Eight months into the pandemic, business leaders — like the rest of the nation — are divided. Some say the best way to right the economy is to get back to normal, which includes returning employees to the office. Others say the path forward is virtual, and they plan to keep their teams remote for the foreseeable future.
As the dialogue continues, the real issue may not be when to reopen your office, but how to address the persistent health, safety and confidence issues of your workforce, which are impeding your organization’s recovery — regardless of where your people are working.
Our November 2020 Workforce Pulse Survey of more than 1,000 American workers shows that many employees have serious concerns about safety, with nearly half saying they feel forced to sacrifice their personal safety to stay employed. Our survey also reveals that employees continue to struggle with anxiety, burnout and mental health issues as they juggle work and family demands during the pandemic — especially women, who have been disproportionately affected.
Across the board, remote and essential workers say they’re simply not getting what they need from their employers — and it’s taking a toll on their productivity and morale. What’s more, this lack of confidence and safety doesn’t affect just their work performance; it also influences how they behave as consumers, including their willingness to spend money.
Many leaders have been putting their people first during the pandemic, rolling out new benefits, adjusting performance expectations, and launching new diversity and inclusion efforts. Our PwC Pulse Survey also found that many business leaders have plans to introduce more support if a federal stimulus package doesn’t come through, including help with childcare (48%) and additional support for mental health (72%).
While these benefits and other forms of support are vital, many employees are saying it’s still not enough. It’s critical that leaders address the pervasive fear and anxiety among their workforce. That involves helping employees understand how your health and safety protocols can help protect them from the COVID-19 virus, but it also includes addressing their concerns about job security and economic uncertainty.
There are three ways leaders can address this: Ramp up your communications about health and safety protocols. Be transparent about your decisions, including your plans for reopening. And use every means at your disposal to hear what employees are saying they need so you can help move your organization forward in 2021.
View additional Workforce Pulse Survey findings
In the months since the pandemic began, leaders across every industry have implemented new health and safety protocols to keep employees safe while on-site. But those measures don’t appear to be enough to reassure workers. Almost half of employees (48%) say they strongly or somewhat agree that they are forced to sacrifice personal safety to remain employed. Among those who identify as essential workers, that number is 52%. Even 45% of remote workers express this concern, possibly because they’re expecting to be recalled to a physical office at some point.
In addition, many employees also lack confidence in specific measures their employers are taking to reopen offices and implement health and safety protocols. While 75% of CFOs agree their company can quickly identify anyone exposed to a colleague who is sick with COVID-19, only 32% of employees strongly agree. And just 33% of employees strongly agree that the modifications their company has made to the layout of their physical worksites make them feel safe working on-site.
This low level of confidence indicates that leaders may not be aware of how fearful employees are about their safety. It’s vital to understand what’s driving these fears, including your employees’ specific concerns and individual circumstances, such as having an underlying health condition or a vulnerable family member they want to protect from the virus. Leaders can also help by either delaying a return to the office until the latest wave subsides or bringing a limited number of people in selectively as they are needed. Clear, frequent communication about the health and safety measures you’re taking may also help allay employee fears.
As the pandemic rages on and cases rise, many employees are finding it difficult to stay focused and productive. But one group is feeling the pressure more than any other: women aged 35-44. This group, which likely includes working mothers who are being affected more than other groups by the stresses of the pandemic, are struggling with stress and anxiety, challenges balancing work and personal demands, and other factors.
Sixty-five percent of women in this age group report that an unmanageable workload is greatly or somewhat interfering with their ability to be productive and do their best work, compared with 57% of all employees. Sixty-five percent of women in our survey also say their productivity is being impacted by unrealistic performance expectations and measurements, and 60% say they’re distracted by feeling physically unsafe at work due to COVID-19.
What’s more, these women don’t appear to feel comfortable asking for more support at work: 70% say they feel unable to ask for help managing work stress, compared with 52% of all employees surveyed.
Employee productivity is top of mind for leaders, with 25% of chief human resources officers (CHROs) identifying productivity as one of their most pressing workforce challenges. Understanding the factors keeping employees from being able to do their best work is critical to helping them focus and be more productive and motivated. That goes for all employees, not just those who are struggling. In addition, personalized benefits that help people address their specific challenges may help. For example, working mothers whose children’s daycare is closed may need childcare help.
Finally, it’s also important to reinforce the message that employees can ask for help without fear of reprisal. Some employees may feel that if they ask for help, they’ll be seen as less competent. Leaders can circumvent that by checking in with their people and asking how they can provide support.
A pandemic, a summer of social unrest, a faltering economy and a divisive election have added up to one of the most stressful years in recent memory for many people. But if employees hope to seek mental health support through their jobs, they may not get it. Only a third of employees (31%) strongly agree that their company has successfully addressed employee well-being, including mental health and morale. Among remote workers, that number is only 27%. It’s even lower among female employees, with 26% of women aged 18-34 and 22% of women aged 35-44 saying they strongly agree.
In contrast, 84% of CFOs strongly or somewhat agree that their company has successfully addressed employee wellness. This gap suggests that leaders may not be rolling out enough support — or the right type of support — or perhaps that employees aren’t aware of all the resources available to them.
That’s not just the case with mental health benefits. Only 23% of employees say their employer has been very effective in the last six months at providing new benefits, such as childcare, that help navigate COVID-19 related challenges.
Given that 51% of CHROs identified burnout and anxiety as their number-one employee concern in our October PwC Pulse survey, leaders appear to recognize the pandemic’s emotional toll on their people. They’re responding by rolling out more help, with 84% of CHROs saying they plan to introduce more mental health support. But there are also actions you can take now, including checking in with employees through pulse surveys and listening tours to ask how you can help them and to find out what resources and support would be the most beneficial.
With so much changing in how and where people work, it’s not surprising that many leaders are keeping a close eye on their organizational culture. In our September PwC Pulse survey, 41% of CHROs expressed concerns about a weakened corporate culture in a virtual world.
Their fears aren’t baseless. Only about a third of employees feel their employers are succeeding in creating an inclusive work environment, providing effective ways to collaborate, and fostering a sense of teamwork and togetherness.
Those results may be frustrating for leaders who have poured time and investments into supporting their workforce this year. But for a significant percentage of the workforce, those efforts simply aren’t resonating.
This indicates that it may be time to try a new strategy. Rather than addressing multiple aspects of your culture at the same time, pick a few issues that are important to your organization and focus on improving those specific areas. For example, if diversity, equity and inclusion are valued by your company, consider ramping up your communications about DEI or rolling out new training on this crucial topic. You could also create opportunities for employees to have conversations about difficult or divisive topics, and increase efforts to celebrate successes.
It’s essential to get your people’s perspective. Surveying different groups of employees may reveal specific areas you can target for improvement. For example, just 15% of remote workers say their company has been very effective at providing training to help them develop skills that could advance their careers. That may indicate a need for more virtual training sessions or for a greater variety of options to help remote workers build skills.
PwC conducted an online survey of 1017 U.S.-based adults from a general population between November 9 and 11, 2020. The PwC Workforce Pulse Survey is conducted on a periodic basis to track changing sentiment and priorities among employees.