Things Your Employees are Afraid to Tell You, and Why

There’s a meme floating around social media that says “If you ask a Midwesterner how they’re doing and they say ‘I’m hanging in there,’ you need to send help. They’re not okay!” As a Midwesterner, I can attest that this is, in fact, absolutely true. Even during a time of shared misery, we find ourselves putting on a brave face and pretending we’re fine. Granted, when most people ask how you’re doing, they expect a superficial answer anyway. Being honest about our present emotional state would require a high degree of vulnerability and trust that the other person would know how to receive that information. We also respond differently depending on who is asking the question. With so much volatility and uncertainty in the workplace right now, it’s likely that you’re not getting an honest answer from your employees when you ask how they’re doing.

Here are 7 things your employees are afraid to tell you and why:

  1. They are worried about their jobs. Even if your organization hasn’t experienced layoffs, furloughs, or salary reductions, your employees understand that the financial impact of Covid-19 will be significant and long-lasting. Every day when they’re unable to log onto the VPN or Slack goes down, the first thought in their mind is likely “uh oh, was I laid off and just haven’t been notified yet?” Some of your employees may joke about these experiences, but underneath it all there is fear. In some cases, your employees may not directly ask about the likelihood of layoffs because they don’t believe they’ll receive an honest answer. For others, they don’t want to ask the question because it’s too scary to even say aloud.
  2. They are worried about their health. Employees heading back to the office are worried about safety. They may not trust their coworkers to respect social distancing guidelines, and may not believe that the policies set in place will be enough to protect everyone. While a brave few employees may be more outspoken on the topic, others will worry that their concerns will be taken as criticism and result in retaliation.
  3. They love remote working. The past few months have proven that it’s possible to work from home effectively, and they’re not excited to return to the office. They’ve enjoyed a relaxed dress code, homemade lunch, and no commute so much that returning to the office feels like a punishment. They don’t want to tell you how much they liked working from home because they want to be a team player and seem excited to see their coworkers again.
  4. They hate remote working. For every person who loves working from home, there’s another who hates it. There are extroverts who need to experience spontaneous conversations with others to stay energized. Other employees just need a separation between their workday and personal time. They may be reluctant to express their feelings because they are thankful to have a job. They don’t want to seem unappreciative of the privilege to be working right now, especially if the plan is to extend remote working for the short term.
  5. They are not feeling productive right now. Even people who have been remote working for years are struggling to stay focused right now. Between the endless interruptions from children who are at home and constant COVID-related news alerts, it’s nearly impossible to stay focused and engaged. Your employees know it’s critical to be productive right now to keep the business going, so they don’t want you to think they’re slacking off. They also don’t want you to think that the problem is remote working itself and push them to come back to the office sooner.
  6. They are experiencing the Sunday Scaries. People have been experiencing an interesting phenomenon during quarantine. In spite of having fewer commitments than ever on the weekend, the time seems to fly by faster than ever. When Sunday evening rolls around, there’s a sense of dread that emerges. They’re feeling no more rested than they were on Friday afternoon, and also worry that this week will be the one where they are laid off.
  7. They are worried about asking for time off. Because weekends don’t seem to rejuvenate your employees anymore, they would like to take some vacation time. But asking for vacation time during self-isolation seems like a waste. Where would they go? What would they do? If your employees are taking on extra work from their laid off/furloughed colleagues, they may feel they have too much work to ask for time off as well.

It may be a bit frustrating to think that your employees don’t feel comfortable expressing these issues/concerns. Instead of letting that get you down, try to engage your employees in deeper conversations where you share your own concerns. Even if they don’t reciprocate your vulnerability, they will appreciate your openness and transparency. As you share your own concerns, also express the steps you’re taking to cope and overcome these challenges. If they are able to take away any helpful tips, that will be a positive step for both your relationship and their well-being.