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We’re still in the midst of a pandemic and yet another lockdown. People are struggling emotionally, socially and financially with many juggling multiple commitments and feeling overwhelmed, or even burnt out. So what level of support should organisations be offering their people right now? Nic Ryan, Colleague Support Director from B Corp schoolwear manufacturer, Rowlinson Knitwear, gives her advice on how to create a supportive and compassionate culture.

Lead with compassion
It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that employees who are treated well and feel cared for by their employers are more engaged, have a greater likelihood of staying at the company, deliver improved performance and are less likely to suffer burnout. If employees are to be given the best chance of delivering their best work, their employer must lead with compassion, supporting their people’s ever changing needs. According to a survey with over 500 employees and managers  (Roffey Park’s Compassion at Work Index), the five key attributes of a compassionate workplace include: Being alive to the suffering of others; being non-judgmental; tolerating personal distress; being empathic; and taking appropriate action. 

So, what does “taking appropriate action” mean in times of COVID? It means addressing the following:

Vulnerable worker support

Some workers will be more vulnerable than others. Perhaps they have health issues requiring them to stay at home or they need to care for vulnerable family members. During a pandemic, furloughing the most vulnerable workers first is an obvious course of action, but leaders need to be able to quickly and sensitively identify who their most vulnerable workers are. Leaders with the best relationships with their people will obviously be able to execute this more effectively.

There also needs to be a financial strategy to support the lowest paid. Values-led businesses could consider instigating a temporary pay cut for the senior or highest paid workers to support those at the lower end of salaries. Businesses with a strong social conscience that’s understood by all can more easily go down this route without objection, ensuring the  lowest paid and most vulnerable can continue to receive full salaries.  

Flexible working arrangements

More than ever, workers need the flexibility to manage multiple demands on their time. Which working hours best support homeschooling parents, for example? Offering flexible working arrangements and showing understanding when online meetings have to be rescheduled to work around multiple commitments is key to reducing stress and anxiety.

A ‘keeping in touch’ programme 

Leaders and HR professionals must regularly put time aside to check in on their people to see how they’re doing and determine if they need any further support. Questions such as ‘How are you feeling?’, ‘How are things outside work?’, and ‘What can I do to help?’ will help employees to open up.

Mental health support  

People’s mental health must be safeguarded as much as possible but this can only be achieved in a culture of understanding and kindness. After all, people must feel comfortable asking for help. It’s a good idea to provide varied approaches to focus on mental health, such as training employees in mental health matters so they can provide emotional support and  practical advice, plus online information services.

Combating loneliness

There’s a real risk of loneliness as people deal with the isolation of lockdown and social distancing, especially for those who live alone. Ongoing activities to help combat loneliness should therefore become a priority.  Online coffee mornings, virtual social events such as quizzes, and providing a forum for sharing non-work ideas, such as lockdown recipes and exercise tips, may prove lifelines for many.


Organisations must celebrate their employees’ little wins as well as their bigger achievements, and this is especially important during challenging times when people are having to cope with immense change. Sincere “thank yous”, gestures of appreciation and rewards for great work, will all have an impact on people’s morale and engagement.  According to a survey from The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), staff recognition can help create a positive workplace culture and employee experience. It can also reduce the risk of employee burnout (O.C. Tanner’s 2021 Global Culture Report), which is particularly pertinent right now.

Keeping communications regular and honest

During times of crisis, some organisations reduce their employee communications as the news is not positive. However this is the worst course of action. It’s important to keep communications regular and transparent, sharing what’s going on in the business and why decisions have been made. This not only reduces anxiety, but helps to build trust.

Prioritising people

With the pandemic ongoing, there’s still time to increase workplace compassion, providing employees with much needed support. By leading with kindness and empathy and translating this into actionable steps, organisations can create “people first” businesses with higher levels of engagement, retention and performance.