Keeping score

The impacts of Covid-19 on colleagues’ stress and engagement

Across the globe many will have marked a year of social distancing and lockdown, something none of us predicted when the coronavirus crisis shook the world early 2020.

In the UK we went into our third national lockdown at the end of last year. Lockdown-3 has had a very different feel to the first all those months ago when we saw videos of neighbours singing with each other, met outside weekly to bang pans for our front-line healthcare professionals, or used this new gift of time to complete home projects long stuck on the to do list. This time, people are sick of DIY, missing friends and colleagues, made and eaten as much banana bread as they can stomach, and with the bad weather in the UK it really has felt like being locked inside. Many are experiencing lockdown fatigue, causing low motivation, tiredness and a general aura of frustration.

Last year we shared our plans to monitor the TAG team’s net morale score (NMS) in the blog A score to settle with Covid-19. This entailed giving the team a weekly forum to share their engagement and stress scores (from 0 -10) as an insight into how they are feeling – the difference between these figures when subtracting the stress from the engagement equalling that person’s NMS. This was in part to provide a constructive and open opportunity for the team to share how we were feeling, but also to check no one’s NMS fell to 0 or below, indicating that the individual might need extra support and understanding.

How have scores changed over time?

An additional benefit is that this has provided us with a year’s worth of weekly scores showing stress and engagement trends over the last 12 months. At the point of writing A score to settle we were 12 weeks into lockdown, and our results were stress with an average of 4.2, while engagement averaged 7.4, yielding a net positive score of 3.2. Nine months on and for the last four weeks stress has again averaged 4.2 while engagement averaged 8.0, yielding a net positive score of 3.8. This is a small change and a positive one but may well be down to the fact that as a whole we are a highly engaged team, with positive, glass half full personalities always looking for silver linings.

Interestingly Roger Urwin also ran the same exercise with a large group of Willis Towers Watson’s investment colleagues. During a townhall in April 2020 he ran a poll asking for colleagues’ stress and engagement scores, and then in February 2021 he asked the same questions. The change between the first and the second survey was a drop in engagement and an increase in stress levels.

What could this mean?

Roger suggests this change in colleagues feeling more stress and less engagement aligns with what we are hearing in the news and is paralleled in other studies including national statistics. He suggests this has been caused by a ‘toxic mix of digital exhaustion and work-life plate spinning’.

What else have we learnt from the exercise?

Aside from the trends over time there have been other interesting learnings from sharing our scores and the reasons behind them.

Causes of stress for the TAG team varied between impacts of the pandemic and other societal issues on the world, home life, home schooling, fear of illness, fear of the coming change as the world looks to reopen and a sense of loss of control. As the year went on stress didn’t reduce as we adjusted to the working from home model but shifted to other worries.

The conversations increased in openness in a way the TAG hadn’t experience prior, and in time a new level of trust was built and the team felt empowered to share more of their full identities, delving beyond their surface or professional self, to their person, doing and thinking self – see the Identity map outlined by Marisa Hall. This involved sharing fuller reports of home life and family antics, and a more raw and even vulnerable insight into each other’s mental states during times of difficulty.

This seems to be a cultural change that expands beyond TAG and our NMS meetings. I’ve had a number of open and personal conversations with colleagues over the last year with increasing frequency as lockdown has continued, in a way I’ve rarely had previously. As mental health has become more of a normal topic of conversation and gained increasing importance over the last year, I definitely see this as one of Roger Urwin’s silver linings of Covid-19 – that more people do seem to feel comfortable and empowered to have these open conversations with each other.

Recently someone said to me they would have had no idea I have daily hurdles to overcome with my Generalised Anxiety Disorder as I tend to come across confident and on top of things in a work environment. I realised I’ve had that exact same thought about others when colleagues have opened up and shared personal struggles, mental health conditions, or ongoing physical illnesses with me. This is why it is so important to have compassion for each other, as you never know what might be going on with someone behind that professional work self. Again, harking back to Roger’s wider perspectives work, where he looks at the importance of spontaneous acts of kindness (referred to as ‘paying it forward’) in a workplace culture.

Being honest and open with colleagues and sharing more of our authentic self has many benefits, from a deeper understanding of those we work with, to creating more forums for those struggling to speak up. As the re-opening of society across the globe seems in be just around the corner for many, I truly hope we can carry this trust and openness and authenticity with us into the ‘next normal’.