Keeping employee motivation high in times of stress

7 min read
Rebecca Coleman

With the onset of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, life as we knew it changed dramatically. The pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives and that, of course, includes work. Many are now working from home, but there are some industries that are considered to be “essential services.” Workers in these sectors are still expected to come to work. Which brings us to the topic of employee motivation.

How do you inspire people who are afraid working might endanger them?

Employee motivation is a challenge for business owners and managers at the best of times. But in times like these, keeping employees excited to come to work and do their best work can be doubly hard.

Related: Small business survival guide for weathering the coronavirus

Improve employee motivation with these 5 tips

An engaged and motivated employee is going to show up for work, both physically and emotionally. So how can you inspire your employees in this very difficult time and make them want to do their best work?

  1. Ensure their physical safety.
  2. Pay attention to their emotional safety.
  3. Keep the lines of communication open.
  4. Encourage work/life balance.
  5. Stay calm, be flexible and cut the red tape.

Before we explore the things you can do to improve workers' attitudes, let's explore the human impact of large-scale disasters.

The emotional toll of public crises

Psychologically, there are some big emotions happening right now:

Loss of control

No matter who you are, no matter where you live, nearly everyone has had a disruption of their schedules. In addition, there is a feeling of being out of control, because nobody has any idea exactly how long our lives will be like this.

It is likely that the industries that have been hardest hit, like tourism and hospitality, will not see any semblance of normalcy until a vaccine is developed. It’s an incredibly unsettling feeling, to not be able to plan or have any idea what the future holds.

Fight or flight

Employee Motivation Woman Looking Scared

During a pandemic, there is a very real threat from an invisible enemy. This triggers our “fight or flight” response, and that means most of our psychological and physical energy is going into trying to make ourselves feel safe.

Higher-level thought processes aren’t as accessible to us in this state.

Call to heroism

Everyone wants to be needed but, unless you work in healthcare, it’s a rare thing to be critically important to people’s lives. Many essential workers right now are proud to be doing what they are doing, as they realize that the country needs them.

Without them, there would be devastation and chaos, and for many, it’s not a responsibility they take lightly.

This public health crisis may take some time to resolve — and there’s nothing you can do to shorten it. But there are a few things you can do to improve your workers’ motivation in the workplace.

1. Ensure their physical safety

Your first task when employees are feeling vulnerable is to do all you can to physically protect them from risk.

For a pandemic, this means supplying them with protective equipment like masks, gloves and sanitizer and maintaining social distancing.

Depending on the layout of your store or business, you might also consider limiting the number of customers inside at any one time and installing plastic shields at check-outs.

Employee Motivation Person Sanitizing a Counter

This is also the time to step up your cleaning protocols.

Many businesses are shifting to a “take out window” model, where the customer comes to the door and places their order with an employee. Employees then shop for the customer, so as to keep people out of the store all together. Others are offering drive-through service or curbside pickup.

2. Pay attention to their emotional safety

If your employees are doing front-line customer service, this can be a really challenging time.

Some customers may lose patience because things are not how they like them, or how they used to be, and they may take that out on your employees.

Now is the time to be vigilant and have managers be physically present to deal with angry and upset customers.

Related: Adding an Employee Assistance Program? Here’s what you need to know

3. Keep the lines of communication open

If there’s one thing we learned from the Wuhan experience, it’s that trying to cover something up only makes it worse. So be open and transparent in your communications with employees.

Additionally, increase the frequency of communications with your employees. A daily bulletin via email, daily announcements/team meetings before the store opens, or signage/posters in the break room are some great ways to keep the channels of communication open.

Workers will be less stressed if they know what’s going on.

Make sure they know they have a way to reach you, either via email or phone, where they can address any issues in a safe manner.

4. Encourage work/life balance

It’s important to note that there may be things stressing your employees out that are outside of work, but are still related to the pandemic.

  • For those who are parents, do they have dependable child care?
  • Are they able to get groceries and supplies?
  • Do they have someone safe they can talk to at home if they need to unwind and debrief?
  • Are they maintaining some kind of physical activity to help relieve stress?

Check in with your employees about how they are coping outside of work. Work/life balance matters now more than ever.

5. Stay calm, be flexible and cut the red tape

Employee Motivation Man Facetiming

These are scary times. It’s important for you to model the kind of behaviour you want your employees to have, because they are looking to you for leadership. Try to remain calm.

Understand that these are unprecedented times, and if you can make their lives a little easier by being flexible, then you should do it.

In addition, now is a great time to show your employees how much you appreciate them.

Employees at London Drugs in BC and Alberta recently got a /hr wage increase.

Order pizza, or give them a little extra paid time off if you can afford it. A little kindness will go a long way.

If nothing else, tell them how much you appreciate them and the work they are doing. Investing in your employees right now will cause them to be more loyal to you in the future.

A positive attitude improves motivation in the workplace

It’s difficult to imagine the future at this time, as we have no idea when the future will begin, or what it will look like. But it’s important to keep a positive outlook. Remind workers that they are providing critical services.

What are the things you (and your employees) are learning in this pandemic that will help to make you better in the future?

Employees who shine at this difficult time will make great managers in the future. Offer them additional training if possible, so that they can see a future with your company, and know that it’s going to get better.

You’re the leader they’ve been waiting for

Keeping your employees fired up is challenging during normal times, but in today’s uncertain climate it’s tougher than ever.

You can’t make the threat go away. But you can:

  • Understand what is going on for your employees right now
  • Be flexible
  • Show them appreciation
  • Keep the lines of communication open

If you can do all these things and stay positive, your employees can be inspired to come to work and do an important job.