According to Gallup’s “State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report,” only 21% of the world’s employees are engaged at work and only 33% are thriving in their overall lives. This means that, on any given day, most workers in the typical organization are watching the clock and dissatisfied with the way their lives are going.

The good news is that employers have a lot of influence when it comes to employee engagement and employee well-being: Gallup has found that how people are doing in their careers has the strongest effect on overall well-being. In short, if you get career well-being right, you’re on your way to getting the rest of well-being right.

Bridging the Work-life Divide

But that doesn’t mean changing the employee experience is easy for employers. As the research above shows, disengagement is the default for today’s workplace. Organizations that reach exceptional levels of employee engagement do it intentionally. Some managers have a natural gift for inspiring and connecting with their teams, but most must make engagement a conscious priority.

When it comes to well-being, the problem is doubly hard. Talking about life outside of work is hard for most managers. Many managers may think it’s not appropriate to talk about personal life at work. They may think the best way to be productive is to focus on the work at hand and avoid “distractions.”

This is true to a point. But the reality is that life impacts work, whether we want it to or not. Managers who are not in touch with the lives of their employees are more likely to miss early signs of burnout or be blindsided by resignations. Moreover, the data suggest that employees really do want to talk about their personal lives. And they want managers to know them as people and care about them.

According to a 2021 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), about 97% of workers believe empathy is an essential quality of a healthy workplace culture, and 92% said they specifically look for organizations that demonstrate empathy when seeking a job.

It All Starts With a Conversation

What makes employees feel cared for by their manager? Frequent, meaningful coaching conversations.

This may sound simple, but nearly one-half of employees say they only receive feedback from their managers a few times per year or less . It’s no wonder then that most employees say they don’t know what’s expected of them at work — let alone feel supported by their manager!

The impact on work itself is real: Our research found that most employees who recently left their job say that no manager or leader talked to them about their job satisfaction or future in the three months leading up to their departure.

And conversations are even more important in the age of remote work. Gallup’s analysis during the COVID-19 pandemic found that remote workers had higher engagement than in-office workers — if their manager was communicating with them a few times per week.

Have the Right Conversations

So where can managers begin? Having more conversations is a good start, but you certainly don’t want more bad ones.  Managers need formal training on how to be an effective coach and have meaningful conversations. But to get started, here are a few tips managers can keep in mind when having work and life conversations with their team members:

  1. Don’t ignore top performers. As a manager, it can be easy to focus on the “squeaky wheel.” Competent employees don’t appear to need as much attention, but they are also your most valuable assets. Managers should have “stay conversations” with their talented employees, asking what they like and don’t like about their role, and then doing what they can to make changes.
  2. Focus on the future. Great coaches are always preparing for the next game. Managers should give performance feedback that is focused on improvement and growth. A manager should be able to identify the unique potential and strengths of each individual on their team and weave that knowledge into feedback, encouragement and development.
  3. Don’t underestimate the quick connect. Having brief five-minute conversations with employees makes a big difference over time. Employees need help prioritizing their work and removing roadblocks to productivity. It also provides a casual, low-stakes environment for people to share about their personal lives.
  4. Ask about their lives and listen. As mentioned above, employees want their managers to know them on a personal level. Professionalism still rules, but managers should know the people in someone’s life that they care most about, what their passions are and what their dreams are.
  5. Give it time. The most important thing to remember is that meaningful conversations don’t happen in a day. Trust is built over time, and managers build rapport when they make a habit of ongoing dialogue, from weekly check-ins to more in-depth performance coaching. Having quality conversations about work performance lays the groundwork for deeper, authentic conversations about life.

Managers can’t fix all the world’s problems — or even all workplace problems. But they can listen, care, support and inspire. They can help prioritize tasks and adjust the way work gets done so that team members are more productive and engaged and less likely to burn out. In an individual’s life, that can make all the difference.