5 ways you can engage staff who are busy, stressed and at breaking point

In the February edition of People Management magazine there was an article about how the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is ‘struggling with staff shortages and workloads’.  In the piece, Professor Cary Cooper said, “Workloads are too high, and people are working longer hours and not feeling valued or cared for. The challenge for HR is: how do you engage staff who are barely coping?”

And that is part of the issue.  The challenge is not solely the preserve of HR.

The challenge is for those in leadership roles in the various health trusts across the country. The moment something becomes seen as a “challenge for HR” it kind of lets everyone else off the hook.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions for anyone in a management or leadership position to engage with staff who are busy, stressed and burning out:

  1. Show you understand what they are experiencing: It may well be that you too are feeling stressed and stretched. It’s okay to say this. In order to connect and engage with your staff, you need to show a bit of vulnerability. Not too much, not too little. You don’t want your team to feel like you’re not in control. However, those managers and leaders who think it’s a weakness to show vulnerability will struggle to truly connect with staff who themselves are struggling.
  2. Make sure the basics are in place: For staff to engage and connect with you, they need to feel a certain degree of safety. Remember what you know about theories of motivation. Your staff will want to know what’s going on about pay, changes to roles, working conditions, allowances and filling vacancies before you can even begin to get them engaged with ‘bigger stuff’. So, make sure they have up-to-date information at all times, in easy-to-access ways.
  3. Ask your staff what engagement means to them: For you to engage with your staff effectively, you need to know what success looks like from their perspective. Ask them, ‘If I was engaging well with you, what would that look and feel like?’ and ‘What difference would it make to you if leadership engaged effectively with you?’ Engage with people in the way that works for them, rather than using some corporate handbook.
  4. Break engagement down in to bite-size chunks: Little and often. That’s the mantra. I’ve seen too many organisations not engage for months and then have a massive surge in one go. This can be overwhelming for staff at a time when they are likely already feeling overwhelmed with work. You can be smart about this and include it as part of the normal working day. Engagement doesn’t have to mean big forums with hundreds of staff in a conference room. Instead, have shorter forms of engagement more often. Through team meetings, web chats, morning ‘huddles’, taking a few staff out for lunch at a time. I found this latter one worked well for me with teams I led – particularly if I paid for lunch. It’s an informal way to find out what matters to people and you’re encouraging them to take a proper lunch break!
  5. Gain trust by always following up: For staff to be more engaged they need to feel they can trust you and the rest of management and leadership. The simplest way I’ve found to build trust is to always follow up on what you said you’d do. Whether that is finding out what is going on with changes to recruiting temps, or confirming whether a media report about cuts to their department are true or not. If people feel you are being honest with them and working hard to keep them in the loop, then they will be much more likely to put the effort in to engage with you.

These suggestions are the things that worked for me when I was leading teams of extremely busy, stressed and stretched staff. If you have other suggestions that would help readers, please share them in the comments section below.

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