Workforce Wire

Here's how employers are helping tired workers manage the next phase of the pandemic

Key Points
  • After more than 18 months of pandemic-related upheaval, companies are having to get creative to keep employee morale and energy high.
  • Companies are installing yoga, meditation and prayer rooms for workers.
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They're teachers, nurses, office workers and restaurant staff. And they have one thing in common: they're exhausted.

Across the country, organizations of every type are trying whatever they can to keep their employees' morale and energy high, and their companies' culture intact.

After more than 18 months of pandemic-related upheaval, employers say their people are spent. And now, as remote work gives way to hybrid arrangements, possible vaccine mandates, and delays in returning to the office because of a surging delta variant, corporate leaders are having to become even more creative in how they help employees manage through the changing world of work.

Over the past few weeks, companies such as Google, Apple, Uber, Lyft and Indeed have announced that they're pushing back the date when workers need to return to the office because of a rise in Covid-19 cases driven by the delta variant.

Some companies are going a step further by requiring workers to get vaccinated before returning. Walmart said last week that corporate staff and regional managers must be vaccinated before returning to the office. Disney said its vaccine mandate applies to salaried and nonunion workers.

And last week, restaurateur Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group announced that not only will employees be required to be vaccinated, but that indoor diners at his restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Café, must also prove they've had the Covid-19 vaccination.

The measures are designed to keep employees and customers safe and healthy, the companies say. But the changes still throw into question how long work-from-home arrangements will last and ultimately when things will return to a pace and plan that seems more predictable for workers.

'What can we do?'

Danielle Lombard-Sims, the chief human resources officer at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science, says her nurses are suffering from burnout. Helping them deal with that starts with simply asking: What can we do? "I think so often we just assume that the answer is going to be about compensation, about giving them more money," she says. Instead, when she asked them what they needed, the top answer had to do with staffing.

"They're saying to me, keep me staffed, keep my patient ratios down," Lombard-Sims says. "They want a break, they want time to see their families and be able to roll over their vacation time from one year to the next. So the first thing we're doing to deal with this feeling of burnout is simply asking our nurses what we can do to help them cope."

To further help bolster morale, UAMS has installed yoga rooms and a prayer room for its nurses and doctors. Beyond hearing from HR and other senior leaders, Lombard-Sims is arranging for what she calls "wellness champions." These are doctors, nurses and specialists on her staff who can speak to their peers about what they're going through and offer real-life tips on how better to cope.

They want a break, they want time to see their families and be able to roll over their vacation time from one year to the next.
Danielle Lombard-Sims, CHRO, University of Arkansas for Medical Science

"Just yesterday I spoke with a neuroscientist and an orthopedic surgeon who want to be wellness champions," she says. "These are people I never would have reached out to before but they know what my orthopedic nurses are going through and can help us really understand what more we can do to help them." As for office and support staff, Lombard-Sims says their return to the office is on pause. "In June we started to see a spike in cases, so we're telling employees who are working remotely to just stay where they are for now," she says.

Sharing insights

Front-line restaurant employees, such as those at Sweetgreen, have been dealing with the impact of the pandemic without the option of remote work. Chief people officer Adrienne Gemperle says the company uses an engagement tool called Humu to keep a pulse on how customer-facing staff are feeling. It then shares these insights with restaurant leaders so they can make whatever changes will help their workers feel more supported and heard, she says.

During the pandemic, Gemperle says Sweetgreen overhauled its store structure and advancement policies. It now has a career path that enables team members to become general managers — and the higher pay that comes with the role — in about three years. And every restaurant shift starts with what the company calls a "sweet talk," a time for everyone to huddle and talk about what they're going to be focused on and what individual and team accomplishments they can celebrate. She points to the fact that over the past three months, the company has seen its internal referrals increase 13 times as proof that the attention to morale and culture is working.

'They're exhausted.'

Among the workers hardest hit during the pandemic have been teachers. Kimberly Schulte, director of human resources at Torrington Public Schools in Connecticut, says of her staff: "They're exhausted." Over the past year, teachers in the K-12 district have transitioned from all-remote to a hybrid schedule that had students in the classroom on different days of the week.

"The hybrid schedule was more stressful for the teachers," she says. "Everyone came back to school last September but as soon as there was a Covid case and we had to do contact tracing, we'd have entire classes that were on 14-day quarantine. The teachers that had those students had to teach in the classroom, but at the same time, livestream to the students that needed to be remote. It was just really challenging."

The current plan is to have all students back in the classroom on Sept. 2, Schulte says. There will be no remote option. In the meantime, the district is working hard to make teachers feel more comfortable coming back in person, especially since many of students are not yet eligible for the Covid-19 vaccination. "We have three teachers that are still scared about coming back in and that's understandable," she says.

To take care of teachers' mental health, the district is putting a premium on wellness initiatives including virtual yoga, Zumba and mindfulness classes. It had even added massage chairs into the teacher's lounges pre-Covid.

"I've found the most important thing has been to listen to people," says Schulte. "When someone is scared they want to know that you hear them and that you're taking action."