Leadership tactics to better support employees in turbulent times

Economies are beginning to reopen, but the coronavirus pandemic continues to take a toll on the physical and mental wellbeing of professionals around the world.

They are facing the practical challenges of how to work effectively from home, with many having to juggle caring responsibilities. With their teams working remotely, it becomes harder for leaders to pick up on any concerns their colleagues may have and to offer appropriate support.

Loretta Outhwaite, FCMA, CGMA, a director and CFO with a particular interest in wellbeing, shares tactics leaders and managers can use to better support employees in these turbulent times.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • The way people cope with uncertainty and stress differs from person to person, but there are ways managers can spot the signs that an employee or colleague may be suffering.
  • How to build a resilient, high-performing organisational culture where staff feels comfortable sharing concerns.
  • Critical steps leaders and managers must take to support wellbeing and team members who are finding it hard to cope.
  • Each furloughed employee returning to work is an opportunity for an organisation to learn, adapt, and prepare for the future.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Sabine Vollmer, an
FM magazine senior editor, at


Sam White: Thank you for joining us, Loretta. Can you start by telling us why employee wellbeing should be a priority for any organisation?

Loretta Outhwaite: I think probably the main thing to say is that I’ve always believed that employee wellbeing should be an absolute focus. I mean as employers we have a duty of care to our employees, but also, I think if we really look after our people, then that’s the only way really that we are going to achieve our corporate objectives. So, I think what the pandemic has done is it has really put into focus just how important wellbeing is and all the things we need to be doing to support our colleagues and our employees.

And it’s looking at, well, what are your policies and procedures on this? And are they really supporting people, are they fit for purpose? What information and resources have you got in place as an organisation?

White: In your coaching practice, you have seen the effects the pandemic is having on wellbeing among finance professionals, and you highlight the practical challenge of working from home on a full-time basis.

As well as missing the social aspect of being in the office, many people now have additional workload or responsibilities. To juggle childcare and home-schooling, some are getting up at dawn to meet their work obligations. What other factors are you seeing, and how are these issues manifesting?

Outhwaite: There is more pressure on finance professionals because actually everyone wants to know — well, what is the financial situation, what is the forecast, and I think that you know there’s a lot of pressure and people’s futures are on the line in a lot of this. If the money’s not there, or forecast to be there to pay people, there are going to be decisions made based on the information provided by finance professionals, and I think that really does make the whole job feel even more responsible and adds pressure onto people.

White: Sure. And in terms of keeping an eye out for signs that someone’s struggling, how might these sorts of concerns or these stresses affect employees’ performance or their engagement?

Outhwaite: People cope with uncertainty and stress in different ways, and I think that’s an important point. I don’t think you can ever, or shouldn’t ever, second-guess or assume the impact on somebody that something’s having or how they might be feeling or what they need, so I think that’s the first thing I would say, that people will respond and react in different ways.

And I think, again, people will have different responses at different times, so just because someone might respond in one way, you know, at one time, if their situation changes or it’s a different thing that’s happening to them, it might be something different that you might see in terms of how they’re, you know, they’re performing or behaving or feeling. So, you think about the sorts of things you might see in people where you might start to think, actually they might not be coping, or they might need a bit of support.

I think one of the first things is, you find that people aren’t sort of getting things done when you would expect them to be when they’re normally very reliable. You might find their deadlines slipping. You might have a bit of erratic behaviour, so you might speak to someone and they might respond in a very unusual way, or they may well be quite emotional about something.

The other thing I suppose to watch is that someone who would normally be very engaging with you and be very proactive in contacting you and talking to others and getting involved might start to withdraw. So, you might find that they’re not as involved or engaged as they normally are. And I think the other thing is that they can become very distracted. If you’re worried about something, you can become very distracted. So, an inability to concentrate on the task in hand, or in conversation, or in a meeting, you might see that as a particular thing that’s happening.

And loss of confidence is a big one. I think because we’re all dealing with this uncertainty and it might be new and we might be learning as we go, I think losing confidence, particularly if you’re feeling overwhelmed and feeling, “Actually, I can’t do this anymore, it’s all too much.” That’s one to really look out for. I think that’s probably one that perhaps people might not anticipate they’ll see, so one to look out for.

And I think, probably finally I would say that it’s increased errors, or accidents, where you might not expect somebody to have made an error or have a lack of judgement. So, I think that’s one of the, probably one of the most common ones you might find if someone’s really struggling.

White: What can leaders do to create an environment or a culture where people are comfortable sharing these concerns?

Outhwaite: I think this is probably where how well you do wellbeing in your organisation comes into play, because this is all about setting the right conditions and tone. So, for someone to come forward and actually, I suppose, be encouraged to share their situation so that you can take some practical steps, they’ve got to feel comfortable to do that.

The first thing probably is, and this is a biggie for me, it’s about taking care of yourself as a leader or manager. This is about leading by example. So actually, what use are you to somebody, and what kind of a role model are you, if you’re not looking after yourself? It goes back to the whole image of put your own oxygen mask on before you help somebody else. If you’re in a good place yourself, you’re much better and much more equipped to help other people. And I think just role modelling the fact that you are doing all the right things. You’re sharing, you’re being open, you’re being vulnerable if you like, and sharing news with people, that’s a really good way to set the tone.

And I think it’s really as an organisation making sure that you’re making people feel comfortable to actually come forward and saying the words, giving them permission: “It’s OK not to be OK. You know, set that tone and encourage people to come and talk and share where they might need help. It’s really not even just an important, it’s an imperative thing to do at the moment, but it’s a really important thing to do even when we’re not in a pandemic situation to create a healthy working environment.

I’d also say that this is about relationships. So, actually if you’re starting to work remotely and you’re having to work remotely moving forwards, how successful that’s going to be and how that works is really going be down to the relationship you have with people as a manager and a leader. So, actually, it’s really important, and it’s very difficult to try and build or change those relationships remotely, but it’s not impossible. So, this is about really connecting with people, and don’t just have conversations with people about their work. Get to know them personally. Obviously, don’t be intrusive, but get to know them as a person, ask questions and take an interest in them and how they are and their wellbeing and their life.

It’s about an organisation demonstrating that you take wellbeing seriously, and making sure that you’ve actually got a routine in place as a manager and leader where you’re checking in with people, giving them the space to talk to you and space and time. Don’t constantly be saying well actually I’ve got to get off this, because I’ve only got five minutes to talk to you — that’s really not valuing anyone. So, it’s making sure that you’re prioritising the person and your team member and giving them the time and the space that they need on a regular basis. Check-ins and making sure that people are comfortable to talk to you and open up and be vulnerable.

And I think that good communication and regular communication is absolutely critical. Because there’s nothing worse than sitting wondering what on earth’s going on in your organisation, if you’re working from home or, you know, remotely. I mean at the best of times, even if you are working at your desk in an organisation, good communication is critical, and I think where it’s absent it creates a lot of stress. So, find ways to make sure that you’re keeping in touch with everyone.

And make sure that you don’t forget anyone. So, if there’s somebody you’re thinking, “Hang on a minute, I haven’t seen them for a while. They’ve not taken part in any of our social things,” check in with them. Make sure that no one’s left behind, no one’s forgotten. And just make sure that everyone’s got what they need.

And I think going back to the Zoom conversation we had, there’s some great stuff on the internet at the moment about how do you have really good quality, productive, but healthy Zoom calls, and I think one of my favourite pieces of advice I’ve read is that sometimes you need to switch the video off because actually its more stressful to be trying to focus on video and audio at the same time, and you need to give your brain a rest from one of them, just to try and avoid, I suppose, Zoom burnout.

And I think the piece of advice that we always give about meetings, is only have meetings when you need them. Because meetings are a huge stressor for everyone. That’s whether you’re in person face to face with everyone or Zoom. It equally applies.

White: Wise words. In terms of practical suggestions to promote wellbeing and resilience amongst your team, what advice would you give?

Outhwaite: So, it’s making sure that actually getting the message across, that, no, this is about having a good work/life balance and making sure that you’re working reasonable hours during the day, that you’re having a transition point between being at your desk and taking your life outside of your desk area.

And it’s about trying to set a routine, I think, as well, because it’s very easy, I think, to sort of flex around and let the weekends merge into the weekdays and when you’re at home working. So, it’s helping people to set a bit of a routine, but a flexible one to be around their life and the needs of their family, particularly if they’ve got kids at home with them.

And it’s about promoting things like taking regular breaks during the day so you don’t have to be sitting at your desk all the time. It’s about, you know, go for a walk in the garden, or, you know, go and have a cup of coffee and sit and have a chat with the family. It’s making sure that you are having break points during the day because sitting at a computer is firstly very difficult from a physical perspective, you know, not good for you if you’re not moving around. But secondly, you know, it’s not very good mentally for you if you’re constantly just doing one thing and not actually having regular breaks.

And I think there are some other bits and pieces you can do. So, some people actually will give their teams access to online yoga or meditation. How do you help people with mindfulness or physical exercise even, perhaps some online exercise activities, and also access to apps, so the Calm app is one of my favourites — which is very good. It helps you to learn how to do mindfulness, to meditate. It gives you support if you need help sleeping. So, you know, something like that in terms of what your employees might find helpful.

White: Sure. Given that a number of organisations have indicated that they don’t expect employees back in the office before the end of the year, making sure that everyone has a healthy routine and suitable working conditions at home would seem really important.

And if a manager or leader thinks that someone on their team is struggling, how can they provide emotional first aid? Or what are the signs that it would be more appropriate to signpost someone who is having difficulties to a professional support source or health service?

Outhwaite: As managers and leaders, we all need to feel prepared for these situations. So, actually, if your organisation isn’t already providing mental health first aid training, I would really look into this and start organising that for your teams.

And, also, one of the key things in everything we’ve talked about today is coaching skills. And as a manager, it’s one of the critical things that I think you need in your toolkit. To know how you can support people through a coaching conversation. And it doesn’t have to be a big, long course to get your coaching skills. There are some great techniques out there, where you can learn very quickly, perhaps in a day, something that you can then support somebody with in terms of coaching them through a particular problem or an issue they might have.

It was about identifying what’s going on, helping them understand what they need to happen, and then help them to come up with solutions about what that might look like and then help them to make those things happen.

And I think just knowing — going back to what I said a minute ago — knowing what resources are available to support people. Make sure that you know. Make sure that you’re familiar with them because when that situation arises where you do need to give somebody some support or first aid, you’re going to feel a lot better prepared if you know broadly what’s there and what you need to be doing.

So, I suppose the first point I would make in terms of the practical side of it is people will need different levels of support depending on their situations and what issues they’re coping with. So, there is no set answer in terms of what to do here. I think if you’ve got some time before you speak to the person, do a little bit of prep and think about what you’re going to say to them. Now I appreciate that can’t always happen, but you know if you do, just give it a few minutes to think about what you’re going to say. And if you’re in a situation where you’re not somewhere private, make sure that you’ve gone somewhere where there’s some privacy.

Ask the person if they want someone to come with them if they’re distressed, and I think they may well want somebody with them, because they’re not feeling safe at that point in time.

The most important thing is to actually listen and to communicate without judgement. So, whatever they are saying to you, be listening and really trying to understand what they are saying, not trying to figure out at the same time how you’re going to respond. And I know that’s quite difficult, but you’re starting to make judgements at that point, and you’re not listening to them properly. So really listen to them, and let them talk, don’t interrupt them, because it’s really important to find out what’s going on, and I think that’s the real critical point here — this is about asking them what they need.

It’s not about you turning around and saying, “Actually based on what you’ve said I think you need to do X, Y, and Z.” This is about saying to them, “What do you think will help?” It’s going back to the whole coaching skills thing. This is about them talking, you saying, “And what else?” You’re really getting out of them what’s going on, and then asking them what would help them, what do they need. Because you’re not the expert on them. They are.

That’s the initial approach I would take, and I think you can help them then talk through what actions might help them and take things forward. And at that point, I think, you’ve got a really good measure of — is it something within your own gift, is this about giving some additional support or some time off, or using the resources at your disposal, so perhaps a referral to occupational health, if you have an occupational health team, or a referral to the employee assistance programme that you might have in place, to get some counselling. I think it’s quite difficult to — unless you actually know what the situation is — to decide at what point can you help, versus refer them on.

And I think as a manager and leader, you should always remember you will not have all the answers. And sometimes you will need to talk to your colleagues who are more professional — you know in that profession, so your HR colleagues, maybe occupational health colleagues — but always, always remember that you have to respect confidentiality. So, you cannot pass information on without someone’s permission, and you have to ask for permission. Always have that in mind. And I think it’s really important to make sure you follow up with people as well afterwards, to check in with them to really make sure that they are OK and if they need any more help.

I suppose the final thing I would say on this is that you may find yourself in a situation, where somebody is absolutely in emotional turmoil and needs calming down. And I think it’s knowing and having at your disposal some techniques to help them.

So, there are grounding techniques you can use, such as asking them to get a bit of mindfulness going. So, this is about, you know: what can you see, what can you hear, what can you smell? So, grounding them in the present moment to try and calm them down. And you can also perhaps help them with their breathing, so you know deep breaths, regular breathing. Just to calm the situation down and help people.

And I think in these really difficult times of the pandemic, people are going through some incredibly difficult stuff, and this situation may well arise. So, it’s making sure that people — I think people, when you get into that situation, you can help them calm down, but then it’s, I think, it’s up to you to help them to, sort of I suppose, get into a safe space. By that, I mean, making sure that you’re happy that wherever they go after they’ve spoken to you, they’re safe and they’re with somebody and you don’t have any concerns for their personal safety.

White: Sure. We’ve talked about how to support individuals there. Obviously, the pandemic is something that affects everybody in a team — not to mention everybody around the world. Is there anything else you would suggest on a team level, when there is a societal issue that is affecting them all or making them anxious? Would you suggest that there was an open forum where everyone can talk about their concerns together?

Outhwaite: Absolutely. I think with any situation, whatever that might be, whether it’s a societal one, an organisational one, there are a few critical things, I think. Listening and finding out from people how they are feeling, what they are anxious about, what help they might need, what would be useful to them. That’s absolutely critical.

If you listen, you have to come back and respond to what people have told you. If you’ve put things in place to support them, and if there’s a reason why you can’t, you’ve got to explain fully why you can’t. I just think it’s about openness, transparency, and supporting people and giving them what they need, particularly at these really difficult times.

This is about not prescribing what that is. This is about listening and responding and appreciating that somebody might not want to come and talk to you. They may need to go and speak to somebody independently, and that is not a slur on you, it’s just what they need.

White: OK, so, sign-posting people to those other options, like the employee support lines, so that they can talk things through with a third party.

And for people who have been furloughed for any length of time over the period, how might that have affected their confidence or their feeling of connection to the team or the organisation?

Outhwaite: I think that furlough is really difficult because there’s this balance between, you know, the person should not be doing any work at all, versus keeping in touch with somebody and them wanting to keep sort of in the loop, and I think most organisations will have, hopefully, kept in touch with people and kept them up to date and communicated with them.

I think a lot of people on furlough have actually taken the opportunity to perhaps go volunteer and to get involved in other things, or training was another thing that people could have done and can still do on furlough, you know that’s not work. So, actually, it’s a really good opportunity for people to go through training. Perhaps do their mental health first aid?

Yeah, so I think there’s some stuff that people may have decided to do that’s incredibly helpful during furlough to them, and that’s sort of kept them with purpose and helped them develop.

But then I am sure there are other people who have really struggled with being at home, having no structure, feeling that perhaps they are not valued. Because it’s a situation, it’s not that someone has turned around and said they’re not wanted. It’s just a situation that’s arisen, but that might be how they feel. So, I think it’s really important for organisations to actually be in contact with people and to really understand how they are feeling, how they can support them more. Give them really clear information on what the future might hold, whether it’s uncertain, or whether actually you know there is a, I suppose, a plan to bring people back in and to reopen the business, how that might work. So going back to really good communication, I think being open and honest, and I think just asking people what they need to get back into the saddle and to actually get back out there and get back into their jobs.

During furlough they may well have decided that perhaps they want to do something different or take their careers in a different direction. Having one-to-ones with people when they get back in is going to be really important, just to do a stock-take and check-in and to think about what’s the needs of the organisation, what’s the person been thinking about in terms of their career development. So, it’s a chance, I suppose, to reset, which goes back to the conversation about, you know, this isn’t about going back to how it was necessarily. And I think it’s also about thinking about working arrangements and what works for people, so whether they’ve been on furlough or not, there’s the chance to think about what might work for people moving forwards.

White: I think that return-to-work check-in with people after furlough could be really valuable. I know a lot of companies here in the UK have sent training materials to people on furlough and made sure that people are kept informed. And they’ve held social events like quizzes, book groups, and that kind of thing to keep people connected.

But there are some territories where communicating with staff members who are on furlough is actually illegal, so those people might have been completely out of the loop. So, to have that check-in when they come back and maybe celebrate what you’ve been talking about, their volunteering or their learning, how that’s built their skills in one area or another, and see where they’re at, could be really helpful to a lot of people, to make them feel, like you say, valued.

And hopefully, at some point, we will get back to some kind of normality and routine. At that point, obviously, people may still be struggling with some of these issues, whether it’s bereavement, whether it’s financial difficulty, or whether they’ve actually had the illness themselves and they’re still recovering. What kind of things would be helpful to make that transition to so-called normality smoother for everyone?

Outhwaite: There’s a few things that I would focus on. So, I think the first thing is to actually have the conversation that it will probably be a new normal, and it may not go back to how it was and that this is going to take time. So, this isn’t about flicking a switch and just going back to how things were. This is about accepting that things will be different and need to be different moving forwards and this isn’t a short-term thing. And I think that’s really important, because by doing that everyone’s put sort of in the frame of mind that actually let’s do this together and let’s create a new future.

So, what are the good bits that we want to carry on with, and what are the bits that haven’t worked so well we might want to tweak, and what are the bits that just didn’t work, so let’s never even try to do that again.

And I think it’s about actually talking to people again and finding out what they think, and what the needs are, rather than trying to pre-empt, you know, what those might be and to lay them down before testing them out with people.

And I think we talked about doing one-to-ones with people to explore it on a more personal level, but then its aggregating that up, I think, and just coming up with: “OK, this is what’s happened. We’ve done the stock-take. This is perhaps the way we need to go as an organisation. What are we going to do about it?”

And I think it’s — it is a chance to really focus in on wellbeing because this is what it’s been all about. This is about supporting people and making sure they thrive. It’s about making sure that we recognise that actually our people are our organisation. If they’re not supported, we’re never going to achieve our corporate objectives.

And it’s, you know, just a real chance to do this stock-take and, I think, to think about whether there’s some changes to policies and procedures, whether there’s more training needed for people in different areas.

White: That sounds like a really constructive step, to look at the end of lockdown as an opportunity for a reset, to improve working practices and focus in on what’s within our control, rather than on the external factors we can’t control, such as the short-term economic environment. Not least because in more challenging circumstances, our resilience will remain very important.

So, to wrap up our conversation, what are the most important points that leaders should bear in mind from everything that you’ve told us today?

Outhwaite: I suppose the first thing is that we all need to remember that this is new territory for all of us. So, no one’s going to have the answers, and we have to find our way through it together. And I think the only way we can do that is to be patient and respectful and to be forgiving if we get it wrong and learn if we do get it wrong. So, this is about giving ourselves a break and everyone else a break because, going back to what I said earlier, it is OK not to be OK. We’re in a very unique situation and we need to go through that together.

And I think finally as managers, leaders, and organisations, what we need to remember is that how we support our people and our communities during these difficult times will make or break our reputations. So, this is an opportunity for us to really shine, and to do the right thing, and to do everything we can to support people. And I just think that’s a really strong message for us to finish on today.

White: Fantastic. Thank you very much for your time. Really appreciate it and for all the advice that you’ve given us today.