How companies can build trust with employees amid ongoing turmoil

Edelman’s Health Sector lead shares guidance on establishing genuine, meaningful connections in a post-pandemic landscape


rust is among the most precious commodities in the world.

It’s invaluable, in business and in life, but how do you nurture such an elusive, abstract concept? Despite a recent precipitous decline of trust in government, religious institutions and the news media, new research shows employers are in a prime position to fill the void of confidence. However, this all hinges on whether businesses can go beyond lip service to deliver on concrete actions that demonstrate genuine empathy, inclusion, sustainability and transparency.

Courtney Gray Haupt, Edelman’s U.S. Health Sector lead, recently shared expertise and timely guidance with Ragan on building–and sustaining–trust in the post-pandemic era.

Here’s what she had to say:

Ragan: What specific ways can companies and communicators build meaningful trust in 2021 and beyond?

Haupt: There are new expectations – and along with it new pressures – for businesses to step in and address societal issues in ways they have not before. Case in point, the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer found 68% agree CEOs should take the lead on change, rather than waiting for government to impose it. While this may feel like uncharted territory for many companies, the good news is they have the benefit of public trust. In our latest 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update, our data found business is the most trusted of institutions, and “my employer” actually the most trusted of all, by 77% globally.

Yet this trust isn’t guaranteed to last – businesses must act in order to maintain it. The Edelman Trust Barometer found several key areas where business is expected to take the lead:

  • Nearly 8 in 10 employees expect their company to act on one or more societal issues. On the top of the list is vaccine hesitancy, followed by climate change, racism and the “infodemic” (or lack of trustworthy information).
  • From a public standpoint, there is expectation for CEOs to prioritize societal issues even more than they currently are. First on the list is gender and ethnic pay equality.

Business is now expected to play a leading role in addressing challenges beyond simply the business itself. While some may find this a daunting task, many others have already begun. For organizations considering where they should start, my advice is to lead where you already have expertise internally – job creation, training and education, fair wages and innovation, for example. Building on your internal commitments is the first step to drive action on inclusion and sustainability in the larger community.

Ragan: What are some pitfalls companies can avoid preventing breaking trust with workers?

Haupt: Business must prioritize employees, their most important stakeholder. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update found a shift in groups deemed most important to a company achieving long-term success, with employees now leading over customers. Companies must be transparent with their employees not just during the positive milestones but also in times of crisis. They also must commitment to addressing societal issues, and back these statements with concrete action.

Business leaders must also take into consideration the current mentality of many of their employees. Edelman’s Trust Barometer Spring Update found that globally, 65% said they are still in a pandemic mindset. Among those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19, only 37% feel comfortable going back to their workplace. Another 55% globally are worried about the pandemic’s consequences on mental health. Businesses must listen to the concerns of their employees and commit to creating a work environment that is safe and supportive for all.

Ragan: How can companies create a culture of wellness? Especially in a remote or hybrid work setting?

Haupt: The rise of the employee as the most important stakeholder for an organization’s long-term success puts a spotlight on the importance of prioritizing corporate commitments to employee well-being, especially given the impact of the pandemic. The Trust Barometer found that 64% of respondents believe that if there is a positive change that will come from the pandemic, it’s innovations in how we live, work and treat each other moving forward. There are many elements involved in innovating work for the future, which must include an increased focus on the holistic well-being of our teams and colleagues.

A culture of wellness at work needs to be based on employee trust – and that begins with listening. Employers should invite employees to share about the different needs and concerns that exist related to burnout, mental wellness, changing realities of team engagement and uncertainties about the future of the workplace. Based on insights from employee surveys, focus groups and open forums, employers should look to co-create the solutions and tools with employees themselves. Wellness initiatives must also be geared to team members in different geographies, demographics and working arrangements, be they in person, remote or the hybrid approach we expect to see more of in the coming months.

Companies will then be able to make changes and provide new benefits that clearly demonstrate their commitment to a culture of wellness across all levels of the business. It’s key to empower your employees to choose the right mix of benefits, resources and other solutions that make sense for them as individuals with unique needs and concerns. From on-demand mental health services and meditation programs to well-being time off, company-wide meeting-free days and early closures on “Summer Fridays,” we are seeing companies trying new approaches to respond to their teams’ mental and physical needs.

The last piece is continuing the dialogue with employees about what’s working – and what they feel still needs to evolve. Seeing leaders at all levels modeling the right kind of behaviors that show wellness and balance are valued will build trust as well. Those teams that continue to build a powerful sense of community both in person and virtually are the ones that will thrive as we move forward.

Ragan: How can companies/communicators fight health care misinformation?

Haupt: Misinformation and poor information hygiene are not only hurting trust, but also are impacting our recovery from the pandemic. The Trust Barometer found only 26% of the total population practice good information hygiene, defined as regularly engaging with news, avoiding echo chambers, verifying information and vetting information before sharing. Worse, those with poor information hygiene are less willing to get vaccinated against COVID.

Promisingly, the Trust Barometer found that the desire for better literacy in media and information and science both grew in importance. Businesses – and especially health businesses – have an important role to play in addressing misinformation, particularly about the vaccine. Our suggestions for the healthcare industry can be broadly applied to business at large:

  • Lead with facts, and act with empathy. Healthcare leaders must commit to transparent, jargon-free communications as well as be able to empathize and address people’s fears.
  • Be the source of empowering, trustworthy content. Healthcare companies are in a unique position to provide unbiased and reliable information both on the vaccine and on science broadly. They must ensure this information is accessible to all, particularly to multi-cultural audiences.
  • Don’t go it alone. It is critical for healthcare companies to partner together, as well as with government and non-profit organizations, to find common purpose and take collective action to solve societal problems.

Ragan: What guidance do you offer communicators and/or company leaders regarding speaking out on hot-button social issues?

Haupt: Business has support for taking a stand, even if it is new territory. The latest Trust Barometer report found 60% globally said their country would not be able to overcome its challenges without business stepping in. Corporate leaders are expected to the set the tone, with 86% of respondents saying they expect CEOs to publicly speak out on challenges facing society.

Given the increased expectations placed on business to lead, my counsel to company leaders is to take an inside out approach to the issues you choose lead on. Begin by examining the areas you have already made progress on within your own organization – as well as those in need of improvement. Work closely with your employees to identify the issues most urgent to them that you will prioritize action on. This assessment must be rooted in research, thoughtful listening and transparent engagement at all levels.

Building from internal assessment to external engagement, organizations can advance in three ways:

  • Embrace the expanded mandate: CEOs must lead on the issues from sustainability to systemic racism to vaccine confidence.
  • Collaboration is key: Business has proven itself invaluable in the pandemic but can’t solve all societal problems on its own. Partnership continues to be a critical ingredient to success.
  • Employees are priority No. 1: Companies must prioritize their employees, who are now their most important stakeholder.

With a thoughtful approach rooted in trust, companies can act with purpose to advance their commitments in ESG and diversity, equity and inclusion, simultaneously advancing their goals as both a business and as a member of society overall.

Get more strategies on how to create a culture of wellness on July 29 at Ragan’s Employee Communications & Culture Virtual Conference.


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