011) of family–supportive supervision to help reduce worker stress, support health and safety, or to ensure your employees are ready to return to work when the pandemic dust settles.
1. Provide Emotional Support
Let your employees know that they are being cared for, that you want them to feel comfortable discussing work–family related challenges, and that you are sensitive to the impacts of work and the uncertainty that the COVID–19 pandemic has on their lives. You can achieve this by:– Discussing what work–life integration means to team members. There will likely be a wide variety of life situations and individual priorities within the team, and having an opportunity to share those things with each other brings the team closer together.– Blocking out time in your weekly virtual team meetings for employees (who are comfortable doing so) to share life updates and any known conflicts that might affect the team.– Reinforcing to your employees that you are sympathetic and that you'll maintain an open–door policy (virtually) for them to talk things through when needed.
2. Serve as a Role Model
Demonstrate through your own behaviors and guidance how to integrate work and family obligations and care about your own well–being during this crisis. Examples of how you can implement role modeling include:– Making sure you (manager/supervisor) stay up–to–date on safety and public health COVID–19 responses relevant to your team, discuss impacts to your business practices with upper leadership, and regularly inform your team of any changes to project timelines, activities and priorities as a result.– Defining your own boundaries and preferences regarding work hours, response times, and disclosure around family obligations. Then, projecting a consistency in your ability to adhere to these boundaries.– Using paid time off and sick leave when needed, and encouraging your staff to do the same, or help your staff to find state and national level resources to assist with leave.
3. Provide Instrumental Support
Respond to your employees' work and family needs with practical solutions such as schedule changes, policy information, job guidance, and necessary resources. Ways to facilitate employee instrumental support requests include:– Setting regular 1:1 check–ins and external deadlines for your employees, while encouraging them to take control over when and how they perform their required tasks.– Identifying when an employee seems overwhelmed, and clarifying work priorities by focusing them on the critical few.– Listening to employees' work–life conflicts and creatively brainstorming solutions with them.
4. Engage in Creative Work–Family Management
Unlike instrumental support, which is reactive to employees' requests for support, this strategy is top–down and affects your entire team. Work–family management includes setting standards and adapting work processes to improve work–family balance. Specific strategies include:– Asking team members to identify days they are not available due to personal or other commitments. Take into consideration flexible work options and make sure team members are aware of each other's schedules and availability to enable them to switch shifts if needed.– Identifying team activities/projects that have flexible deadlines in case an unexpected life conflict occurs.– Considering (and expressing empathy for) your staff's new work–life conflicts. They are counting on you to understand the current landscape and let them know which of their ongoing tasks should be paused and which should be prioritized.– Establishing email and meeting guidelines and defining clear expectations for when and how staff should track their work, share updates, and turn in assignments. Having consistent, streamlined processes and templates will reduce employees' cognitive and logistical burdens.Employees who are currently displaced due to temporary and permanent lay–offs, or whose self–employment and contract work has been discontinued, require additional, tailored resources and guidance from organizational leaders and the government. For additional guidance on mitigating employees' fears, reducing stigma, and connecting employees to resources, please refer to the Cascade Centers tip sheet for managers and leaders. For more information on work–life balance and supervisor support organizational training programs, visit For further information regarding supervisor supportive training and resources, contact Leslie Hammer, PhD or listen to a recent presentation on the the Role of Leaders in Reducing Work–Life Stress.
Leslie HammerDr. Leslie B. Hammer is a Professor in the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences at Oregon Health and Science University, Co–Director of the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center, and a Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychology at Portland State University. The Oregon Healthy Workforce Center is one of six centers of excellence in Total Worker Health®. She conducts applied research in the area of Occupational Health that focuses on workplace programs aimed at training supervisors how to better support workers and in turn reduce workers stress and improve health, safety, and well–being.

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