By Caroline Knowles

Over a decade ago, the concept of wellness at work was not a high priority on the agenda of many CEO’s, organizations or incorrectly thought of as a responsive action to a problem. Thankfully in today’s workplace wellbeing is seen as a business imperative. For the few organizations that were not focusing on the wellness of their employees COVID-19 has changed that. We’ve seen Leaders of organizations leading from the frontline and setting the tone to boost morale, engagement and promote the wellness agenda.

The World Health Organization highlights that globally, an estimated 264 million people suffer from depression, one of the leading causes of disability, with many of these people also suffering from symptoms of anxiety. A recent WHO-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity. Focusing on the wellbeing of employees is no longer a nice to have, it’s more a duty of care of all employers.

We’re all aware that there are many factors that can negatively impact on a person’s wellbeing at work, including (but not limited to):

  • Poor management practices
  • Low autonomy
  • High workloads
  • Inflexible working arrangements
  • Lack of connection to the organization’s wider objectives

In early March when the impacts of COVID-19 started to impact our working lives, employees showed resilience and adapted to the change. The stability of knowing your working arrangements and regular working environment had disappeared almost overnight. The range of emotions that people experienced as a result of this significant shift was wide ranging. There were some positives for employees that emerged from lockdown. Individuals no longer had the long commute to work, enabling more time to be spent with family, focus time on their own wellbeing – nutrition, sleep and exercise, while also contributing to their employer’s future post-pandemic. Employees are likely to continue prioritizing their wellbeing and work-life balance and will have an expectation of their employer to do the same.

The HR community has responded to every challenge that COVID-19 has presented, from supporting employees through uncertainty, Business Continuity Planning or delivering policies and procedures to manage risk and adapt to new working arrangements.

Conversations have evolved significantly during 2020 amongst HR professionals in relation to employee wellbeing and how to continue to support the wellbeing of employees with new blended working environments.

HR are taking proactive action and making further investment on key programs such as Employee Assistance Programs, Counselling, Holistic Wellness Programs, Webinars, Virtual Health Retreats, flexible working arrangements and remote working. It’s recognized that no single program will ‘fit’ the entire workforce and it’s important to have a range of offerings to ensure support is truly inclusive.

HR has a busy agenda as we head towards 2021 and it’s important to recognize that it’s not just HR practitioners who are responsible for focusing on the wellbeing of the workforce. People managers play a critical role in maintaining the wellbeing of employees, especially with blended working environments. Investment must be spent to effectively manage remote teams.

Some of the necessary skills people managers will need moving into 2021:

  • Watching for burnout. Jumping between virtual meetings and feeling that “I haven’t stopped, but achieved nothing” can lead to disengagement and stress. Managers need to help workers prioritize objectives and recognize personal circumstances and challenges at home.
  • Promoting regular dialogue – regular, consistent one to one’s have never been more important. Honest, authentic dialogue builds trust, engagement and connection.
  • Proving empowerment and autonomy – traditional management practices won’t work in the new blended model. Employers need autonomy and empowerment to fulfill critical tasks. Authoritarian styles will only lead to employees feeling undervalued and unlike to perform at their best.

While we continue to anticipate changes and the future of work, we don’t truly know exactly what the long-lasting impacts of COVID-19 will be. What we do know is that the right organizational culture will be critical and must be purposefully created to promote employee wellbeing. The values of an organization will also drive the promotion and communication around wellbeing at work.

While thinking ahead and to some of the potential challenges still to come, focus and discussions have to include an organizations bereavement and compassionate leave policy. We know that a significant number of people in the workforce are likely to have experienced bereavement in the last 12 months. Flexibility around existing policies will provide the additional support employees may need. This flexibility may be inexpensive or carry little cost, but initial outlay will be offset by the long term benefit of supporting wellbeing.

As the new world of work continues to evolve and blended working environments emerge in many organizations, HR practitioners will continue to scan the external landscape for changes, challenges and opportunities as well as anticipating unexpected problems. HR are using knowledge of their workforce, employee personas, data and technology to create personalized, meaningful programs.

Thank you to the recent HRSE conference that provided a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with HR colleagues on the topic of sustaining wellbeing at work.