Purpose and Employee Well-Being During a Pandemic

“Purpose is the key to motivation – and motivated employees are the key to realizing your purpose”, Paul Leinwand and Sally Blount argued last December in Harvard Business Review.

Their message was valuable then, but it’s critical right now. In the midst of a global pandemic, people everywhere are experiencing anxiety and fear for themselves, their families, their friends, their jobs, and the economy. Those of us fortunate enough to work remotely are trying to balance these emotions with the need to show up for our colleagues, clients, and loved ones. As a social impact agency, our clients are tackling human rights, social, racial and economic justice, environment, education and public health, to name a few – all issues impacted by COVID-19. They’re either in crisis mode because their work is critical right now or because their entire organization is at-risk (or sometimes both). Our CEO, Ben Wyskida, wrote about some of the work our clients are doing here.

As we move into the second month of quarantine, we find ourselves asking the same question: how are our team members continuously showing up for our clients – and for each other – when they’re grappling with the implications of this pandemic? 

I believe the answer to both questions is the same: we know our purpose. We’re a purpose-driven agency, we have purpose-driven clients, and we’re helping those clients advance their mission and impact every day. Our team members are motivated to do their best because of the role our clients play, and we’re inspired to do great work, even amidst a pandemic, because we know it matters. Our purpose guides us, even, and especially, during challenging times like these. 

The opportunity for us as an agency, then, is to not ask “are our people working hard enough while working remotely?”, but instead, “how can we best support our people through this?” As Rachel Feintzeig wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “tending to employees’ emotions has taken on extra urgency as the novel coronavirus spreads across the U.S… job security, pay, health and caregiving have been upended, and companies face a fresh challenge: rallying and keeping tabs on overwhelmed employees.” This a defining moment for us and for every purpose-driven organization – are we walking the walk? Are we showing up for our people like they’re showing up for us and our clients? How can we do better? 

I am deeply grateful to be able to do good during this time of need and am confident my colleagues feel the same. But that doesn’t mean the people that are doing good work aren’t struggling themselves. And yet, my colleagues continue to show up, day in and day out, bringing our clients the excellence they need and deserve during this crisis.

We’re one month into quarantine and we’re still learning how to meet our team members’ needs. While this isn’t a comprehensive list and we have room for improvement, here are some examples of what we’ve implemented and recommend: 

  • Build resilience. Though pandemic-related stress can accelerate burnout, building resilience can help people respond, rather than react, and can position teams to emerge from the pandemic stronger. Even very resilient people are at-risk for and burnout during times of crisis, say Sluss and Powley in Harvard Business Review, since they are geared toward action and more likely to “panic-work”. Consider building a “resilience inventory dashboard” by checking in individually with team members and discussing what support they need. Some of our teammates also shared a resilience training session with our west coast offices prior to COVID-19, which we hope will continue to support our colleagues today, and highly recommend for other organizations.
  • Encourage emotional intelligence. Research suggests that emotional intelligence supports superior coping abilities, helps people deal with chronic stress, and can even help prevent burnout. It also tends to result in higher job satisfaction for those with high emotional intelligence as well as employees who work with and/or are managed by leaders with high emotional intelligence. The benefits of emotional intelligence in the workplace are many – and it helps us create a culture of kindness and compassion, helping to ensure that our employees enjoy their work and the people they work with. 
  • Support employee health and well-being. In response to COVID-19, we pulled together a small team to offer remote wellness workshops two to three times a week. These sessions provide opportunities for us to reinforce emotional intelligence and resilience messages for our colleagues while also supporting their physical and emotional health – they also encourage employees to step away from their desks, give their eyes a break from their computer screens, and encourage mindful movement. While we’re aware not everyone has in-house meditation and yoga instructors readily available, there are myriad online resources available for employees, such as Headspace, Calm, Peloton Digital, and more. Wellness instructors are also increasingly providing remote offerings for organizations – now is a great time to bring this to your teams.
  • Reinforce time off. Vacations, holidays, and plans to take time off were interrupted by COVID-19. We’re fortunate to have a flexible vacation policy already in place, but found our employees weren’t taking time off since they didn’t have anywhere to go. Again, we want to be mindful of stress and burnout during the pandemic, and encouraging people to take a staycation, respite from work, or a mental health day, is one way we can support them. It’s been well-reported that paid time off supports health, well-being and productivity. Employees don’t just come back to work more ready and able — they are also less likely to need sick days or face other wellness problems. If there were ever a time to prioritize our employee’s immune systems, it’s now. People who still have jobs are afraid of losing them, so lead by example here – encourage your people to take time off and do so yourself, too. 
  • Encourage employee connection. Team calls, all-staff meetings, and video conferences are important steps during this time, but one-on-one meetings among employees can also foster connection and allow colleagues to get an emotional temperature check. This can take place during manager meetings, meetings between peers, and mentorship meetings. We’ve developed a custom purpose-driven mentorship program that we recently rolled out to employees. We’re confident this will encourage more connection and foster stronger relationships across the agency.

We still have room for improvement and we are confident our purpose will continue to guide us. For those who have dabbled with the idea of purpose and what that really means, this is a moment for you, too. And if your organization doesn’t have purpose woven throughout, this is the time to start thinking about it and pushing that agenda forward. Leinwand and Blount argue that workers are feeling lost and experiencing a crisis of purpose. “Overtime”, they say, “a lack of direction saps motivation; people begin backing away from the challenges required.” Those same employees need your support and leadership now more than ever (and might I posit that, if your organization is fortunate enough to still be in business, that you need them, too?). Purpose and prioritizing employee well-being will help you forge a path through this, and there’s a good chance you might be even stronger on the other side. 

How are you supporting your people during the pandemic? Do you find your purpose guiding you as individuals and as an organization? We urge you to think about this and to take action.