Episode 15: Gauging Employee Stress and Well-Being
We are now several months into the COVID-19 crisis and a new kind of chaos is emerging as people feel frustrated with the change and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and the economy. As a leader, you need to know how your employees are doing. How stressed are they? How can you gauge that stress level and their overall well-being to get an accurate snapshot of your team? In addition, is your leadership helping or hindering their sense of safety and belonging in this moment?
In this episode of Employee Connectedness, Unitonomy founder Charley Miller discusses the COVID-19 Work Reality Index and how to use it with its developer, UofL researcher Dr. Brad Shuck. OnPlane consultant Martin Low also joins the conversation to talk about how leaders can best react in these uncertain times.
In this discussion, they will walk through the COVID-19 Work Reality Index and how to use it, as well as how leaders can adapt to the “pandemic pivot” with their organizations. You can find Dr. Shuck’s diagnostic tool for assessing the emotional well-being of your team here.
Episode 15: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30f00ZpUfYA
Employee Connectedness is live-streamed weekdays at 10:15am EST on the Unitonomy YouTube channel. You can join there and ask questions in the chat. You can also find previous episodes posted there and on the Unitonomy blog.
Employee Connectedness: Gauging Employee Stress and Well-Being
Charley Miller 0:18
Hello everybody. Charley Miller, Unitonomy, joined with my counterparts, Dr. Brad Shuck from the University of Louisville, and Martin Low, On Plane Consulting. Guys, thanks again for joining me is. It’s a Friday, May 8. Not sure fully remembered it was May, but here we are going through the pandemic. Dr. Shuck here did not hurt his head, he’s just keeping those amazing locks pulled back. He can’t get a haircut very easily right now. So he’s improvising like we all are.
And that brings us to today’s topic as everyone in the workplace is improvising to navigate these challenging times, working from home, trying to find some new some lens and cadence of the work day and how we collaborate. Man, we are two months into this, and I am seeing signs, just from reading social media that the fun of this is over. I think people are really starting to hit the wall, really starting to pull their hair out, staying on the theme of hair. I think you have some people out there that want to get back to the office and get back to the old way, some people are seeing some potential this new way–they like the flexibility as we’ve talked in our shows about the flexibility of working remotely. But for different reasons, I just think nerves are frayed. There’s people in some burnout. There’s new ways and anxiety because this thing isn’t just gonna be over like that, even if we are starting to go back to the office and get back into sort of so-called reopening of society, things are gonna be different, and that reality is hitting home. So what we’re talking about today is how do we check on each other’s well being, how does leadership check on employee well being, and how do we really gauge any sense of sentiment, when it comes to just how you’re doing?
And I’ll start the conversation around, you know my small team is pretty easy. We’re a 11 people. It’s pretty easy as for the Slack or a video conference to just say “hey partner, how are you doing? How are you feeling about this?” And you have a nice check-in that happens once or twice a week and you kind of have a sense of how things are going. But we’re lucky because we’re small we can have that sort of intimacy. I imagine as organizations are bigger and bigger, it’s so much harder. You might be able to hopefully have some sense of connectedness with a few colleagues but it’s really probably hard for leadership to have any sense how everyone’s doing right now.
And that brings me to you Dr Shuck. You knew this part of the puzzle right now would happen at some point where, you know, there’s this sense that we need to know how people are feeling about things. We need to talk about it, we need to dig in. And early on you developed a diagnostic for companies to use to really gauge how people are feeling. We, Unitonomy, published a blog post with your diagnostic. It’s really awesome that you were willing to just sort of share that free, no strings attached, so anyone in the world could adopt this and use it in their surveys, right now. But before I show that I would love to just hear from you, around the inspiration of that and really how it got developed.
Dr. Brad Shuck 1:29
Yeah, so. So first, thank you for the chance to talk about this before we. Before we jump into that, I do want to note that here in Kentucky we are getting ready tonight for the second, like the second longest freeze in the history of the state. It’s gonna freeze tonight. There’re murder hornets out about right now. My neighbor has sinkholes that are developing in his yard…so like the burnout rate for things that are like coming at us is like ridiculous. Right now it’s kind of crazy. We had to cancel Derby so we don’t know what month it is here in Kentucky. So yeah, it’s been kind of wild. You’re right.
I was in the Minneapolis airport coming home from a trip to Los Angeles, and I got an email from the president of our University, Dr. Bendapudi, who was done an amazing, an incredible job of leading our university through this time, and it just began to shut some things down. “Hey we’re gonna shut down travel, we’re gonna put some restrictions on work…” And I could kind of feel the anxiety, rising in my own body. And I knew really quickly that this was an opportunity to find out, and to share some tools for companies that were gonna be going through some of the same things that we were going through at the university a little.
Consequently, we were just wrapping up a study at the School of Medicine, and that that study in partnership with the College of Education and School of Medicine, and some colleagues in the Department of Communication Health Connection. So we are very specifically looking at what is the relationship between different types of work experiences things that are both positive and thriving, and things that are dysfunctional and traumatic. And we had fielded a pretty large study in terms of the kinds of questions that we asked, and in there ee asked about things like stress, we asked about things about well being. Here at Unitonomy, we’ve pioneered ideas around work isolation and work community which we included in that particular study. And I knew a diagnostic like this had to be quickly and easily deployable, so it couldn’t be really long. Nobody wanted, nobody has time right now to take a 55 questions survey, but they can take a question…here there are 10 questions, which is the length of the diagnostic that we put out.
The inspiration behind this is that there are five domains that we look at here. Five kinds of variables that we look at within this pretty short diagnostic. And I took questions from very well established psychometric tools in the field and adapted them for the COVID-19 context and put them together into what we call the COVID-19 Work Reality Index. Very easy, five point scale, quick to use, but it’s going to give you information as a leader or even as an employee, about how somebody feels: like do they feel like they’re a part of the community? Where do they feel isolated right now? Do they feel confident about their situation? Are they really stressed out, does their work right now have a lot of meaning for them, or are they really distracted right now and kind of disconnected? How are they feeling about the future? And are they able to, to think clearly at work?
I took questions from very well established psychometric tools in the field and adapted them for the COVID-19 context and put them together into what we call the COVID-19 Work Reality Index.
Very easy, five point scale, quick to use, but it’s going to give you information as a leader or even as an employee, about how somebody feels: like do they feel like they’re a part of the community? Where do they feel isolated right now? Do they feel confident about their situation? Are they really stressed out, does their work right now have a lot of meaning for them, or are they really distracted right now and kind of disconnected? How are they feeling about the future? And are they able to, to think clearly at work?Dr. Brad Shuck, University of Louisville
And then we get into things around engagement. So we look at engagement, community isolation, what we might call work culture, well being and stress, and so far we’ve gotten great feedback about the index. I’ve heard from folks literally all across the country who have used this, and are using it, and are asking for insights about what are these, what are the outcomes mean, what do I make of how people are answering these questions, so it’s been kind of fun to see this.
Charley Miller 5:39
Yep. Fantastic. Thanks for that background. So what I’m going to do here is, do a screen share to the actual diagnostic and just walk us through those 10 questions and kind of explain why we are asking these and how people should really leverage this. And then, Martin, I will jump back and I’m sure have some questions here. But here we go, Mr Shuck. All right, Brad. Do you see your screen here.
Dr. Brad Shuck 6:30
Yeah, great. Yes.
Charley Miller 6:33
So, checking the emotional well being of your team…you can find this on https://unitonomy.com/blog/ And if you go through our list you’ll find this one there checking emotional well being every team. And then we’ve kind of set up with the diagnostics about. And I’ll hit you with a question here in the front, here in the third paragraph: “as a leader you should model confident compassion.” What is confident compassion? That’s a very Brad Shuck phrase that I’ve heard before.
Dr. Brad Shuck 7:02
Yeah. So confident compassion I think sounds like “I don’t know yet what the plan is going to be, I’m not sure what the future looks like, but we’ll figure that out together.” I think it is having empathy in the moment and and treating people with dignity in that moment, even when it’s really difficult. So my encouragement for leaders is–we might use the analogy of sharing the umbrella–is to share your umbrella. You’ve got some information maybe you’ve got some knowledge, you may have some extra capacity that somebody else may not have in the moment and sharing that confidently means giving that away, not because somebody earned it but because it changes the way the relationship is experienced.
Confident compassion…is having empathy in the moment and and treating people with dignity in that moment, even when it’s really difficult. So my encouragement for leaders is…to share your umbrella. You’ve got some information, maybe you’ve got some knowledge, you may have some extra capacity that somebody else may not have in the moment and sharing that confidently means giving that away, not because somebody earned it but because it changes the way the relationship is experienced.Dr. Brad Shuck, University of Louisville
Charley Miller 7:47
Something else you note here, and is this moment of like “take a breath.” Yeah. This sounds like to me there’s there’s almost two purposes of running a diagnostic like this: one is you want to get information back to really help your team, but there’s another mode here where you are kind of calling timeout for people to think about themselves. And, and also relays that you want as a leader, you want to know how people are thinking about themselves. So if you’re signaling here that you care and I think that that area of empathy is probably just important. Do I have that right?
Dr. Brad Shuck 8:20
Yeah, you absolutely 100%. I’ve done many webinars in the last couple of weeks. I’ve always started off by saying look, let’s just take a collective pause and take a collective breath. Things seem to be coming at us pretty quickly. Charley, I think you’re absolutely right that the burnout rate right now is, is beginning to increase because there are, we’re starting to see mixed messages. So if you’ve watched any news or you’ve read through social media, you begin to see a bit of a divide, you begin to see different kinds of information. And so that chaos that kind of defined the early part of the pandemic is beginning kind of a second phase, and I see anxiety, beginning to creep up a little bit. So my recommendation is look let’s just take a collective pause here. And let’s center in where we are and kind of figure out “okay in terms of my well being and my well being with my relationship my work, what does that mean right now? And how am I interacting with some of those interfaces?”
Charley Miller 9:21
Great. Well, I’m gonna jump down down into the questions I’m going to disappear so you’re gonna run this solo and you won’t hear me, Brad, but I want to make sure we can see things. I’ll get my face out of the way here.
Dr. Brad Shuck 9:32
So, right off the bat, one of the things that we found out of this out of the some very preliminary findings from the study at the School of Medicine, is that there’s a 2:1 benefit for employees who feel that they are a part of a community versus feeling isolated. So think about what that means right now. So we work remotely, we can be disconnected. This is a signal of how much someone feels like they’re a part of something. And when we feel a part of something, there’s a host of really good things that happen as a result of that. So this first question is really getting into “alright, am I, am I connected to anything? Am I, very disconnected, am I feeling isolated?” The second thing: the idea of support was a question that really drove this idea of community. So if I felt supported in my current work, or in my work responsibilities, I was more likely to feel a part of a community. So this is kind of a driver of that of that first question.
The third question is all about well being: I’m confident in my current work situation. This question, in particular weighs pretty heavy on me. I don’t know that there are lots of folks out there that feel very confident in their current work situation, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Right now, there are folks who don’t have a current work situation, because they’ve been furloughed or they’ve been laid off or their jobs have been completely eliminated. So this is all about well being and work-related well being.
Number four is also connected to well being. And this is about coping strategies: “all right, I’m able to get everything done.” When I wrote this question, my email inbox was exploding. And, I mean, they were just coming at me fast and furious like a, I have a joke going with my wife around emails like “pew pew pew pew pew pew pew pew” and they were just coming like crazy and at the, at the time, my, my answer to this question was “No, I am not able to successfully cope with all the things I need to get done for work.” I was overwhelmed and inundated with things. Now think about how that connects with question number two. There I feel supported. And I’m confident about my work situation so we see an interplay with the questions here.
Number five is all about engagement. “Working at my job here has a great deal of personal meaning for me.” We know that emotion drives. So the idea of meaning here is a very emotionally heavy question so it’s a word that draws, is driven by the way that we feel about things. So, how we feel right now is likely connected to the, to the other four questions. Number six. I have a strong sense of belonging. This is another engagement question. When people have a strong sense of belonging, they’re also more likely to say things like, “I feel a part of the community. I feel supported. I’m confident in my work environment.” So we’re going to see an interplay with the top six questions there for sure. Number seven is all about stress. “I’m optimistic about the future.” Notice this isn’t anchored by work, but it’s just anchored by the right in my world right now my future. What is going, what is going on and am I optimistic about it.
And number eight is connected directly with that as well. So that’s a question that we took out of the stress diagnostics: so “I’m able to think clearly.” Imagine all of these things coming at you at once. Feeling overwhelming and not able to think clearly would be an outcome that right now is okay. And it would be okay for somebody to say “you know, no, I actually I don’t. I disagree that I think clearly right now.” Number nine is about work culture. So, we have some folks who may or may not have resources to do their work, and it’s important to know that. So as a leader, if I was giving this to my employees I would want to know “do folks have the resources they need?” and if the answer to this question is “no,” a good follow up question later on would be, well “what is it that we do need? What do we need to get to make folks feel confident about their current work situation, supported in that workplace?” You can imagine that questions 2, 3, and 4 have a connection to number 9 there.
And then the last question about my current expectations is just a baseline culture question. That is a direct driver of engagement. So whether or not somebody feels like they the expectations for them is clear, is oftentimes very much connected to the way they answered the top nine questions. We can be really busy, but not be productive, because we don’t know what the definition of productive might be, and certainly right now the idea of production, the idea of expectation the idea of work culture, all of that has been turned on, on its head as we have rolled out furloughs and job eliminations in some organizations and businesses have closed.
There’s an interplay here that is that it’s gonna be very interesting to see play itself out over the course of the next few months. So this free diagnostic here is something that I wouldn’t give just one time but I might give it a few times I might send it out in 30 day increments or 20 day increments. And again, 100% free, absolutely grounded in reliable and long-standing research. So we hope this is a helpful tool for organizations as they try to navigate this idea of pre-like during-the pandemic and then even post-pandemic.
Charley Miller 15:15
Thanks for walking us through that and thinking even more for sharing it. I want to bring Martin back into the conversation and sort of ask you, Martin, you’re on the front lines with the companies that On Plane Consulting supports. Just give us a sense of like what is it really like out there when you talk to leadership at different companies. I assume there are some companies that are kind of were prepared to some degree, to be sort of ready for this. And there are other companies that were really caught off guard and are really trying to play catch up. Is that right, or my assumptions off here? I think you’re muted, Martin.
Martin Low 15:55
I try and do that every time just to keep you on your toes. I think your assumption that somethings were ready for this is completely correct. Um, I don’t think any businesses were really properly prepared for this, and I think it’s really starting to show. Where this has worked has been where you’ve got some organizations that are highly nimble and have been able to do what someone referred to as the pandemic pivot, and they’ve been very quickly able to shore up and start to put in place the things that they needed to be functional during this time. And I think the two camps you have aren’t like “I was ready” and “I was not.” It’s ‘I wasn’t ready, but I figured out how to quickly put some things in place so that I can get through this,” or “I’m not ready and I’m still not ready, and I’m a little bit lost about what to do. “
I don’t think any businesses were really properly prepared for this…I think the two camps you have aren’t “I was ready” and “I was not.” It’s “I wasn’t ready, but I figured out how to quickly put some things in place so that I can get through this,” or “I’m not ready and I’m still not ready, and I’m a little bit lost about what to do.”Martin Low, On Plane Consulting
And, you know, I think this all goes back to starting with your people. And if you’re not sure what to do, be able to ask them as kind of a servant leader “what do you need from to be effective? Tell me what you need” so that you can focus your efforts on that. I think for leaders, it’s been hard enough to sort out keeping the business going and then adjusting to home life and all the other things, without trying to sort out like what do my employees actually need. But I think now’s the time. If you get those people that work for you what they need, then they can get you what you need in terms of pivoting the business or transforming the business, and now is kind of the time to start from that and get your focus on this is going to end. How do we come out of this? It’s going to be with your people, what do they need to make it go. I don’t know if I answered your…
Charley Miller 17:46
Yeah, no, I think there’s so many things that must be in the mind of leadership of a company right now: from the practical things you need to take care of and prepare to make sure your business stays afloat versus taking care of your people’s needs that are immediate and are also just as critical, and then everything in between that. There’s so much thought leadership out there in terms of you need to do this, you need to do that. I imagine a lot of leaders’ heads are just sort of spinning right now because there’s–back to your all’s point–there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world, and it seems like any company was built to be nimble is probably managing okay and if you weren’t, then you’re you’re probably struggling.
My next question is alright, we’ve run this diagnostic and the feedback we’re getting is like “it’s as bad as we were worried it was.” You know, people are stressed, they don’t feel connected to each other, they’re really struggling. This is really for either of you or both of you. But you know, what is like one or two practical things post-running a diagnostic like this, that would be meaningful and would you know you do not solve all the problems but just in the next month, it would be very meaningful for leadership to take this step. What comes to mind? Let me, let me jump off here.
Dr. Brad Shuck 19:01
I’m gonna plug On Plane real quick. The first thing I would do is I would call Martin Low. You give feedback, whether that’s good feedback or bad feedback that is kind of like, I don’t know what to do with this. My recommendation is that you don’t do this in house. It’s gonna be very tempting to say look we can fix all this. Right now, you don’t need to be worrying about this, so you need a team of people who can help you navigate and having somebody on your team. Like a consulting company that Martin is running and I would recommend calling Martin for this and having his team come in to help you with this. And here’s why I do that: this creates capacity, and right now you need capacity in your life as a leader. And one of the things that you can take off your plate is is having someone make recommendations about next steps. Right so let someone else kind of think through that who’s an expert. You know, if we were sick, if I was physically sick, I can go to the grocery store and get some over-the-counter medicine and some things like that, but my best course of action is to call my physician, and then whatever my physician says, I should probably take those steps. And so calling On Plane Consulting and working with an industry leader like Martin is like calling your physician when you’re physically sick if your organizational well-being is low. You need some recommendations from the outside, so that’s that is a strong recommendation I would make.
Charley Miller 20:33
And I have a follow up question to that, Martin, is it ever too late? Do you ever get a company call you and like their things are so broken and so bad like they should have called you two years ahead of time, you’d have to be honest be like guys, this isn’t salvageable? Or is there always an opportunity to help improve the situation?
Martin Low 20:51
Look there is always an opportunity. If you’re an entrepreneur you know this, you’re gonna get dealt the hand of cards and you got to look at that hand the cards and you got to sort out, I got this hand of cards, what are my plays? What plays do I have? You always have a play, unless you just decide that you’re going to give up. So you’ve always got to play, and you just got to look at it from that standpoint. I think the other thing that’s really important is what we see with customers is they have the choice of doing nothing. And the problem with the choice of doing nothing as it relates to asking for this feedback is they want to choose it when they know that that feedback is not going to be good. And they’ve got this huge pile of stuff on top of them right now. they don’t need one more thing. They’re worried about what its gonna look like. So they choose not to do anything with it. The issue with that is, is that this is stuff that people are saying about you. Anyway, it’s not like if you don’t ask like that they’re just not going to say that no one knows. In fact, it’s like the worst part is the worst possible place to be because the conversations are being had without you being a part of them.
And that’s a huge problem, right, and then secondarily, just by asking the questions, you don’t have to solve every issue that’s out there. And my guess is it when you ask the questions, you’re probably gonna be surprised. If there’s 10 answers that come back, you’re probably going to be surprised by 8 of them. And honestly, your employees don’t think that you’re gonna solve all 10. They’re kind of gonna be happy if they just see you take movement on one. And that little step right now, means everything for your employees. They look at you and say, “when things were really bad, that’s when they took the ball, and they did the hard stuff,” and they’ll remember that and that becomes important. And that’s why doing this stuff right now is something you can’t wait on. You need to do it now. There are resources out there to help you probably more than have ever been out there before. And the other thing is is that your employees will give you a bit of a mulligan because they know that you’re in the middle of a pandemic, so they know that times are hard and they’re just gonna be happy to see you do something.
Charley Miller 23:01
So, and I think that’s a great thought and both of you are very compelling and very articulate with this message to kind of wrap it up into bow. Imagine the company that isn’t asking employees about how they’re feeling or how they’re doing versus working at the place where they are asking that–the difference between those two cultures, is stark, and we shouldn’t have to explain too much the importance of one versus the other. It sounds like hey, if you’re asking inward the right questions and you’re showing empathy, employees are really going to appreciate that. And then you should be reaching outward for to help with capacity to someone like Martin here of On Plane Consulting where they can come in with their expertise and really help you navigate here in the short term and long term. So fantastic stuff. Brad again, thank you for sharing the diagnostic and this is great. We’re going to be back on Tuesday, talking with Ben Reno-Weber, Future of Lou, talking about how AI is dramatically shifting things in the knowledge workspace, and what we’re doing in terms of retraining here in our community. Really nice show. All right. Thank you all and everyone, have a great weekend. hang in there, thanks much.