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Your New Job — Making Employees Happy

Employee wellness is becoming increasingly important to companies’ success. Managers may even start to be held accountable for it.

employees helping each other
U.S. workers are among the most stressed out in the world. Managers are now tasked with prioritizing their well-being. [Malte Müeller / Salesforce]

Frank DeMaria was never the kind of leader who organized virtual happy hours, pumpkin carvings, gingerbread house making, or open office hours for employees. But he is now. 

“I’m the same guy I always was, but I’ve become a lot more intentional in how I engage with my team,” said DeMaria, vice president of digital engineering and platforms at global design firm MillerKnoll, where he oversees around 60 people. 

His evolution illustrates two truths. The first is that leaders today cannot be wholly successful unless they transform the way they emotionally support their teams. The second is they may ultimately be evaluated on and held accountable for their ability to manage employee wellness.

It’s clear that mental health and well-being need to be prioritized on an individual level. U.S. workers are among the most stressed out in the world. Alcohol abuse has risen significantly. Millions of Americans are quitting their jobs in search of greater flexibility, less stress, better pay, and a reprieve from return-to-office tensions. All of this impacts employers and their stakeholders. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said workplace depression results in 200 million lost workdays annually, at a cost of tens of billions of dollars to employers.  

By the end of 2022, we’ll see managers evaluated [on their people skills] because then you’ll have real accountability.

Jonathan Edelheit, co-founder and chairman, Global healthcare resources

Against this backdrop, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a rule that publicly traded companies must disclose material information about their human capital, which could include metrics like use of employee engagement surveys. Are they thrown in a drawer, or are the results analyzed and used to drive organizational change?

Some experts predict companies will undertake more scoring, reporting, and benchmarking to measure how they’re doing in this area. 

“By the end of 2022 we’ll see managers evaluated [on their people skills] because then you’ll have real accountability,” said Jonathan Edelheit, co-founder and chairman of Global Healthcare Resources, a corporate health and wellness consultancy. “You’ve got to make sure employees are in a good state of mind, and put some scores around that.” 

Measuring employee wellness

Most companies measure employee engagement, but it is generally not a key performance indicator (KPI) that would impact compensation or promotions.   

“That’s because a lot of organizations believe influence over engagement has more to do with the organization versus the workgroup, when a major source of disengagement is the manager,” said Joe Folkman, author, executive coach, and co-founder of Zenger Folkman, a leadership development consultancy that has studied the effectiveness of 360-degree performance appraisals for decades.

DeMaria said he loves the idea of holding leaders accountable for engagement and wellness but is interested in ideas about how organizations would define and measure it. 

There are two ways organizations could get a clearer picture of how well their managers manage. One is reimagining the 360-degree performance review. The other is rethinking training practices for managers. 

The appraisal

A 360-degree performance review has typically involved various stakeholders  — employees, peers, and superiors — who provide anonymous feedback on the manager’s performance. Too often, Folkman said, organizations don’t take the assessment seriously enough, and no changes are ever made. They advocate for a different approach, one in which the leader is provided with context and guidance to understand the feedback so they can enact and be accountable for changes. 

The following are what he describes as a best-in-class managerial performance review:

  • The leader helps choose which colleagues should respond to the survey, and asks them for their candid feedback when sharing their observations. 
  • The report is presented to the leader, either in a group setting or in a one-on-one coaching conversation. The leader is provided context and guidance to understand the data.
  • The leader receives a customized set of developmental recommendations, mapped to the company’s leadership values and goals, to help them create a personal development plan.
  • The leader receives follow up from talent professionals to ensure accountability 

Many companies make the mistake of not sharing performance information with the people who would most benefit from it. According to research by the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) and Mercer, 59% of organizations share managerial performance results with senior leadership, but only 24% share it with managers and supervisors. 

“Given the important role middle managers and front-line managers play in health and wellbeing (HWB) program success, organizations aiming to improve the effectiveness of their HWB initiatives should regularly share program results with managers and supervisors,” the report noted.  

Managers who lead with empathy and have emotional intelligence drive better business results and greater retention. That’s why empathy has emerged as the most important leadership skill in the Pandemic Era. However, that is not to say that managers should become therapists. 

“We’re not supposed to be counselors. That’s not our role,” said Zofia Bajorek, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies. “Our role is to listen to what that person is saying, and to understand how that could have an impact on their work and their home life, and then know where to [direct them for help]. That’s where you as a manager need to make that person feel comfortable.” 

Listening to understand and help employees is an area of focus for DeMaria of MillerKnoll, who has regular one-on-one meetings with his direct reports, and quarterly discussions with the balance of his nearly 60-member team. During these discussions, he makes it a point to demonstrate that he cares about more than just the business at hand.

“In some cases we don’t talk about projects and instead we just check in. I want my team to bring their whole self to work and that means understanding them and what they are juggling between work and life outside of the office,” DeMaria said. “This is really just a check-in for us. How are you doing at home? How’s everything going at work? What’s working well, what’s not? Where do you need help? It’s high-level focus, but just having that ability to connect on a human level. I personally love those.” 

He’s gotten more creative with his larger group meetings in an effort to draw people out. Two examples: an introduction session where each person had to introduce someone else, and another about gratitude where participants had to call out and thank one person who did something for them. 

“Not everybody is comfortable in all of those settings, so you just don’t get everyone to participate,” he said. “That’s that portion of the audience that I’m struggling with. I’m going to continue doing these things, but I’m still trying to figure out how to break the barrier for everyone.”

The training

Managers need guidance and frameworks to support the employee wellness, and more companies are providing managers and supervisors with the training, budget, and resources they need. In 2020, 50% of respondents in the HERO/Mercer survey said mid-level managers are given some or a lot of support, up from 45% in 2016. 

Indeed, Edelheit of Global Healthcare Resources said his company has seen about a 75% increase in the number of companies expressing interest in its services — management training for better people skills around employee wellness — since the start of the pandemic. 

Ask yourself if you have any kind of evaluation about how well your line managers are managing. People leave organizations because of bad or unsupportive management.

zofia bajorek, senior research fellow at the institute for employment studies

Bajorek is not surprised that organizations need to upskill their managers and leaders. People typically get promoted into management because they hit KPIs in their practical work, but they may not have the soft skills to make them wholly successful. 

Organizations have to think about how they’re choosing and training their managers, and question whether they’re investing in coaching. “Ask yourself if you have any kind of evaluation about how well your line managers are managing,” Bajorek said. “Maybe it’s time for organizations to start doing that because it’s an investment in the company. People leave organizations because of bad or unsupportive management.”  

Of course, not every leader will respond well or successfully to this type of training. Some people just lack empathy or may not feel comfortable communicating with coworkers in an empathetic manner. If they don’t, it’s incumbent upon senior leaders to communicate why it’s important. 

If people still don’t understand why being empathetic or compassionate is important, said Bajorek, no amount of training is going to change that mindset.

“If you don’t want your team to leave to go work for someone else, and you want them to be productive and happy, you’ve got to talk to them and find out if they have issues and how you can support them in those issues,” said Edelheit. 

The bottom line is this: the pandemic dramatically and unalterably changed everything about work, including what it takes to be a successful manager. It’s a hackneyed remark, but most organizations say its people are its greatest asset. It may not be long before they have to back up that sentiment with more tangible actions.

“Should managers be accountable for employee engagement? I think that would be great,” said Folkman. 

In the meantime, DeMaria is planning his second annual virtual pumpkin carving contest, and hoping to entice the holdouts to participate.  

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