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Steven Buck


Head of People Science, EMEA

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HR in a recession: how to improve staff morale during difficult times

Four techniques to alleviate employee stress.

Furloughs, redundancies, downsizing, and rationalisation are always unwelcome news. Unfortunately, the economic impact of Covid-19 is now forcing those terms into the workplace conversation as CEOs grapple with painful decisions about temporary or permanent staff reductions.

Glint has been taking the temperature of the global employment workforce ever since the start of the pandemic. Now a dataset of over 7 million coronavirus crisis response-related data points, this latest survey snapshot reveals how much stress furloughs and redundancies are causing teams.

After the sweeping changes of a round of Covid-19 redundancies, it’s natural for people to feel heightened anxiety, uncertainty, and a loss of control. Conversations should reinforce your organisation’s framework for stability.

Half of the employees say their organisation’s redundancies (or in the UK, the government-backed furlough plan) have had a negative impact on their workload and their sense of belonging. Notably, happiness at work rose at the beginning of lockdown, when organisations responded quickly to employees’ urgent new needs, but we’re now witnessing employee happiness at work plateau or even decline as the Covid-19 problem continues and a recession ensues.

In addition to feeling less happy at work, employees’ sense of job security has also not returned to pre-crisis levels. Glint’s people science analysts also report a drop in employees’ interest in exploring career opportunities, suggesting an across-the-board lowering of optimism.

How does HR now best support our struggling colleagues and re-energise and focus them on a new working future?

1. Keep up the dialogue

Gathering employee feedback is an important part of a modern, people-centric work culture. It’s even more critical if your organisation is actively recovering after restructuring. Regular surveys help leaders and managers take the most effective steps to reinforce trust and engagement. They also help employees feel that they have an important voice in shaping the overall work and organisational culture.

Fortunately, employee surveys needn’t be laborious or time-consuming to produce meaningful insights. To make the employee surveying process simple, choose questions that can easily be rated on a five-point scale of one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree). Modern surveying technology boosted by artificial intelligence can also enable tens of thousands of comments to be quickly summarised and categorised into actionable insights.

Who should receive the survey results? Ideally anyone in management, not just HR. This allows organisations to respond to survey insights in localised ways, addressing what matters most to your people by geography, function, personal circumstances, and other variables.

Managers matter a great deal. They can use survey insights to inform conversations with their team members and create action plans that truly empower individual employees.

2. No conversation is disallowed

Active communication with teams and in one-to-one chats is the best way to build on surveying activity. Conversations build trust and ensure prioritisation of work and goals, as well as reveal roadblocks, uncover resource needs, and prompt ongoing action.

After the sweeping changes of a round of Covid-19 redundancies, it’s natural for people to feel heightened anxiety, uncertainty, and a loss of control. Conversations should reinforce your organisation’s framework for stability. Talking about values and culture can also help reinforce predictability and promote resilience.

Good conversations don’t need to be stressful or artificial. The most fruitful ones often start by simply sharing and listening. A team chat or an individual check-in can start with simple questions, such as, ‘how are you doing, given everything that is going on?’ and, ‘what’s one thing we can do to make things easier for you?’

Of course, the follow up after a conversation is as important as the conversation itself. Try to identify at least one specific action to take before the next conversation. Small actions are more likely to be completed and build to larger change.

3. Goals help everyone

As your organisation refocuses, consider how goals are changing. Will there be modifications to work schedules or priorities? Should you create new policies and procedures to address specific employee needs? What work needs to be re-assigned or projects cancelled?

Employees need extra support to understand how performance expectations are likely to look in the new context. More frequent goal-setting conversations with smaller, bite-size objectives, will help your employees concentrate on essential activities that contribute to their development and align with the overall company strategy.

You can support employees by asking, ‘what are the most impactful things for you to spend your time on right now? What goals can be pushed back or discarded?’

What employees don’t need right now is a lot of documentation, rigidity and complexity. Rather, they need support, focus, support, a feeling of being in control, and a sense of connection with colleagues and the organisation.

4. Encourage individual learning and improved team capability

Learning is critical to help people adapt well to a changing environment. New responsibilities, shifting business priorities, and new protocols are challenging, but they also provide opportunities to rethink or rebuild skills and to reflect on what meaningful work looks like.

As a human resources leader, you can help your peers by recognising that learning needs to be tailored to the individual. Some employees may want to expand their skills to help the organisation in new ways or change career direction altogether, while others may need to learn techniques of self-care and how to balance work and family commitments. Regularly revisiting agreed learning goals and progress during frequent manager and employee catch-ups and in everyday work interactions, helps support team members by keeping a focus on continuous improvement.  

In conclusion, as an HR leader during times of headcount change, you can serve your people and your organisation by following these techniques. They will help both you and your teams adapt to and flourish in our emerging future of work.

Interested in this topic? Read How to nurture the employee experience through continuous change.

Author Profile Picture
Steven Buck

Head of People Science, EMEA

Read more from Steven Buck

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