COVID-19 as the Great Equalizer: Regardless of role, maybe we’re not so different after all

Every year, we collect so much data through our Community Surveys that it is impossible to touch on everything in one report. This is the second in a series of quick dives into our 2021 Workplace Well-Being Report data to discuss interesting findings that caught our eye and deserve some of the spotlight, but didn't quite find their way into the final report.

We Have All Battled The Pandemic Head-On

If there is one clear takeaway from these past two years, it is this: The pandemic has affected every person at every level of every organization in some way.

Many employees on the front lines have had to address the shifting realities of an evolving pandemic head on: continuing to show up in their workplaces, donning PPE, and interacting with the public in-person. Many others were shifted to remote working environments for what they thought was a short-term change, and yet two years on, many continue to work from home. Supervisors and managers have had to tend to the new and ever-changing needs of their teams, while leadership teams have had to set new strategic directions and adapt their organizations to new financial, operational, and personnel challenges.

I do not believe that it is a worthy endeavour to try and claim that any of these groups have had to deal with greater or fewer challenges than any other – but I do think it is interesting and important to examine some important differences and similarities in how these groups show up in our data.

Who did we hear from? In our 2021 Workplace Well-Being Report, we received responses from 1,851 working adults, including:

  • 639 employees in non-leadership roles (referred to simply as “employees” from this point on)
  • 108 supervisors
  • 293 managers
  • 111 directors
  • 83 executives.

The remaining responses came from those that were self-employed, categorized themselves as “other” (i.e., professors, ministers, etc.), or selected “prefer not to say.”

We outline some of the important differences we see in the data between employees, supervisors, managers, directors, and executives.


Leaders and Employees Experience Organizational Cultures Differently

When we examine the most significant differences between front-line employees and leaders during the pandemic, the data illustrates how leaders and employees tend to experience their organizational cultures differently. Figure 1 illustrates some of these key differences.


For example, the data suggests that, on average, employees feel significantly less valued and recognized for their work, experience lower levels of trust, and feel less able to provide upward feedback than their leaders. To add some additional context to these differences, we use the following benchmarks in our data:

  • Unhealthy Scores range from 1-60. These scores suggest a long-term risk of burnout and well-being challenges
  • Adequate Scores range from 61-76. These scores show no immediate threat of long-term concerns, but also no long-term health benefits
  • Healthy Scores range from 77-100. These scores indicate that work is having a positive effect on employee well-being

When we look at Figure 1 with this added context, it suggests that not only do employees score significantly lower than leaders on these four key culture outcomes on average, but they also fall into or near the “Unhealthy” category for all four scores. Leaders, on the other hand, tend to score in the “Adequate” or “Healthy” ranges. In other words: There seem to be clear cultural benefits to being a leader in an organization, and employees are less likely to experience these benefits.

Now, if you took the time to really examine Figure 1, I know what you’re thinking… What is going on with supervisors? Interestingly, supervisors trended closer to employees than to other leaders in the data – showing significantly lower scores in feeling valued, recognition, trust, and upward feedback. Actually, supervisors almost always score closer to employees than to other leaders in our data. My hypothesis is that this is because supervisors often take on additional responsibilities and tasks without the additional benefits of autonomy and decision-making power that is often granted to managers and directors. If your organization has a large contingent of supervisors – let that finding sit with you for a bit. Those supervisors might need help more than you think they do.

These important differences speak to how employees in different positions might be experiencing their culture right now – how valued they feel, how much they trust their leaders, and how comfortable they feel speaking up. But where are there similarities?


Well-Being At Work: The Great Equalizer

This deserves to be stated again: COVID-19 has affected every person at every level of every organization in some way. These challenges have led to a significant and sustained drop in employee well-being unlike any we’ve ever seen in years of data.

Figure 2 illustrates the ways in which employee well-being has changed in our communities over time – something we dive deep into in our 2021 Workplace Well-Being Report. We’ve seen the percentage of respondents reporting unhealthy well-being scores more than double compared to pre-pandemic numbers, and the percentage of respondents reporting healthy well-being scores drop by more than half.

And this is where the data is both eye-opening... and yet strangely comforting? Despite the clear differences in our experiences of organization culture, we are all experiencing significant challenges to our well-being – across all levels of our organizations. Figure 3 illustrates just how similar these scores were across all positions in overall well-being, mental health, and physical health.

These scores are remarkably similar – and while there are some minor differences across these groups, the differences are not statistically significant. In other words, how COVID-19 has impacted our work might vary across our organizations, but it has impacted all of us in very real and tangible ways. We are seeing significant challenges to overall well-being, mental health, and physical health across the board, and it is important to not lose sight of this.

Even if it’s not where we want to be, we are all in this together. And at the very least, this is something that we can all rally around together – to prop each other up.


So Where Should We Start?

At YMCA WorkWell, we believe that data is only meaningful if it leads to meaningful actions. So what are some of the main takeaways from these findings? And what can we start doing today to address them? Here are some places I think we can start:

For Employees:

  1. Leaders Deserve Empathy and Grace Too. So many of us are continuing to struggle and not feeling like we are able to be at our best during the pandemic – and that includes leaders. We have been asking for empathy and grace from our leaders during the pandemic, and rightfully so. But our leaders are also struggling through the same pandemic, and while some of their challenges are different than ours, many of them are the same. In fact, one thing that we hear from leaders quite often when we ask them how they are doing is: “No one has asked me how I’m doing in a long time”. Take some time to check in with your leaders too, the way that we all hope our leaders will continue to check in with us. We all deserve it.

For Leaders

  1. Take Appreciation Seriously. The need for more appreciation was a big takeaway from our 2021 Workplace Well-Being Report and it was a big takeaway from our first Short Report too, so I understand that I might be starting to sound like a broken record here. But, creating a culture of appreciation is one of the simplest and most effective ways to support employee well-being in your organization – and this data suggests that it is a pressing need of employees and supervisors in particular. Employee recognition focuses on what someone has done, but employee appreciation focuses on who someone is. To truly build a culture of appreciation, organizations need to be mindful of both. Want to learn more? Our Creating a Culture of Appreciation Workshop led by my brilliant colleague Dr. Kate Toth might be a great place to start.

  2. Check In With Your Supervisors. Our data indicates that supervisors are the “forgotten leadership layer” when it comes to employee well-being supports. They often score significantly lower on areas like recognition, feeling valued, trust, communication, and satisfaction. So, here’s a question: Are you doing enough to make your supervisors feel valued and supported? If you’re unsure, take the time to personally check in with the supervisors in your organization. What do they need more of to feel healthier in their role? And where do they need more support? Your supervisors are an integral component of an effective well-being strategy – make sure you are not leaving them behind.

At the end of the day, organizational titles set us apart far more than they should. They might define our roles and shape our experiences of our organizational cultures, but we are all people at the end of the day, and we are all trying to navigate this ongoing pandemic in the healthiest way possible.

My two cents: Let’s focus on that. Let's make sure we focus on those similarities while we actively work on improving the employee experience for everyone. Let’s approach all of our relationships with empathy and grace, and let’s show appreciation for those around us – regardless of someone’s role. Because at the end of the day, that might just be the quickest way to improve organizational culture for everyone.

If you’d like to read more deep dives into our community data, check out the first installment in this series of YMCA WorkWell Short Reports: You Care About Your Staff, But Do They Really Know That?

Posted by

Dave Whiteside

As the Director of Insights at YMCA WorkWell and with a Ph.D in Organizational Behaviour, Dave is all about the data and how it can be used to drive action and impact. Through the Employee Insights Survey and our annual WorkWell Community Surveys, his focus is on helping organizations gain a deeper understanding of where organizations, teams, and individuals are and what actions need to be taken to create healthier cultures.

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