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The surprising, far-reaching effects of fumbling during a crisis
COVID-19 had companies scrambling to find ways to protect and support their employees. The unprecedented challenges tested organizations in all kinds of ways that continue to evolve.
And early data suggests that a company’s crisis response has longer-lasting and more powerful downstream effects on individuals than was previously realized.
We’re not out of the woods yet, but looking back over the last two years, we have a general idea of which policies and accommodations had the greatest success in helping employees cope with work and personal responsibilities throughout the rapidly changing crisis. Organizations that introduced flexible work policies, mental health resources, and expanded childcare benefits have been held up as examples for others to follow. But we know surprisingly little about how employer responses impacted employees on a more granular level – especially over the long term.
We were curious to see if the way companies handled the COVID-19 pandemic affected the trajectory of people’s personal and professional lives. BetterUp behavioral scientist Kristi Leimgruber, Ph.D., examined BetterUp member data to see the impact successful — and not-so-successful — crisis management can have on individual employees.
With these insights, our hope is that organizations can learn valuable lessons to help them make better decisions for their workforce when crises inevitably strike.
The surprising ways crisis management impacts individuals
From April 2020 to August 2021, new BetterUp members onboarding into coaching were asked “How satisfied are you with the actions your organization has taken to help its employees in response to COVID-19?”
The responses were segmented into three groups:
- Satisfied: People who indicated they were satisfied or very satisfied with their organization’s response.
- Neutral: People who indicated they were neither satisfied or unsatisfied with their organization’s response.
- Unsatisfied: People who indicated they were unsatisfied or very unsatisfied with their organization’s response.
After controlling for group size, we compared these member outcomes and responses after one month and at a three to four-month reflection point in the platform. We examined only characteristics for which there were no significant differences between the groups at onboarding (i.e. changes cannot be explained by something like “people in the satisfied category are just more optimistic/productive/social”).
What we found was that the data show significant downstream differences in personal, professional, and interpersonal characteristics and development in individuals based on their satisfaction with their organization's response to COVID-19 in the first months of the pandemic.
While there were several surprising discoveries within this dataset, two characteristics stood out.
Belonging in the workplace took a nosedive over the course of the pandemic – a pattern that generally held true across a number of groups. When we compared BetterUp members who started receiving coaching in the early months of the pandemic (April through July 2020) to those that followed (August 2020 - January 2021), we saw overall belonging scores drop by -14%.
What surprised us was that individuals who had expressed satisfaction with their employer’s response to the pandemic showed a significantly smaller decrease (-5.88%) in belonging over the same period of time. Those in the neutral and unsatisfied groups experienced much larger drops in belonging (-23.3% and -39.16% respectively).
While overall coaching offset some of the impact the pandemic had on belonging for all members, those satisfied with their employer's response to the pandemic were further buffered from the more dramatic negative impact seen in other groups. One reason for this could be that the COVID-19 response by organizations whose employees felt satisfied included specific initiatives to address belonging. Forward-thinking companies implemented virtual coffee chats, online clubs, and introduced video conferencing tools early on in the pandemic. This may have helped mitigate the effects of isolation caused by the lockdowns.
Another sweeping phenomenon born out of the pandemic was The Great Resignation. Across industries, 47 million people quit their jobs last year. Mirroring this broader trend, from early 2020 (April to August) and 2020’s end (September to December), overall BetterUp members intent to stay with their current employer dropped by 15.37%.
However, people in the satisfied group were, again, buffered from this phenomenon. Those who were satisfied with their employer’s response to the crisis actually expressed a slight increase (1.17%) in their intention to stay with their current employer.
When companies deal with crises well, individuals notice and companies benefit
How a company initially responds to a crisis has a significant and lasting impact on employee sentiment, perceptions, and decisions. The data shows that employee sentiment about employer’s COVID-19 response, especially within the first few months of the pandemic, had a widespread and lasting influence on their experience and commitment to the organization. Organizations that handled the pandemic in ways their employees felt most satisfied with were able to maintain high levels of belonging which has been proven to boost productivity and increase happiness. They also benefitted from increased employee intent to stay scores which prevents costly turnover and knowledge loss. All of these benefits are incredible advantages in today’s competitive talent market.
Reviewing the data, it’s clear that a direct, thoughtful, and employee-focused response to a crisis sets companies up to have a workforce that can successfully navigate ongoing challenges. Future-minded companies that prioritized the employee experience and well-being before and during the peak of the crisis were not only better prepared for the economic and logistical toll of the pandemic — they also empowered their employees to better cope with the challenges that linger in the aftermath.
Professional coaching has proven itself as one of the best investments a company can take to prepare for and mitigate the effects of a crisis. Through 1:1 coaching sessions, individuals can quantifiably improve skills like adaptability, optimism, focus, and resilience, which can help them thrive through challenges. For example, people low in resilience can see a 125% increase with just 3-4 months of coaching. Even throughout the COVID-19 crisis, our members grew in resilience by 17%.
Whether it be economic downturns, political unrest, environmental disasters, or global pandemics, every organization will be touched in one way or another by crises. But by dealing with them head-on and preparing their workforce to contend with these challenges through professional coaching, companies can set themselves up for success and positively impact the personal and professional lives of their employees long after the events come to pass.
Sr. Insights Manager