Through the disruption of the pandemic, many companies report that employee productivity has maintained or improved, but there has been a “substantial decline across many workforce health elements,” says Molly Tipps, senior director, advisor, in the Gartner HR practice, in a statement.
Gartner surveyed more than 20,000 employees between January 2020 and March 2021 and found that COVID-19 has negatively impacted the health of 55% of the global workforce. The 2021 Gartner Workforce Resilience Employee Survey measured the change in workforce health across multiple employee well-being elements, work-life balance, psychological safety, burnout, collaboration, innovation and responsiveness.
Gartner’s survey revealed that all segments of the workforce have experienced significant and widespread damage to workforce health, specifically:
- At least 50% of the workforce at each level
- At least 44% of the workforce in each function
- At least 35% of the workforce in each industry
Impacts on Workforce Health
Gartner studies workforce health across three main factors: healthy employees, healthy relationships, and healthy work environments.
1. Healthy Employees: Employee health has suffered during the pandemic – 85% of employees have experienced higher levels of burnout while 40% report declines in their work-life balance.
2. Healthy Relationships: The disruption of the pandemic has led to 41% of employees having lower trust in their teams and 37% having lower trust in leadership.
3. Healthy Work Environment: In response to the immediate shift in where and how people work, 29% of employees have a lower level of change receptivity and 31% experienced a lower level of inclusion.
“These impacts to health are both long-term and hard-to-reverse,” said Piers Hudson, senior director analyst in the Gartner HR practice. “Moving forward, organizations must figure out how to sustain and grow performance, whether in a period of disruption or not, without damaging the health of employees.”
Leaders should work with other business leaders and managers to address three workforce health lessons:
The Average is The Enemy
Despite talent data looking, on average, unchanged, the pandemic has created both “thriving and diving.” Among the employees surveyed, 30% experienced limited or no change to their psychological safety. Another 34% experienced a decline in psychological safety, while 36% reported significant improvements. Employees who had the highest levels of workforce health pre-COVID were not necessarily more likely to thrive, and those with the lowest pre-COVID workforce health were not predisposed to fare worse. Therefore, leaders need to deepen their understanding of how disruption impacts different employees to develop effective and affordable interventions, rather than focusing on average, and ultimately misleading findings.
Connection Sets the Stage
While companies seek to keep employees inspired and connected to the organization, they often focus on corporate culture and a shared mission. Instead, what employees need is a more personal sense of purpose. When employees believe that their work is personally relevant, there is a 26% increase in the likelihood of the organization to sustain workforce health.
Employees also need to feel connected to one another. Fifty-one percent of teams were disrupted due to COVID-19, but Gartner data shows that in times of disruption the connections in immediate working teams matter most. Highly cohesive teams have a 37% higher likelihood of sustaining workforce health.
Leaders Clear the Path
“Our research uncovered that one of the biggest drivers of workforce resilience is leaders themselves, and their ability to both understand and address the barriers that are preventing employees from having a healthy work – and life – experience,” said Cian O’Morain, director in the Gartner HR practice.
Many organizations attempted to boost resilience by adding employee benefits and/or recognizing and rewarding employees for their work. However, these activities had minimal impact on improving workforce resilience.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, leaders offered employees more autonomy, believing it would improve health by speeding decisions and reducing frustration. “While autonomy can have a positive impact on key elements of workforce health, it is a capability that needs to be built over time,” said Ms. Tipps.
In fact, Gartner's research reveals that increasing autonomy as workload increases seriously degrade workforce health. For the 83% of employees who are operating at, or above, capacity, increased autonomy diminishes their chances of having good workforce health by more than 30%.
Achieving Workforce Resilience
Sustaining workforce resilience requires organizations to be effective at both workforce performance and workforce health. Companies should focus on the following:
Dig deeper than function- or segment-level averages to understand which parts of the workforce have experienced damage and who has thrived. Retaining individual gains in workforce health is as critical to rebounding post-disruption as fixing the points of damage.
Help employees connect their personal goals to business goals and realign teams to ensure immediate working relationships are supported.
Make work easier and engage employees with empathy, both personally and professionally. Managers can show “work empathy” by adapting priorities to minimize frivolous work and showing employees the impact of their work.
Provide opportunities for employees to practice autonomy, but only if the organization can offer guardrails and training.