The talking cure

Richard Stuart-Turner
Monday, March 1, 2021

Keeping workplace morale up in the pandemic can be a challenge, but honest and open communication will help.

It is now nearly a year since our lives were collectively turned upside down by Covid-19.

With the various lockdowns, tiers, rules and restrictions and the associated impact on just about every aspect of our personal and professional lives since – not to mention concerns about the virus itself – it’s hardly surprising that things can sometimes feel tough.

New research from Delamere Health has found that manufacturing is estimated to be the second-most hazardous industry for workplace burnout potential during the current lockdown, after construction.

The organisation says it has become harder for British workers to maintain a work-life balance during the pandemic, and that nearly two-thirds of full-time workers have experienced some form of burnout in the workplace.

While many people are now working from home, as with other manufacturing sectors where a lot of work can only be done on site, many print staff have gone into the factory as normal throughout the pandemic.

But without the ability to see their family or friends, enjoy their usual hobbies and holidays, or wind down in various other ways, many people feel tired, while going only backwards and forwards to work has made their life feel like Groundhog Day.

For many employers, trying to keep motivation and positivity up has therefore been more challenging than usual and – on top of ensuring their workplaces are Covid-secure so staff feel safe – businesses have had to find their own ways to address the other mental implications.

“We’ve always put a lot of emphasis on people, and making sure that people want to come to work,” says Precision Proco Group chief operating officer Jon Bailey.

“We feel responsible for people’s wellbeing and mental health so in times like this, it’s doubly important to do that. And you’ve got to have a position of optimism in order to do it.”

He says open, honest, two-way communication is vital, particularly as business leaders are not immune to the Covid struggle.

“I’m a big believer in a real, humble and open approach to how we’re feeling. We make sure everybody knows it’s everybody’s responsibility to look after each other, irrelevant of hierarchy.”

BPIF HR adviser Olivia Martin agrees that it is important for those at the top to take care of themselves as well as their staff.

“Whilst you’re not expected to be an expert in mental health, it’s important during this uncertainty to look after your own wellbeing,” she says.

“The emotional and moral worries are one thing, but the financial stress and uncertainty adds another layer to your ‘worry cake’.

“Business owners that are struggling do need to talk to someone – family, friends, colleagues, professional support. Day-to-day changes might be making the time to go for that lunchtime walk, or taking a break from the news, or to reflect on all the achievements that have been made during these times.”

Bailey says Precision Proco Group has helped its staff to learn new skills and further their training and education during the pandemic, to ensure they feel they are future-proofed and ready for the next phase.

“This in turn has created positivity and allowed people to focus,” he says, adding that bringing together the group last year via the merger between Precision Printing, ProCo and Prime Group also enabled the three businesses to combine the best elements of each and explore new ways of working.

“We’ve launched a whole new people programme with people champions, full training matrices and clear development paths for every member of staff. This has really helped because it’s given people clarity on where they need to be and where they want to go.”

Liz Sebag-Montefiore, director and co-founder of HR consultancy 10Eighty, says that giving employees freedom with accountability is another way to boost morale and motivation.

“People are most likely to enjoy what they do when they have a meaningful say at work. And an employee will have good levels of engagement if they feel that they’ve got a manager who listens to them, cares for them, stretches and develops them.”

She adds: “There’s quite a few things you can do to make a start on improving morale, but often I think it’s about looking at what in your workplace environment can be adjusted to reduce stress. That might be flexible working hours, regular check-ins or negotiated downtime.

“And I think what people working from home miss is social interaction, so you could even just hop on a Zoom call early. Find ways to socially reconnect before online meetings because you often jump on with the agenda but having some time at the start is quite helpful for connecting and engaging.”

Sebag-Montefiore says that while staff benefits like wellness programmes or discount schemes can also help, one of the most effective things a leader can do is show gratitude more often.

“Take notice of the really small things and celebrate strengths. Say ‘thank you’ and ‘well done’ because it takes so little effort and makes some members of the team feel more engaged and is likely to improve morale,” she says.

Nationwide Print managing director Julian Hocking believes it’s important to make the best of your own situation for now, while remaining positive about the light at the end of the tunnel: “It’s about being as realistic, honest and straightforward as possible, saying exactly how it is and not giving any false expectations,” he says.

“This will end and we will get back to normal – I believe extremely soon.”

With the vaccine roll-out well underway and the summer months coming, sharing in Hocking’s optimism is thankfully becoming easier.

But until the better days come, keeping all lines of communication open to ensure both staff and business leaders know they have the support they need is one of the best morale boosters there is.


Leading through chaos

Karen Beaven, burnout prevention and recovery coach, PXI

Here’s a phrase you’ve heard a million times: ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. The challenge is how to maintain a healthy business culture and look after your team in the midst of a pandemic and the associated chaos.

My advice, when it comes to leading a business through this is to start with a simple question: how do you want your people to feel? Why? Because if you want people to do their best work, this needs to underpin any wellbeing initiative you invest in. Also, when lockdown is over, people will forget a lot of what happened, but they won’t forget how you made them feel when they really needed support.

Acknowledge that you might need support yourself. Invest in improving your own wellbeing in order to be the leader that your team really need.

To maintain morale and support your team consider this: Covid-related fatigue is real. People are tired, ongoing uncertainty, personal trauma and cycles of lockdown exacerbate this. Being on furlough can be anxiety-inducing through loss of routine and connection. Being in work exhausting through increased workload and stress.

Then there’s the issue of isolation with more people working and even joining teams remotely. If culture does eat strategy, isolation has the potential to eat culture!

Finally, external measures of performance have moved but often our internal ones remain or even increase. So, what can you do? Forget what everyone else is doing and find a solution that’s right for your business. The easiest way to do this is to strengthen communication channels and ask your team how they are and what they need. What they say might surprise you. It’s not always about what more could you do or give them, it might actually be what unnecessary processes could be taken away.


How have you kept staff motivated?

Adrian Steele, managing director, Mercian Labels

“Being heavily involved in the food and medical supply chains, we’ve not had any memorable issues in motivating our staff during the pandemic – the public interest and responsibility is obvious to all. The real challenges were balancing our priority responsibility to keep people safe in the early weeks last spring against an unknown ‘enemy’. Lots of internal communication, locking out visitors and strong internal infection control has reassured staff that it was safe to continue to work at our factory.”

Jane Caunce, partner and general manager, Ellison Printing

“We’ve been established 50 years this year, have a really solid customer base and deal with a wide range of industries. So it’s not too hard to keep the staff motivated because they know we’re in a good position to weather the storm. I think it’s so important to have a positive attitude, and that filters down; if we’re confident and comfortable the staff will have faith in that. And if they have any worries whatsoever, work-related or not, they know they can speak to me, which I hope helps them feel that they’re not alone in this.”

Stephen Docherty, group chairman, Bell & Bain

“We’re really upbeat here and all the managers have spent a lot of time with the staff during the tail end of last year – it’s all about the people. We regularly keep staff informed about where we are and where we’re going. And we are all close here – I know everybody’s kids and about when they’re buying a new house or taking their driving test, and that’s the same with everybody. We’re also very glad that we took out medical care for everybody in the factory last year, so that they can speak to specialists on the phone.”

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