This month (July), the Samaritans charity returns with its hugely important ‘Talk to us’ 2022 campaign, a reminder to the public that there is always someone there to listen to them in their lowest moments.
It’s a message that is as important in the workplace as it is outside, and perhaps increasingly so given the record levels of burnout experienced by employees post-pandemic. New analysis by the Glassdoor Economic Research team reveals that negative discussion about burnout amongst UK workers is up 48% in the last 12 months, hitting record levels.
Leaders have a crucial role to play to ensure that their workforce feel heard within their organisations, particularly during times of struggle, and know where they can seek help. And the numbers back this up./
Statistics highlight that employees who feel their voices are heard at work are 4.6x more likely to feel empowered to perform at their best. It is vital leaders prioritise actively listening to those working for them and provide a safe space to talk.
Here, five experts offer five ways leaders can help to make their employees feel heard, from no-agenda conversations to establishing supportive networks.
1 No-agenda conversations
Making time for no-agenda conversations is a great way to get to know employees on more of a personal level. Whether this takes place before or in-between meetings to allow people to decompress and create meaningful connections with one another.
‘’People that feel seen, heard and valued are much more likely to engage with their work communities. It then becomes much more noticeable when someone is struggling,’’ comments Lesley Cooper, management consultant and founder of WorkingWell.
An integral part of this is creating a culture of psychological safety where employees feel able to share their feelings without fear of negative consequences. Lesley shares, “a psychologically safe culture is open, enables people to solve problems collaboratively and creates opportunities for people to share ideas and feelings without fear of negative personal consequences. Leaders should be leading the way, being open with their own insights and show both vulnerability and empathy to break down any stigmas.’’
In an environment where everyone feels secure and values, open conversations flow much more easily. This should then be supported by readily accessible support services.
2 Make yourself available
As a leader, employees need to know that you are accessible and available, and not feel like they are an annoyance or an imposition on your time. A leader who creates barriers to access, or is begrudging with their time, creates anxiety in their people. Your job is to lead, and clearly signalling your availability is an important element of your leadership, whilst still managing your own boundaries.
For Carmel Moore, organisational development consultant and director of the One Moment Company, "office hours" are a key way to implement this. She suggests that leaders consider having at least one regular hour each week where they are available and that this is widely broadcast.
’’Like a doctor with surgery times or an academic with office hours, your team can be sure that this is the time and the place where they can easily find you. The measure of success is not how many people show up, but the fact that you were there and available to help. This move reduces anxiety around your availability and protects your time’’ says Carmel.
Making yourself accessible creates a sense of security for employees. They know that you will have time and availability to listen to the problems that they are grappling with. In a hybrid world, concern and anxiety isn't easily visible so carving out a regular space for conversation is kind and effective.
3 Try to limit fear and self-doubt
It is important to consider that fear is often both a source of peoples’ struggles in the workplace, and a central reason to avoid speaking out and seeking help. When we feel fear that we are not succeeding or doing as well as our colleagues, this can escalate and turn into a wider range of mental health issues. Fear of speaking about this with leaders will worsen the problem, forcing people to address their feelings alone.
Author of Coming Home, Gillian McMichael discusses the way in which fear may hold you back and isolate you in the workplace.
‘‘Fear is not a place that you should reside for a long time. If we indulge in fear, we will remain scared of making the wrong choices, and will stay in limbo for the rest of our lives. Before you know it, your confidence, self-belief and energy will be depleted, and your outlook will become negative or even cynical. All this will affect your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing too.’’
Create a space where nobody feels afraid and has to doubt themselves. This will maximise quality of work by building employee confidence in their own abilities and will make it easier for employees to feel comfortable talking to leadership teams.
4 Establish supportive networks
Regardless of strength, nobody can tackle every challenge alone. Similar to competitive sports, teams are there to make everyone feel supported and safe. The duty to make everyone feel heard cannot lie with leaders alone. By encouraging formal and informal communities in the workplace, leaders can grow thriving networks in which employees can lean on in times of need.
“Leaders should redouble their efforts to craft and cherish communities in the workplace across shared experiences, interests, or values — whatever will bond individuals together with common purpose. Break loose from traditional structures and encourage leaders to join, suspend their standing (seniority), and actively participate in the groups too,” he says.
“Be ambitious beyond your four walls. Build communities across companies, industries, geographies, and society to increase opportunities for support, inspiration, knowledge-sharing, and best practice. All of these will make someone feel heard on a deep, personal level.’’
5 Understand that listening doesn’t mean you need to know the answers
Leaders shouldn’t put pressure on themselves to solve all the problems brought to them independently. You don’t need to know all the answers to make someone feel heard, but they should be willing and equipped to signpost available support or action on their feedback.
“We can all learn from those who went before us and those around us. Being honest about what we don’t know is just the first step. You won’t always know exactly how to support someone straight away, but that is why you have a network around you to help’’
When employees approach you needing support, listen intently and actively to their concerns and signpost them to dedicated support services. If the voice concerns about a policy, look into this carefully with the relevant parties and escalate as required. Making someone feel heard doesn’t mean you solely have to have all the answers.