Workplace health and wellbeing in the age of the pandemic

Governments are again recommending homeworking for those who can to head off a second wave of Covid-19. But this means building resilience and staying alert to wider impacts, like on mental health.

Many countries around the world are on the brink of another wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet another round of homeworking, home schooling and lockdowns come as employers and employees are still adapting to the changes in their working lives over the past six months. This demands employee support to build the necessary resilience to adapt to further upheaval and uncertainty.The article Keeping up with Covid-19: Staying health and getting back to work in the new normal in the latest issue of Think Global People notes the broad take-up of Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) across a range of wellbeing aspects, including financial. Yet Mark Witte, Principal at Aon, a global provider of risk, reinsurance, retirement and health solutions, is among those questioning whether this will be enough going forward.He believes the response to coronavirus is a pivotal moment in workplace health support. “The pandemic has been a tipping point and a call to action for employers to assess how their employee benefits, like health insurance, have stood up to the recent tests,” says Mr Witte. “The time is right now to ask how they measured up and what could be done differently.”

Productivity rises...

On the issue of homeworking, research by the CIPD shows that two-thirds of employers believe that people who work from home are more, or as, productive as employers who need to go to the office to work. The survey of more than 1,000 employers for the professional body for HR and people development’s new report, Embedding New Ways of Working, finds that 28% of employers report the increase in home working has boosted productivity; 37% say it has not impacted productivity levels; and 28% of employers report a decrease.   Commenting, Peter Cheese, CIPD CEO, said, “The step-change shift to homeworking to adapt to lockdowns has taught us all a lot about how we can be flexible in ways of working in the future. This should be a catalyst to change long-held paradigms and beliefs about work for the benefit of many.“Employers have learnt that, if supported and managed properly, homeworking can be as productive and innovative as office working and we can give more opportunity for people to benefit from better work-life balance. This can also help with inclusion and how we can create positive work opportunities across our economies.” the UK’s mental health declines

However, despite the significant benefits for many of working from home, including for the wider inclusion agenda, the UK’s NHS reported a 20% surge in the number of people seeking help for mental health crises from March to August. This it attributes to factors like economic uncertainty and isolation during lockdown.Commenting on UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's national address earlier this week where he said people who can work from home should once more, Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said: “With home working likely to be the default for many for another six months, employers must recognise that isolation and anxiety could become an issue for some of their workers. To counter this, they should ensure managers are regularly checking in with their teams, are asking about their wellbeing and signposting to support services where necessary. GIESF-in-text-bannerKavita Vedhara, a professor of health psychology at the University of Nottingham, is also warning that more aggressive nationwide lockdowns as cases rise again over the autumn and winter could see a further uptick.From a workplace and duty of care perspective, employee benefits platform, Sodexo Engage, cites Gallup research to show that 41% of employees believe their employers do nothing to address symptoms of burnout, which can be interlinked with depression, and all the harder to spot when employees are not physically present in an office. Signs of burnout include staff becoming easily angered or upset, tired, lacking concentration, and being overly critical or cynical.“During times of change and uncertainty it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and let anxieties take over completely,” says Jamie Mackenzie, Director at Sodexo Engage. “Employers have little control on the current crisis, but they do have control over how their business weathers the storm, and that includes how it helps and supports its staff.“If staff feel like they are getting the support they need from their employer, they will feel happier and more engaged, especially right now when the working environment is so different and it can be so easy to feel isolated.”


Five steps to avoiding employee burnout during the pandemic

Highlighting five factors that directly correlate to employee burnout, Sodexo Engage underscores managers’ central role in ensuring the wellbeing of their team members and how they can stay alert to signs of declining mental wellbeing.
  1. Ensure fair treatment at work 
  1. Assign manageable workloads
  1. Communicate clearly and regularly
  1. Offer manager support
  1. Ensure timescales are reasonable.

Wider physical workplace wellbeing issues

The shift to meetings technology has also been called out as a potential risk factor for burnout and an issue employers are likely to need to address as we go into further lockdowns. A survey of 2,000 people commissioned by Bayfields Opticians & Audiologists found they spent an average of three hours and 12 minutes each week on video calls – an increase of 120% compared to before lockdown.

As well as meaning an estimated 56 unproductive working hours per employee since lockdowns started, the number of hours spent "switched on" is taking a toll on people’s physical and mental wellbeing. Over half (54%) of those canvassed say they have experienced symptoms such as insomnia, headaches, eye strain, anxiety or low moods because of using technology like video calls more during lockdown.Moreover, the study found that it takes people an average of 37 minutes to switch off when working at home, and for more than one in ten people (12%) it takes at least an hour to disconnect. All of these factors can pose a threat to employee wellbeing, now and in future scenarios.

Building resilience

With resilience a hot topic in global HR and leadership, Aon research shows that well-rounded employee support programmes are most likely to sustain engagement, safeguard employees’ wellbeing and drive business performance through these turbulent times. Employee wellbeing programmes that encompass physical, social, emotional, financial and professional needs strengthen resilience – the ability to navigate and manage change.Geoffrey Kuhn, Senior Vice President and Actuary, Health Solutions, Aon, explains: “The Covid-19 pandemic has shone an intense spotlight on workforce resilience in a way we have never seen before; leaders are far more aware of the fragility and dependence on a healthy and financially well workforce.”Paul Williamson, a learning and development expert and leadership coach who is running a resilience workshop in October, says: “Research from McKinsey & Company shows that 70% of all organisational change initiatives fail. That’s an astonishing statistic and indicates traditional approaches to managing change are serving us poorly. What’s the answer then? Well part of the answer I think is to invest in building resilience, and this has to start on an individual basis.”
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