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Article | EX Insights

The impact of the coronavirus crisis on employee experience

Findings from global research and lessons for leadership

Employee Insights|Talent
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Patrick Kulesa | May 22, 2020

Once upon a time and without much forethought, employees regularly went to the office and worked alongside their colleagues. 

Today, many estimates indicate that four out of every five workers have been disrupted by the coronavirus, and those moments now seem like the good old days, lost to the new demands of working from home, virtual video meetings and social distancing for those in company locations. And while much has been written about how employers are responding to the crisis, the challenges for employees have been profound. So what exactly has been the impact on employee experience, and what do employers need to keep top of mind in these times of crisis?

In the middle of March, when the coronavirus became a truly global crisis, we launched our COVID-19 Pulse Survey. Since then, we’ve been tracking the experiences of employees around the world. When we reached our first 100,000 responses, we took a slice of data as a global representative sample. What does it tell us?

Employees are feeling the heat

One message is clear: Employees are feeling the heat. And the data show that happening primarily in three areas: 1) anxiety, 2) distraction from work, and 3) financial concerns.

  1. Anxiety — Ninety-two percent of those surveyed report some anxiety from the COVID-19 crisis, with 55% indicating a moderate or high degree of anxiety.

  2. 92%
    of employees are feeling anxiety from the coronavirus.

    Dramatic workplace changes emerged seemingly overnight, and 76% of employees now indicate that they have changed to a work-from-home arrangement. Coping with such a dramatic shift is proving to be quite a challenge. Although a slight majority (57%) fully agree that they are finding ways to cope with the added stress, only 39% of workers fully agree that the same is true of their colleagues.

  3. Distraction — With all the changes, 70% report at least some distraction from work due to coronavirus concerns, with 26% indicating a moderate or high degree of distraction. Juggling all these concerns is difficult; only about one-third (32%) fully agree that they can balance working from home with other responsibilities.

    "The distractions with kids, pets, husband also trying to work from home are very difficult at times...but we're managing."

  4. Financial — Beyond getting work done, employees now have added financial concerns, with 61% reporting at least some new financial concerns due to the coronavirus, and 25% indicating a moderate or high degree of worry. Because the coronavirus pandemic is a global health emergency stressing and straining workers, employer benefits are naturally in the spotlight. Benefit effectiveness is a significant improvement opportunity in the research findings, with fewer than half of employees fully agreeing that their company is making it easier to access and use benefits (46%) and that they know how to apply company benefits to coronavirus care (47%).

Leaders are hitting their stride

Despite these concerns, leaders are receiving really good marks in many of their core job responsibilities, such as supporting people and teams to maintain focus, communicating, managing the basics of work and execution, and building employee trust. Large majorities of workers report that they fully agree that leaders have been effective across these topics:

  • Focusing teams on work objectives (78%)
  • Obtaining the support needed at work (74%)
  • Keeping employees informed (73%)
  • Trusting leaders to respond to new business challenges (71%)
  • Protecting employee health and wellbeing (71%)
  • Adapting procedures and providing tools and resources to work productively (both 68%)

Employee comments

From the first 100,000 survey returns, we had 58,347 comment responses to the question of how companies can better support employees to address work challenges. From a thematic analysis of written responses, the top 10 most-frequent topics are listed below:

  1. Really appreciate the communication (18%)
  2. Struggle to balance family with work (12%)
  3. Company is doing a good job (11%)
  4. Need to improve our tech (10%)
  5. No changes needed (9%)
  6. Need to focus on customer (8%)
  7. Leadership doing great job (7%)
  8. Health concerns (6%)
  9. Safety concerns (6%)
  10. Network issues (6%)

The importance of communication comes through as the top topic area in employee comments. Just as we see in the favorable survey scores, respondents give leaders high marks for updates on company responses to the pandemic, frequency of notices and transparency, although some comments mention overcommunication resulting from high email frequency. Others indicate that their leaders are offering effective support overall or are doing a good job generally and no changes are necessary.

Other high-frequency topics point to areas for improvement. Many employees describe the demands involved in working at home while trying to balance family time and responsibilities. Others discuss the need to invest their own money to upgrade technology or improve Internet access. Many are worried about health or personal safety from risks due to the coronavirus. Still others say more attention is needed to better address customer needs during this time. Though the overall sentiment of comments is quite positive, this wide range of suggestions indicates that employers can apply many concrete actions to deliver a better employee experience.

Addressing distress: What levers can leaders pull to improve the employee experience?

As we mentioned in our opening, our results show three main areas of employee distress: 1) anxiety, 2) work distractions, and 3) financial concerns. What can leaders do to help limit these areas of distress and therefore improve the overall employee experience? Answers come from analyzing the aspects of experience that drive lower levels of anxiety, work distraction and financial worry. Across respondents in our study, we determined the top statistical predictors (or drivers) of employee distress, and the findings provide a blueprint for leadership response.

Alleviating anxiety — Anxiety from the coronavirus is the largest source of worker distress, with 55% of employees indicating a moderate or high degree of anxiety due to the virus. Two aspects of experience predict lower rates of anxiety:

  1. The first is the ability to manage issues outside of work and thus cope more effectively with strains and stresses. Among employees able to manage issues outside of work, rates of moderate to high anxiety are 49%, compared with 80% among those unable to manage issues outside of work.
  2. In addition, wellbeing support from the employer is a buffer against anxiety. The data show that the most important supports are direct outreach from managers to understand job constraints and effective communication of the steps that leaders are taking to protect employee health and wellbeing. In short, information can lessen anxiety.

Minimizing work distraction — Work distraction is the second area of significant employee distress, with 26% indicating a moderate or high degree of distraction. Employees in stronger team environments report much lower rates of distraction relative to colleagues who struggle to collaborate. Among employees indicating that they work in a well-connected team, rates of moderate to high distraction are only 16%, compared with 56% among those lacking such connections. With so many workers phoning in the job from home, the challenge and opportunity is to find a new level of positive team engagement.

Reducing financial concern — Financial worry is the third source of concern, with 25% of employees indicating a moderate or high degree of stress. In large part, this concern relates to the future viability of their businesses and the impact such uncertainty could have on them individually. Employees report less financial worry to the extent they perceive leadership taking the steps necessary to manage the business. Top drivers of lower financial concern include:

  1. Increased clarity around cost controls such as work travel and meetings
  2. Greater focus on procedures to improve productivity
  3. Greater confidence that leaders are meeting current business challenges

Is there a big difference when leaders get these things right? When employees feel positive about the actions leaders are taking on these three topics, rates of moderate to high financial concern are 23%, compared with 56% when employees don’t think leaders are doing a good job.

In crisis mode: Combatting worker distress

Our results from an initial look at the global workforce in crisis confirm that employee concerns are real and severe, but so too is the opportunity for employers to support their people and build on a strong sense of goodwill. Despite high rates of anxiety, work distraction and financial worry, these findings point to tactics employers can apply now:

  • Supports for coping and better managing wellbeing should allay anxieties.
  • Building stronger teams should address work distractions.
  • Attending to the basics of running the business should reduce financial worries.

With many workers continuing to complete their tasks from home, information flow with the right emphases is critical. In a survey comment, one respondent said simply that “radical honesty is necessary.” Until that moment when workplaces are full once again, the challenge for employers is to craft strategies that enhance employee experience as a weapon to combat global disruption.

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Senior Research Director

Patrick Kulesa, Ph.D., is a member of the advanced analytics group within Willis Towers Watson’s Research & Innovation Center. He oversees a group that manages Willis Towers Watson’s database of benchmarks on employee opinion, leading a team of data analysts in the U.S., Europe, and Asia Pacific.

He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Northwestern University and over 20 years of consulting experience. Patrick’s research has been published in trade industry and academic outlets, and is featured at major psychological, human resource, and industry conferences.


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