Employee wellbeing during the pandemic

The pandemic has impacted the mental health and wellbeing of expats around the world. Experiences of forced isolations in an unfamiliar country and/or struggles to live and travel overseas have been extremely challenging for global workers. What role can employers play in maintaining work engagement and a sense of wellbeing among employees?

Autumn 2021 magazine cover
This article is taken from the latest issue of Think Global People, the new home of Relocate Magazine.
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The coronavirus pandemic has had a major psychological impact on public health and has raised serious concerns for those infected or at risk. Isolation and reduced social contact to contain the spread of the virus have restricted people to seek out support from their family and their social networks. This has, in turn,elevated the risk for increased anxiety and depression symptoms among individuals.Businesses have experienced disruptions in operations and tremendous financial losses have been reported. Specifically for the employment context, workers are at risk of developing high stress and anxiety due to job insecurity, reduced autonomy, unfavourable work-from-home conditions and concerns for future employment. Both individuals and organisations are affected. Excessive occupational stress, if not managed, can lead to employee burnout, an occupational phenomenon recognised by the World Health Organization.This article highlights how stress associated with Covid-related changes for global work affects well-being in employees, and provides recommendations for organisations and individuals to face these adversities more successfully.
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Wellbeing and work stress during the pandemic

The World Happiness Report argues that the unemployed are significantly less happy than those who are in work. Staff experiencing hardship associated with the pandemic and facing extreme unhappiness at their job are also more likely to resign from their positions or are at risk of losing their jobs. This will further reduce the sense of well-being associated with job loss, making it a vicious cycle of labour economics.The above challenges have pushed organisations and scholars to explore new ways to achieve expected outputs from traditional forms of global work. This prompted the use of global virtual teams and hybrid international assignment approaches. The working lives of employees during the current pandemic crisis have been uniquely characterised by working in isolation, dealing with additional job-specific demands due to working online, lacking guidance/advice from peers and challenges to maintain regular communication with work teams. This might be especially pertinent for expatriates as they often have less extensive local networks.These specialised working conditions have created immense reliance on information and communication technologies, which often triggers “technostrain”. Technostrain leads to negative psychological responses such as feelings of anxiety, fatigue, and scepticism. Concerns can also be raised that the use of these modern tools have allowed employees to meet their job expectations at the cost of putting in longer working hours and blurring work-personal life boundaries for many. Expatriates are more likely to work across many time zones, which leads to a higher chance of work-life conflict and spill-over effects.

Wellbeing of global workers

Expatriates work in high-pressure environments and they experience more organisational demands (eg new job roles, longer working hours, enhanced stress, strong performance pressure). In addition, due to living in a host country, they also face more expatriation-specific environmental demands (eg living environment, security risks, language barriers) and enhanced private pressures (e.g., work-life conflict, work-life balance).It can be assumed that expatriates might need to tackle these multiple demands created by the complex and stressful conditions in the expatriation process simultaneously. Expatriates face profound changes in both work and family situations, which is especially true if the expatriate has a partner and/or has children. Consequently, there is an increased risk of conflict in an expatriate’s work to non-work life spheres. These inherent hardships, coupled with the challenges arising from the pandemic, might impact the well-being of expatriates and their families even more.Research done by GLOMO – an EU-funded global mobility project – during the pre-pandemic times shows that expatriates’ job performance and willingness to continue working in the international capacity is affected by organisational and environmental demands, especially when the private pressures are high.But there are some takeaways to help improve the future of work. GLOMO researchers have found that organisational support is even more crucial for maintaining work engagement among expatriates during these crisis conditions as compared to normal times. Researchers have also identified that expatriates’ burnout levels dropped during the pandemic, which might be indicative of some positive effects of remote work when handled strategically.So, what can be done to successfully tackle these challenges?

How should organisations respond to the crisis to help maintain employee wellbeing?

While adjusting to the changes in work styles and increased workload, many employees need to establish better strategies to make the most out of their work from home opportunity. Even though the physical safety and comfort of working from their home can be beneficial for some, the reality of it comes with challenges. These include additional responsibilities for working parents who have young children at home to care for. It can be difficult for these parents to find a balance between their job responsibilities and childcare without affecting their emotional and mental wellness. These situations call for strategic and responsible planning from both individuals and employers.Numerous researchers suggest that the failure to implement workplace wellbeing provisions can affect the psychological needs of employees, thus creating concerns for their wellbeing. Employers around the globe are putting in efforts to tackle their employees’ wellbeing risks. There is an increasing emphasis on staying connected with co-workers beyond the requirements of work through arrangements like virtual pizza lunches, coffee breaks, extra time during regular meetings for non-work-related chats etc. These activities designed to improve the climate and to further team cohesion and understanding are often proven to be beneficial for individuals, teams and work effectiveness.All interventions addressing employee wellbeing are commendable, but more structural solutions with long-term plans need to be in place. It is imperative that employers around the world recognise the risks associated with work-related stress and take on some responsibility for their employees’ mental health and wellbeing.Responsible employers are expected to develop and adopt employee-friendly work practices that might aim to limit any unnecessary stress at the workplace. These developments could promote policies encouraging employees to stay connected and feel bonded with their peers while allowing flexibility at the same time.The challenge for global organisations is even stronger as some of the extra demands on expatriates and their complex situations have to be factored in. The GLOMO research has shown that for global roles the additional workload demands and the spill-over effects between work and home need to be mitigated by relaxing workload expectations, setting realistic goals and encouraging better work-life balance.In a post-pandemic era, organisations have to work towards rebuilding the social contracts with their employees through creating a new culture of care, trust and transformative, people-centered leadership. Mutual trust across country borders will encourage employees to share their mental-health challenges and can be used to prepare an effective crisis management plan to ensure the well-being of employees wherever they work in the organisation. These strategies will have strong implications for the future of businesses, global staff and, by extension, their families.

About the authors

Tania Biswas is a Project Researcher at the University of Vaasa (Finland), part of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network, and a researcher in the EU Horizon 2020 “Global Mobility of Employees” project. She is currently working towards a PhD in Human Resource Management on the topic of Wellbeing in International Employees.Michael Dickmann is Professor of International Human Resource Management (HRM) at Cranfield University and the Director of the Cranfield Masters in Management. His research focuses on human resource strategies, structures and processes of multinational organisations, cross-cultural management, international mobility and global careers. Michael has published in a broad range of academic journals and he is the lead author of several books on international HRM and global careers. Since 2017, he is the Senior Editor-in-Chief of The International Journal of Human Resource Management. Liisa Mäkelä is Professor of Human Resource Management at the University of Vaasa, School of Management, Finland. Her research interests are a combination of management and work psychology and she has Doctoral degrees on both disciplines. Liisa’s research focuses on the international workforce and occupational well-being, career paths and work-life interface among international professionals. Leadership and gender issues are also part of her areas of interest. Her publications have covered themes such as work-family conflict and enrichment of international business travellers, expatriates and global careerists, and occupational well-being among international business travellers. Her publications have also shed a light on dual career and gender issues related to the international work context. 
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