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Ideas To Keep Essential Workers Engaged

During the pandemic, working from home wasn’t an option for essential workers. Now, after nearly two years of worrying about their health, juggling childcare, and working long hours, they’re burning out—and opting out, contributing to what economists call “The Great Resignation.”  What can employers do to improve employee engagement and retain essential workers? We believe well-being programs and a focus on multiple dimensions of well-being can make an impact.

We’ve all suffered in one way or another during the pandemic, but essential workers have been laboring under incredibly challenging conditions that have taken a real toll on their health and well-being. It seems we can’t go a day without hearing stories about workers in multiple industries who feel their only option is to quit.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported that in August 2021 alone, 4.3 million Americans left their jobs. There are lots of reasons people are quitting:

  • Healthcare workers are physically and mentally exhausted. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates about 534,000 healthcare workers quit in August alone.
  • Service industry workers are increasingly fed up with unpleasant customers, new responsibilities, and increasing staffing shortages.
  • A childcare shortage led many women to opt out of the workforce entirely. About 300,000 women left the workforce in September 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Younger generations are taking a hard look at what’s truly important to them, leading many to abandon their current roles. A July survey by Bankrate found that nearly twice as many Gen Z and millennial workers than Baby Boomers planned to look for a new job in the coming year.

But rehiring and retraining new employees isn’t cheap. So what can we do to keep these employees engaged so they don’t leave—even in the most challenging circumstances? Here are some ideas:

Encourage time off.

Unfortunately, many employees are reluctant to take time off because they feel it might jeopardize their job. Urge employees to take paid time off to rest and recharge. Some employers are even mandating it. Let them know it’s also OK to use sick time to care for mental health, not just physical concerns. Consider letting employees donate to a paid-time-off “bank” for those experiencing difficulties.

Promote mental health resources.

Employee Assistance Program (EAPs) offer free, confidential counseling sessions for employees and their households. Make sure employees know they don’t have to be experiencing a mental health crisis to use the EAP’s services. If it makes sense for the population, provide access to mental health podcasts and mindfulness apps they can listen to on the job or during their commute. Leverage your well-being program’s stress management and resiliency programs to increase workers’ ability to deal with adversity and recover quickly.

Take a hard look at corporate culture.

While time off and mental health resources do help employees recharge, many argue that an organization’s culture makes the most impact on an employee’s decision to stay or go. Essential workers haven’t always felt supported by employers during this challenging time. Ensure leadership speaks openly about the importance of health and well-being—especially mental health. Empower managers to work with employees to adjust workload, increase flexibility, and provide training in workplace empathy.

Incorporate health and well-being on the job.

Long hours and shift work mean people can’t always fit in exercise when they go home, and sometimes struggle to eat well. Try to carve out ways for them to get exercise during the workday. For example, for those who sit for long hours, set a goal to walk at least 250 steps every hour. You could also send out tips for healthy meal prepping and feature healthier options in the cafeteria or break room.

Recognize them.

Sometimes all it takes to make an employee feel valued and want to stay is a small token of recognition—extra vacation time, spot rewards, or a mention on the company’s recognition platform. Ultimately, saying thank you and explaining how much someone is valued and appreciated can go a long way.

Connect people to increase inclusion and belonging.

Explore ways for coworkers to connect on a deeper level with each other, such as doing community service together. Doing good not only makes people feel better, but also increases engagement and commitment to a company. Employee resource groups (ERGs) are also a great way to bring employees together to support one another.

Enlist the support of a health coach.

Many well-being programs for employees include access to health coaches who create personalized plans for exercise, nutrition, and mental health. When employees feel better, they’re more engaged both at work and at home.

Have a little fun.

Wellness activities for employees, like steps challenges, can improve workplace morale with everyone working towards the same goal—increased activity. Include fun incentives for engaging in the program—like water bottles, t-shirts, customized shoes or gift cards.

Provide support for financial wellness.

Some of the stress that essential workers feel may be related to personal finances. Leverage your well-being program’s financial wellness services to help with education, coaching, student loan consolidation, and debt counseling.

Help with sleep.

Poor sleep affects our mood and performance on the job, and has been linked to all sorts of adverse physical and mental health conditions. Offer education on quality sleep routines and sleep tracking apps.

We may not be able to solve for all the reasons essential workers are leaving their jobs. However, we can focus on dimensions of employee well-being that are known to improve employee engagement and increase retention. We hope these tips have been helpful as you consider what your organization can do to best support essential workers today and in the future.

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