How Are You—Really

Mark L. Johnson / June 2021

The pandemic isn’t over, and the economy still has a long way to go to achieve stability. And material prices and availability remain top concerns for the construction industry.
    
But another concern that should be on your plate is the long-term health and well-being of your employees. The pandemic has been hard on all.
    
“The vast majority of us are struggling with general and workplace well-being as the pandemic continues to rage,” says an article in Harvard Business Review.

“The Noise in My Head”
Of course, optimism among contractors is rising.
    
“As vaccines continue to roll out, contractors are expecting to hire more workers and anticipating good times ahead,” says Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The industry still has a way to go to return to pre-pandemic levels, but rising optimism in the commercial construction industry is a positive sign for the broader economy.”
    
Behind the scenes, however, workers are struggling.
    
Harvard researchers surveyed about 1,500 HBR readers and others from 46 countries last fall and found that employee well-being is in serious decline. Many workers are burning out from unsustainable workloads and unsympathetic managers. People feel crunched and don’t believe they can continue to bear it.
    
“Coping with the pervasive anxiety and worry during this pandemic takes up a lot of bandwidth,” said a 36-year-old woman and manufacturing manager quoted by the HBR report “What COVID-19 Has Done to Our Well-Being, in 12 Charts.” “Needing to work through that means I am expending more energy than normal to manage the noise in my head.”
    
Globally by the end of last April, 2.6 billion people were on lockdown, 81% of the workforce had lost, fully or partially, their places of employment. Zoom’s daily active users skyrocketed from 10 million to 200 million.
    
Businesses have adjusted to the pandemic, but most individuals continue to feel overwhelmed at work. According to HBR: 89% of survey respondents said their work life was getting worse; 85% said their well-being had declined; 62% of those struggling to manage their workloads had experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often.”

“I’m Fine”—I Think
“During the pandemic we misdiagnosed the resulting stress as acute rather than chronic,” says Jennifer Moss in “Beyond Burned Out,” an HBR article published in February. “And once it was clear that the crisis was a triathlon, not a sprint or even a marathon, organizations did very little to help employees over the long term in meaningful ways.”
    
Here’s what to do:
    
Watch the clock. The risk of occupational burnout increases significantly when an employee’s workweek averages more than 50 hours. Burnout rises even more substantially at the 60-hour-a-week level, says research from Gallup.
    
Cut back on meetings. Steven Rogelberg of UNC Charlotte, author of The Surprising Science of Meetings, says that pre–COVID-19 studies revealed that U.S. organizations wasted $37 billion annually in unproductive meetings. A study sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the time employees spend in meetings has increased by 13% with the pandemic.
    
Cut back on Zoom meetings. Video conferencing isn’t helping us physically or mentally. The BBC article, “The reason Zoom calls drain your energy,” says a video call requires people “to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language.” It “causes people to have conflicting feelings [and] is exhausting,” BBC says.
    
Be more empathetic as managers. A study of medical residents at Mayo Clinic Rochester found that “high mental well-being” is associated with empathetic listening. The research calls for managers to be empathetic leaders. But how? First, overcome personal biases with respect to people and personalities. Two, listen to people—really listen to them. Three, take action.
    
You want people to feel that it’s safe to share their thoughts and concerns. So, become a professional eavesdropper, a pointed noted in Moss’s article. Let people go off the standard script and say how they really feel. That’s easy to say, hard to do because the average an adult, a study in Britain found, will say “I’m fine” 14 times a week. But only 19% of people really mean it.
    
We can’t have that and get through this pandemic.

Mark L. Johnson writes for the wall and ceiling industry. He can be reached via linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.