Can HR help staff feeling 'stuck' and stagnant at work?

Many are labelling 2021 the 'most stressful year at work ever'

Can HR help staff feeling 'stuck' and stagnant at work?

It’s year two of the pandemic and yet many continue to feel ‘stuck’ in their personal and professional lives. A recent global study found that employees at all levels, including managers, HR and C-suite executives remain in ‘emotional turmoil’ and struggling with their mental well-being.

A whopping 80% of workers said they have been negatively impacted by 2020, with many suffering financially (31%) and mentally (29%). One in four have been feeling lonelier (25%) than the year before and are more disconnected from their own realities (22%).

More than three in five professionals (63%) have even labelled 2021 as ‘the most stressful year at work ever’. This links to findings that at least a quarter of respondents feel like they’re lacking in career motivation. Overall, comparing 2020 and 2021, more than half (55%) of individuals said there’s been a further decline in their mental health this year.

Read more: How to fight loneliness in the workplace

Feeling ‘out of control’ over their lives

The study, jointly conducted by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, found that an increasing number of professionals feel that they have little to no control over their work or personal lives. They cited feeling powerless to manage their personal lives (47%), futures (46%), and finances (45%).

Over three in four (77%) professionals feel stuck in their personal lives. They also feel:

  • Anxious about their future (32%)
  • Trapped in the same routine (27%)
  • Financial stress (25%)

Read more: How to deal with frustrated employees

Stuck and stagnant career paths

Another 78% of workers have been feeling stuck professionally, because they don’t have growth opportunities to progress their career (27%) and are too overwhelmed to make any changes (23%). Most individuals (72%) said feeling stuck in their career has negatively impacted their personal lives as well by:

  • Adding extra stress and anxiety (42%)
  • Contributing to feeling stuck personally (31%)
  • Taking focus away from their personal lives (28%)

Despite this, four in five workers (84%) said they’re ready to make a career change, but many (79%) have been facing major obstacles. The biggest hurdles include financial instability (24%), not knowing what’s the next best step for their careers (23%), not feeling confident enough to make a change (22%) and not seeing any growth opportunities at their company (22 percent).

Peter Leow, director, HR at The Salvation Army International commented that it’s normal for anxiety and stress levels to increase as people are forced to constantly adapt to unknown changes. “Remote working and limited physical interactions further restricted understanding and information sharing, resulting in lower engagement, collaborations and trust,” Leow said.

Read more: How social isolation is killing productivity

Double-down efforts on health and well-being support

However, the study did find an upside: majority of respondents (78%) felt that their companies were ‘more concerned’ with protecting and supporting mental health now than in pre-pandemic times. Regan Taikitsadaporn, CHRO, Asia-Pacific at Marriott International shared in an exclusive Economist panel discussion that well-being has become a topic of discussion and a critical strategic focus since the COVID-19 crisis.

This has grown in importance particularly for companies in hard hit sectors like hospitality, tourism and travel – and leaders understand that when it hits businesses, there’ll be a trickle effect onto employees. “Especially in the last 18 months, and when you think about our industry and the impact it has had on our associates, it’s not only [about] safety and physical health,” Taikitsadaporn said. “You’re also thinking about the impact it has on our business. Frontline workers still having to go to work because we still need to operate our hotels. On top of that, our industry has been financially hit. For many of our associates, their income has also been impacted, in addition to everything that’s happening in their non-work environments.”

He related examples of employees’ struggles to juggle a high-risk job as well as home schooling their children, and/or taking care of elderly parents. Simultaneously, many couldn’t visit family or receive relatives for months or years. Meanwhile those who live alone or were single had to manage extended bouts of isolation. “Clearly the impact of all of that on our associates has really escalated,” he said.

Read more: Mental health: C-suite struggles in the pandemic

Top priority: Strengthen leadership resilience

Taikitsadaporn explained that their top priority in managing the organisation’s well-being has been a focus on leadership resilience. “There’s been a couple of things that we’ve done,” he said. “One, obviously, starting from the top – we’ve equipped our leaders to be able to be resilient and be able to manage their own selves first. If our leaders aren’t able to manage their own resiliency and mental health, then it’s very difficult for them to be able to manage their teams or the associates in the hotel. We started off with training as well as resources for all leaders.”

Read more: How to avoid post-pandemic staff turnover

What HR should focus on to engage staff in 2022

It’s unsurprising then that mental health and work-life balance have become top priorities for employees in the post-pandemic world. Oracle’s study showed that almost all employees have used the past year to reflect on their lives (93%). Furthermore, most (90%) staffers shared that the meaning of success has changed for them since the pandemic. Their top career and life priorities now include:

  1. Work life balance (43%)
  2. Mental health (38%)
  3. Workplace flexibility (34%)

However, going into 2022, professional development is also top of mind for individuals globally. Many are willing to give up key benefits such as flexible work arrangements (60%), vacation time (55%), and even bonuses (52%) or part of their salary (48%) for more career opportunities.

As we come to the end of yet another exhausting year, what else can HR and leaders do to support and engage employees in our uncertain world? Speaking at the same Economist panel discussion, one experienced HR head shared a simple but effective advice for fellow leaders. “The key to this is making sure you’re asking your employees what’s important to them,” said Louise Pender, chief people officer at Zalora. “Don’t guess. And be prepared to act on what they’re asking you for.”

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