Early in the 2020 pandemic, I came down with a bug and had to visit a walk-in clinic in my neighbourhood. I was particularly anxious about going to a health center during the middle of a global pandemic. This was my neighbourhood's public clinic; let's just say top-notch customer service isn't what I usually receive.
But when I arrived at the clinic, I was shocked by what I saw.
The clinic was busy as usual, but the nurses’ and receptionists’ attitude was far from its normal baseline. This time, the staff was patient, smiling, and warm.
I struck up a conversation with the triage nurse, who hummed as she took my blood pressure. I said I was surprised by how everyone's mood seemed so upbeat despite the circumstances.
The nurse looked at me, and a calm smile came over her face.
She said, "you know, the only good thing that's come from this pandemic is that people are finally appreciating what we nurses do." As she continued talking, I glanced at some kids' sketches hung up on the wall behind her. They said, "We love our nurses!" and other sweet words of appreciation.
That moment hit me. I saw, first-hand, the real impact of all the public praise and encouragement for health-care workers. The influence of recognition and gratitude was clear.
2020 was a challenging year for many businesses. Like the stock market, the U.S.’s employee engagement rate rose and fell like a roller-coaster over the past months. You don’t have to look far to find other sobering statistics that show just how hard the year has been on the workforce.
That said, workplace stress and disengagement is not a new phenomenon. Many workers were unhappy at work before the global pandemic. As we talked about in our quarterly series Applauz Book Club, workplace stress is becoming an epidemic on its own. Only now, the financial and social implications of the pandemic have intensified workers' stress and anxiety.
What can HR professionals do to help mitigate workplace stress, anxiety and keep disengagement at bay in the coming year?
The first step to correctly treating a problem is knowing its root cause. Treating only the symptoms will never cure the underlying problem.
Regrettably, companies often don't survey their staff; in other words, they don't attempt to investigate problems that lie underneath. Surface-level solutions quickly follow. These band-aid solutions seldom stick in the long-term.
To illustrate, let's take an example of a manufacturing employee; let's call him John.
John works the night shift as an operator on a factory floor. John enjoys his line of work, and the company pays a premium for late shifts. Nonetheless, the business suffers from an aloof culture and a do it yourself mindset. As such, he rarely hears from his manager, who works during the day. And when his coworkers from the early shift clock out, they tend to dump any issues on him with little explanation; in the form of "it's your problem now." And he rarely hears a thank you from them.
After a few weeks, John starts to feel like no one appreciates or notices his hard work. His energy and enthusiasm wane, and his resentment grows.
More time passes, and John's bottled-up resentment swells and begins to bleed out into his behaviour. He speaks ill of his coworkers behind their backs, his productivity declines, and he even picks fights. In short, his disengagement is now symptomatic. In turn, a toxic attitude has spread like a virus around the workplace, and HR is now receiving complaints.
From an HR perspective, the symptoms of the problem — angry or disengaged employees — feel challenging to overcome. Understandably so. Issues like these are mired in difficult feelings. But, before you jump to fix-it mode, take a step back.
With some distance and curiosity, you'll see that beneath the cruel gossip and conflict, a basic human need is missing: feeling respected, appreciated, and heard.
Practically speaking, this means John needs to receive respect from his peers in the form of collaboration and recognition. And most importantly, he wants his manager to actively check-in, listen, and express sincere appreciation for his work. In other words, John wants connection.
To be clear, lack of appreciation is not the only source of disengagement, but it's profoundly common.
When people don't feel appreciated, respected, or heard, they begin to feel frustrated and resentful. This universal truth transcends contexts, industry, age, culture, and gender. In essence, when we give and give (without getting much in return), our mental and emotional gas tank drains.
It's not just my fictional factory worker John who suffers from a lack of recognition; real employees everywhere are experiencing disengagement from a lack of appreciation. And the consequences are costly for businesses.
On the flip side, a culture defined by affiliation and security enables employees to flourish and do their best work.
That's because appreciation drives connection. And connection replenishes our mental gas tanks. In short, these small moments of connection build safety and trust over time.
That said, giving back to workers with sincere appreciation and recognition is a powerful way to start treating the problem's root. A growing body of research confirms a clear relationship between high levels of appreciation and employee engagement.
At this point, I'm sure you don't even need to see these statistics to trust in the power of appreciation. We believe it on a gut-level based on our own experience.
Your company probably practices some form of recognition already.
For example, celebrating employee birthdays, work anniversaries or giving performance reviews each year.
Structured forms of recognition (like in the examples above) are a good starting point. But there are two major disadvantages to this type of recognition: they lack frequency and personalization.
To keep their mental gas tanks full, employees need genuine and personalized recognition more regularly -- especially from their managers!
That's where Peer-to-Peer recognition comes in to fill the gaps.
The beauty of this type of program is that it's easy to put in place. And unlike other initiatives in your HR Strategy that can take weeks to roll-out, and many months before you see an impact, a digital recognition program can be up and ready in less than a day. And the positive feelings start flowing as soon as the first recognition message is sent!
Now, you're asking yourself, will employees even use the program?
We hear your concern. The main challenge for recognition often lies in opening employees up to the idea of expressing appreciation and gratitude in the workplace.
Without a doubt, expressing recognition is a soft-skill some people need help with!
The roll-out of an official program will help open employees up to the idea of expressing appreciation. This happens in two ways.
First, the roll-out of an official program puts recognition-giving at the forefront of everyone's minds. Remember, the positive feelings that spark as a result of recognition are contagious. In short, positive interactions have a way of snowballing and quickly inspiring everyone, even the biggest skeptics. New organizational habits will form in no time.
Second, an official program gives employees a “safe space” to express appreciation. It will never feel uncomfortable, forced, or awkward. Employees will be giving recognition on a platform (like social media) that is solely dedicated to recognition.
Think about it like this: A recognition program is akin to preparing a workout program before going to the gym.
Without an action plan, you would be lost and aimless at the gym, especially if you haven't exercised in years. A workout program is an essential tool to give you direction and keep you on track towards your fitness goals.
Similarly, a recognition program is essential because it sets the parameters appreciation-shy employees need. As such, it helps them stay motivated and on track towards healthier relational habits.
A short time ago, many company leaders couldn't imagine allowing their employees to work from home. Despite having the technology and many compelling reasons, such as saving on office space, companies were reluctant to change.
There were too many unknowns. Understandably. The concept of remote work felt foreign and unconventional. In short, it went against traditional ideas about what "normal" workplaces look like.
In a similar vein, expressing recognition and gratitude at work may challenge the norms of your workplace or industry.
Except here, there are no unknowns.
Recognition is not another fleeting HR trend. The value of appreciation is timeless. Recognition will always be essential to employee engagement.
Data also proves the high ROI for businesses that focus on recognition. And not to mention the personal stories that demonstrate the power of gratitude, like the nurses at my local clinic.
Ultimately, the only thing preventing your company from growing a thriving culture of appreciation is a belief about the workplace.
Change can be tough. But remember, once the first leap is made, people are more adaptable than we give them credit for.
Don't wait until your turnover rate is uncontrollable or employee burnout is a major issue to take action. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be to resolve. Take action now, and treat the root of the problem. Put a recognition program at the top of your HR priorities for 2021.
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