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This PSRW, let’s honor our workers by giving them the support they need

By Melissa Jezior

The celebrations surrounding Public Service Recognition Week definitely take on a different color this year. While we will see fewer award ceremonies and tribute events, the intent of the week—to honor government employees—has a special resonance during the COVID-19 pandemic. We count on our federal employees to support the smooth functioning of society every day. Now, they count on our support in return. What better way could we find to honor our government employees than to show them the depth of their value by giving them extra support when they need it most?

Resiliency, grit, adaptability, toughness. Call it what you will, it’s that golden strength that equips us to deal with stress and overcome adversity. It’s not just Pollyanna thinking; it’s the ability to acknowledge rotten circumstances but trust in your capacity to weather the storm and bounce back.

But resiliency takes on a whole new meaning when your foundations crack right under your feet. In March, most of us – adults and kids alike—walked out the door of the institutions where we spend a third of our waking lives. We created a country of time capsules, fully expecting to return to our normal work routines in just a couple of weeks. But the weeks have stretched on, and there is uncertainty not knowing what will come next. And that is taking a heavy toll on employees.

A survey we conducted recently found that 45 percent of U.S. employees say they feel burnt out, with one in four of these attributing the cause of their burnout to COVID-19. Workers indicate they feel burnt out by their workload, trying to juggle their professional and personal life, a lack of communication, and time pressures.

If you hold a leadership position in a federal agency, undoubtedly you’re thinking about what you can do to help your employees navigate through issues like these, while also navigating them yourself. Even before the pandemic hit us, Eagle Hill thought about how to build employee resilience in the federal arena. Earlier this year, in fact, we developed a piece about the federal work culture and workforce resilience and their relationship to what we call “The Four C’s”: connectedness, communication, career supports, and consistency.

Federal employees have experienced more than their fair share of uncertainty, having weathered two long federal shutdowns in the past seven years. But this pandemic, which is also attacking the individual support structures that would have been available to federal workers during the shutdowns, tests individual resilience in an unprecedented way.

I took a look at those four C’s and thought about what each one means in light of the pandemic. Over my next few posts, I’ll address them one by one. With nearly our entire workforce now confined to home, it seemed logical to start with what leaders should be doing to support their employees.

“Career supports” in “normal” times means understanding what your people want and helping them get it. In the COVID-19 era, I call it “career and confined-to-home supports.” Now it’s less about finding out what people want, than it is about proactively providing them what they need. Employees are overwhelmed and most will appreciate having their burdens anticipated and lightened without having to fight for it.

To that end:

First, make sure everyone knows what is expected of them. The nature of work has changed dramatically and even telework veterans will likely find themselves overwhelmed by trying to stay productive in close quarters with family and a million little distractions. Your job as leader is to focus on what you want your people, as a team, to accomplish, despite personal obstacles.

Recognize that everyone will have unique challenges and some individuals may need more of a steadying hand and direction than others. Some employees will be in a much more precarious financial situation if a partner has become unemployed. People with babies or toddlers at home will have interruptions. People who live alone may find the isolation affecting their mood more. Older folks may have more fear about the virus.

Once you have laid out expectations, give people as much flexibility as possible to get their work done in a way that that works for them. And, understand that some people may not be able to work the same work hours the same way they used to. Establish people’s communication preferences and understand and respect their boundaries as much as possible. It’s a delicate balance of steadfastness in what matters and flexibility in the path to achieve it.

Gather together resources so that employees can easily access them in one place. If you can’t do that from a technical perspective, create a directory of where employees can go to find what they need. Look ahead not only to what employees need now, but also might need in the future. Some might need technical help connecting; others might need counseling. It’s a big complicated picture, and the more you can sort it out for your employees in advance, the better. At a minimum, you should consider: physical and mental-being resources, access to technical help, information on HR policies, workplace updates, and messages from leadership that help the workforce connect with them personally.

Finally, take a weekly pulse of what’s important to your people and answer their concerns. COVID-19 will progress along a path and people’s needs and emotions will as well. While you should anticipate needs as much as possible, weekly checkpoints will drive additions or adjustments to your response.

Stay tuned for more on the 4 Cs. And sending thanks to government employees for their service, resiliency and adaptability during these unprecedented times.