A leader’s most important job today is making employees feel that they matter

Our people are our biggest asset. But how do we let them know that, writes Havas's James Fox

By James Fox, chief client officer, Havas London

Do you feel like you really matter to your employer? If the answer’s no, you’re not alone.

Almost half of workers felt only “somewhat valued”, according to a recent survey. A large portion felt pressured not to take breaks. Many said it never seems like they’re doing “enough”.

Unsurprisingly, we are seeing burnout at work escalating to a critical level, with women and people of colour the most likely to suffer.

As the new year gets under way, this trend looks set only to get worse. HR budgets are often first to take a hit when economic pressures mount – and we are hearing UK business leaders voice concern that a recession will see companies “wind back” progress driven by the pandemic, particularly around flexible working, skills development and employee wellbeing.

This is misguided, to say the least. As a talent-based industry, our people are our biggest asset.

And as we navigate the hangover of a major talent crunch, wage inflation, and continued competition from other industries (including the burgeoning creator economy) for the best talent, the employee experience has never been more important.

If it wasn’t before, making people feel they matter at work is now the fundamental job of every leader.

Jodie Cariss, therapist and co-founder of mental health service Self Space, explains the psychology behind mattering at work: “When we think about the things that matter to us most, we are really talking about meaning,” she explains.

“When things feel meaningful to us as people… we have a much better chance of being able to communicate this to others, seek it out in the world and express gratitude when we do feel it.”

This isn’t just about boosting employee happiness and productivity – it’s a critical part of preventing staff from becoming seriously ill and/or quitting in their droves.

It involves going beyond broad-brushstroke wellbeing policies to understand what really matters to individuals and ensure they feel truly valued.

As such, it’s a complex area but I believe there are five tangible, low-barrier-to-entry ways we can help ensure our people feel they matter in a way that’s authentic, natural and – crucially – not forced.

Champion authenticity… and messiness

Allow and encourage people to be open to sharing their full self – not just their “work self”.

Lockdown, and to an ongoing extent, hybrid working, helped break down those barriers – and it’s an important first step to create the real and meaningful relationships that are key to mattering in and out of work.

Likewise, free people to find their own path and derive the creative benefits of doing so. To do this, support people improvising and adapting (in short, being messy) by not holding them to account when things don’t go “to plan”.

Make therapy accessible to all

People on the verge of burnout are, too often, either unaware – or unwilling – to speak up and ask for help. Both can be addressed when therapy is made readily accessible and, ultimately, commonplace.

This means lowering barriers to access and challenging negative perceptions by championing an appreciation of therapy as an important and natural first step in understanding yourself better. Self Space is a phenomenal partner that provides this access.

Encourage balance through example

Leaders should encourage others to take time to look after themselves through example – by actively being seen to take time to look after themself.

They must demonstrate that they not only think it’s OK to weave life around work and work around life but that, when doing so, striking a balance is essential. Work provides our talents with a purpose, but it means nothing unless your life is benefited.

Listen and be curious

Listen to both what is being said and what is not being said: the two are often different. Provide a space for anyone to freely speak up and a system to ensure the right people hear this.

Consider creating a “shadow board” comprising a diverse range of people from across your businesses who, importantly, don’t have leadership roles.

Ask them to meet monthly to discuss the day-to-day issues that may be affecting people and bring these to the leadership team for them to address. It’s a sure way to understand what employees are truly worried about and stops leadership navel-gazing.

Develop and encourage curious communication. This means always trying to understand the people around you – their concerns, their motivations, to know them more intimately, instead of relying on assumptions – then sharing what you learn within teams and departments to ensure this understanding matters.

Minimise people feeling overwhelmed by being help-focused

Almost three in four UK workers had felt “overwhelmed or unable to cope” at some point in the previous year, according to a recent study.

A major cause of this is when someone feels they are not in an environment where they can ask for help.

Part of any leader’s role is to help. So, it’s important to offer it when you can and encourage every person to ask for help, whether professional or personal, when it is needed.

Break down barriers by making it easier, removing the stigma of doing so to help normalise it.

Moving forward, leaders should retain pandemic lessons to guide them, not discard them the minute budgets tighten.

Those that trust their team to deliver while giving them the support, recognition and flexibility they need will be best positioned to thrive, whatever the next crisis.

This article first appeared on Campaign UK.