A Perfect Storm Of Distractions Will Soon Reduce Employee Productivity

The pandemic has been distracting employees for months. But soon worrying about kids at school and possible evictions or layoffs will dramatically cut productivity even further. Can you even imagine during the first weeks of physically sending their kids back to school?

The number of times each day when every parent working for you will continually wonder if sending each kid back to physical school turned out to be the safest decision. The time spent checking their phones alone will be a productivity killer. And adding to their anxiety, how many of the parents working for you will be distracted during their day worrying how they will keep their jobs if one of their kid’s schools suddenly returns to 100% at-home learning.

Especially in August, in total school-related anxiety will likely be “the topic of the hour” every hour among your employees, even those that aren’t parents. And of course, that level of distraction, anxiety, and stress will negatively impact your team’s work. And this cumulative “perfect storm” of mental health issues may, unfortunately, become so great that you may even see a dramatic rise in suicide attempts.

Upcoming Employee Distractions And Anxieties

August and the fall will be a time when multiple distractions will make it increasingly hard for many employees to concentrate on their work. Those major distractions or anxiety creating issues will likely include:

Their kids’ safety at school100% remote learning will suddenly return to schools
Catching the virus on the jobTheir working from home opportunity will end
Fear of home/apartment evictionBeing laid off due to the recession and technology
Hurricane season impactsAn unemployed spouse will cut family income
Cost-cutting limits overtime payTheir firm closes again under new lockdown orders
Anxiety around the November electionsIssues around the Black Lives Matter movement
The biggest drop in GDP on recordTravel limits cut the impacts of vacations on stress
A team member dying from COVID

There Will Be A Broad Range Of Negative Business Impacts 

Add to the above long list of major worries, stresses resulting from up to four long months of sheltering in place and possibly adapting to working from home. These worries and distractions will hurt individual and team productivity levels. But they will also likely increase production errors and accident and turnover rates while putting an almost complete stop to employee innovation. The key lesson to be learned is that managers and HR need to be prepared for a variety of employee distraction, stress, anxiety, and mental health issues. Because of these mental health issues not being addressed, they will result in the largest significant drop in team productivity since 9/11. 

Action Steps For Managers To Consider

Although you won’t be able to eliminate many of these anxieties. There are some actions that managers and HR can take to help to mitigate many employee issues and to increase productivity during the remainder of the year. Those actions include:

  • Educate everyone about anxiety and stress. Make everyone aware that stress levels are likely going to increase. Also, make sure that both managers and employees are aware of the precursors or warning signs that indicate a dangerously high level of stress or anxiety. Next, make sure that everyone is aware of the available helping resources, including wellness, yoga, mindfulness, and physical exercise opportunities. Also, make employees aware of external helping sources that members of the employee’s family might need.
  • Remind employees of the impact of their work. Literally, the #1 employee motivator is connecting employees with those that benefit from their work (Source: Harvard Business School). So managers and HR should prioritize reminding employees that lower productivity due to distractions will hurt many stakeholders, other employees further down the production chain and, of course, the customers.
  • Use metrics to encourage productivity. Continually seeing their performance compared to the expected standard will alert each employee on where they stand. Widely reporting and distributing performance metrics also adds a level of internal competition, pride, and even embarrassment, which may help to push productivity up.
  • Learn and understand the range of employee concerns. A critical step is to try to learn about the wide range of both on and off the job factors that are affecting employee stress levels. Most identify issues using periodic anonymous employee pulse surveys and/or employee focus groups.
  • Communicate with and listen to individual employees. Try not to stereotype and lump all employees in their issues together. Instead, communicate with and listen to each of them as individuals. After listening, whenever possible, it pays to come across as empathetic. And if possible, develop a stress-reduction plan tailored for each employee. 
  • Look for the early warning signs of employee stress/distraction. Provide individual managers with a list of the early warning signs that alert them of increasing employee stress and anxiety. And when a problem employee is identified, encourage managers and HR Generalists to act proactively. Indicators of individual employee stress and anxiety may be productivity-related (output, timeliness, error rate, or safety-related). Or they may be related to negative employee behaviors like increases in tardiness/absenteeism or an increase in conflicts and disciplinary issues.
  • Revisit mental health benefits. Make everyone aware of your employee assistance program, bereavement, and other mental health benefits that you offer. Revisit you are available suicide prevention help to ensure that it is easily accessible.
  • Increase information transparency. Some anxiety is caused by uncertainty. So whenever possible, increase transparency so that employees are not unduly surprised about company actions that affect their pay, benefits, and job security. Also, go out of your way to fully explain “why things are happening” because that understanding helps build employee trust. If you have furloughed or laid off employees, keeping them informed on what you know about the future will help to reduce their stress.
  • Increase job flexibility. Encourage individual managers to increase flexibility in work scheduling, work location, and paid time off so that employees have the flexibility to meet their changing needs. Also, make employees aware if there are opportunities for them to earn extra pay when their family income is reduced.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, the VUCA world we live in is full of change and uncertainty. So you must assume that any plan that you initially put together simply won’t continue to be effective over the long-term. Instead, both corporate and individual stress reduction plans will need to be continually revisited and adapted to meet the new and unplanned anxiety and stress causes.

Author’s Note: Please pass this article on to your team and network if it stimulated your thinking and provided actionable tips. Also, take a minute to follow and/or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn and subscribe to his Talent Newsletter.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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