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COVID-19: The evolution of employee concern

31st Mar 2020
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An obscure viral disease – COVID-19 – first started appearing in news bulletins late last year.

Little did we understand then that just a few months later this unseen threat would come to touch every corner of our lives, requiring daily updates from the government officials, and dominating the pages of every newspaper, broadcast, and social media channel worldwide.   

It was around February 2020 that COVID-19, or Coronavirus as it is more widely known, became a global household name, and a hot topic of conversation in workplaces. Talk, however, was not confined to water-cooler chat between colleagues. As concern mounted, the virus started cropping up in anonymous employee comments in the daily Peakon global surveys to measure employee engagement.  

The very first employee comment about Coronavirus landed in Peakon’s database on January 27th, 2020. The comment came from China, where the virus hit first and where it was already impacting the lives of its citizens nationwide. 

From then onwards, comments started to trickle in from all over the world, until the start of March, when the number of Coronavirus-related comments surged. In the first two weeks of the month, and as the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic, Peakon encountered a 106% rise in the proportion of comments relating to Coronavirus globally. 

But the curve steepened further still in the third week of March, when the proportion of COVID-19 comments increased ten-fold. By March 18th, 1.5% of all daily comments were related to Coronavirus.  

As the world woke up to the social and economic implications of this pandemic, employees globally turned to their employers and leaders for advice on what to do. The number of comments coming in now betrays a desire among employees for organisations to take action, or to give clarity on what lies ahead.

Peakon comments have become a channel through which employees are expressing their views and concerns about this crisis, leaving their feedback on what should be done next, and even giving thanks for action already taken. 

Employees are taking the opportunity to talk about the virus in response to most of the questions on their surveys, with the most frequently occurring words including: Corona, covid, virus, pandemic, situation, office, manage, response, crisis, impact, health, communication, WFH, family, hand gel, and travel. This gives us an insight into what employees are concerned about in particular.  

Tracking COVID-19 around the globe

The inflow of employee comments on this topic generally tracked the spread of the virus around the world. While the comments originated in the east, the inflow soon shifted towards the west – growing exponentially in European countries after the first cases were confirmed. For example, we started to see a far greater flow of comments from the UK and US as of March 1st, when reality started to hit home in these two countries.  

In the UK, between the first week of March and the second we noticed a 156% jump in the proportion of Coronavirus-related comments. By the third week of this month, as the severity of the situation became all too apparent, the difference grew to a striking 900%. 

Similar can be said of the US, where there was a 145% week-on-week rise at the start of March. By the third week of March, after the stock market suffered its worst day since 1987, the proportion of comments in the US was 1200% higher. 

There also appears to be a correlation emerging between the action taken in each country, and the rate of comments relating to Coronavirus. In Singapore, where radical measures to control the spread were put in place, there was far slower growth in the proportion of comments. And in Italy, the proportion of comments actually fell once the country lockdown was in place.  

What does this mean for employers?  

According to our recent Employee Voice Report, employees are twice as likely to leave comments in their feedback surveys when they are troubled about something. And employees worldwide are, understandably, worried about COVID-19 and what it means for them professionally and personally.  

As the data here suggests, once a situation is in hand, or action has been taken (in this case by both Governments and employers), workers feel less compelled to speak out. So it’s positive to also see a far higher than average manager response to the Coronavirus-related comments, as well as higher acknowledgement of them – 7% and 15% respectively. This is a simple way of letting your workforce know that they have been heard, and their feedback is valued. 

Few of us can say we’ve ever worked through a time like this. COVID-19 will have profound and lasting effects on all of us and change the world of work forever. 

In the new circumstances, not only are many employees adapting to new ways of working, such as working from home indefinitely, they're also  dealing with unknowns, such as self-isolation, illness, school closures, or even heightened job uncertainty. So, if there was ever a time to give and get regular employee feedback, it’s now.

Employees clearly expect their employers to communicate clearly and take decisive action. How organisations behave now will make or break the trust their workers have in them for the long run. It may also determine how quickly they are able to bounce back after, when the world is through this, and out the other side.


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