For managers keen to get the most out of their staff, it's time to let go of control and embrace care.

Forget workplace fads like nap pods, catered meals and in-house yoga classes — staff in a post-pandemic world are more likely to enjoy their jobs when they feel cared for.

But what does ‘care’ look like in a professional context, and can it quell the trends of burnout and quiet quitting?

In a market where job vacancies are high, unemployment is low and anyone unhappy with their workplace can look elsewhere, employers and managers need to care about care to prevent turnover.

As one of the researchers behind the Australian Workplace Index (AWI) benchmarking tool, Professor Kieron Meagher, from the ANU College of Business and Economics, surveys organisations on leadership, productivity and wellbeing. He has found a better employee experience leads to better performing workers, which in turn results in better performing firms.

Professor Kieron Meagher. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

But it’s not ping-pong tables in the lunchroom that produce happy and productive staff.

“The differences are all to do with the hard stuff, like management practices and relationships in the organisation,” Meagher says.

One of the most significant things managers can do for their staff is look out for them, Dr David Cheng, a leadership expert from the ANU Research School of Management, says.

“If you care for people, they will return the favour. People are often willing to work a little bit harder if there’s a good reason, but you have to show that you care — it makes a huge difference.”

Meagher and Cheng both agree there are three practical and professional ways for managers to demonstrate they really do care about employees.

Firstly, Cheng says it’s important to let employees have space to chat and foster friendships. Recent data from the AWI found more than half of Australian employees feel lonely in their jobs. Fifteen per cent reported they were extremely lonely.

The stress caused by an uncaring work environment can have concrete consequences, including depression and increased likelihood of heart disease.

“Having friends in your workplace, or even just chatting about what you did on the weekend, has a huge effect on how you feel about your job,” Cheng says.

Dr David Cheng. Photo: ANU College of Business and Economics

Secondly, listen to your staff. Lean out from distracted discussions while multitasking and lean in to asking employees how they are and stopping to hear what they say.

TED Talks may suggest tweaking your body language to show you’re listening, but Cheng points out that advice isn’t necessary if you actually pay attention.

“If you really care, you might be a bit awkward about how you express it, but people sense when you are being authentic.”

Thirdly, leaders can help staff find meaning in their roles by showing they care about personal development and job satisfaction, and steering clear of micro-managing.

“Subordinates are frequently better informed than their bosses in our fast-changing world,” Meagher says.

“Empowering workers is not just about getting them to make the decisions, but also providing the support and the confidence to feel like they can make those choices.”

Data shows that if every firm operated at the level of the country’s most productive companies Australia’s productivity growth rate could double.

In light of this, embracing positive workplace environments would benefit both staff wellbeing and the bottom line.

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