5 questions managers should be asking their employees right now instead of, 'How are you doing?'

SeventyFour/Getty ImagesAsk when their next scheduled day off is.
  • Samantha Rembo is the head of Customer Connect at Intuit, the software company that created QuickBooks, TurboTax, and Mint.
  • As a leadership and accessibility expert, she says it’s the job of managers to proactively address the mental health needs of their employees to prevent burnout.
  • Rembo encourages managers to swap the surface-level “how are you” with more meaningful questions, like “how is your family/pet doing” or “what are you enjoying lately outside of work.”
  • These questions show employees that you genuinely care about other aspects of their lives and well-being, not just how well they perform their job.
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As many employees continue to work remotely for the foreseeable future, stress and anxiety are on the rise. According to a recent survey of over 1,500 US adults from FlexJobs and Mental Health America, 42% of those employed say their current stress levels are either high or very high. Four in 10 employees reported experiencing burnout during the pandemic, and many said their companies did not encourage conversations about ways to improve mental health.

Samantha Rembo HeadshotSamantha RemboSamantha Rembo.

Managers play a key role in directly addressing the mental health needs of their employees and de-stigmatizing mental health conversations in the workplace.

They can do this by scheduling check-ins that go beyond small talk and simple “how are you” questions. This shouldn’t be a routine meeting where managers simply check the box for talking to their employees, but rather an opportunity to truly listen and help employees be more aware of the causes of their stress.

It can be difficult to know where to start, especially if there isn’t already a level of trust and rapport established. Managers should use open-ended questions to guide their discussions and build their relationships to a point where employees feel comfortable bringing their whole self to work and sharing any struggles.

Here are five questions to consider asking your employees during your next check-in:

1. How are your family/roommates/pets doing?

The people we live with have a big impact on our overall well-being, and that ultimately spills over into work, especially at a time when the boundaries between work and home are blurred. Managers should acknowledge that there are other factors outside of work that may be affecting people’s mood and productivity.

Asking about how other people in their lives, such as roommates, significant others, family members, and even pets are doing shows that you care about the person. It’s also helpful to determine if employees have a strong support system outside of work, or if they are struggling more than others in this virtual work environment where they may feel less connected to coworkers.

2. Do you have everything you need to be successful in your remote work environment?

While a remote environment can be beneficial for some, it can be challenging for others due to distractions and lack of a proper workspace.

Now that we are well over six months into the pandemic, people are beginning to shift their mindset and recognise that this situation is no longer as temporary as we initially thought. For me personally, I was using my step daughter’s bedroom as a makeshift workspace. Recently, I finally took the time to repaint the room, reorganise, and get a desk, and it made such a difference to my productivity. Even refreshing the space you work in can affect your overall mood.

Help employees step back and reassess their situation to ensure they are comfortable in their environment and are set up for success. If they are having issues, determine if there is anything the company can offer to accommodate or provide support.

3. How are you feeling about your work-life integration?

Many people are aware that “work/life balance” is especially challenging right now, but the way we should really be thinking about it is “work/life integration.”

I’ve spoken with employees who have young kids in schools. One decided to take PTO during their child’s first week of school to help navigate Zoom calls with them. Another employee blocked off their calendar to not have any meetings scheduled until 11:30 a.m. to be more available for their kids.

Through these discussions, managers and employees can work together to find personalised solutions for achieving better work-life integration, whether that’s setting clear time frames for meetings and work hours or creating a routine to separate work from home.

4. When’s the last time you had a day off? When is your next day off scheduled?

With vacations and travel significantly reduced due to the pandemic, PTO hours are largely unused. People may even feel guilty or discouraged to take time off if they aren’t physically going anywhere.

Managers should stress the importance of time off to recharge and preserve people’s mental health as well as emphasise that employees won’t be looked down on or inconveniencing anyone by taking PTO. For instance, if it’s been a while since someone has taken time off, managers should identify upcoming dates during the check-in so it’s clear to employees that PTO is respected and encouraged.

5. Ask about their hobbies/passions outside of work.

Working from home can often give us more flexibility, especially without a commute. Managers should discuss ways for employees to take advantage of that flexibility by taking breaks and allotting time for things that interest them and bring them joy.

As a follow up question, I sometimes ask employees, “What’s the thing you want to do when we gain more normalcy?” Based on their responses, try to figure out ways to help connect them to the things they like. This might mean working with employees to determine how to reflect that in their schedule, such as reserving time for a yoga or exercise break when they aren’t in meetings.

These check-ins not only help managers gain visibility into their employees’ situations but also builds empathy and trust while strengthening relationships at work. People are more likely to share in these 1:1 meetings and oftentimes, managers might notice similar themes or issues across employees and can share solutions that worked for others. At the end of the day, the goal is to ensure that all employees know what they’re feeling is ok and that they don’t have to justify it.

Samantha Rembo has worked at Intuit for over 16 years. She currently heads Customer Connect, which enables employees around the world to connect with customers to build empathy, insights, and customer solutions. She served as the global co-leader of Intuit’s Abilities Network for four years. Rembo is also president of the Board of Directors of the Adaptive Sports & Recreation Association in San Diego, which provides recreation activities for children and adults with physical disabilities.

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