COVID-19 has shifted wellbeing from an often-intangible part of the employee value proposition to a central part of organisational resilience, operations and long-term strategic requirements. And while there’s much for all of us to still work out, one thing is clear: employees need support and guidance more than ever before.
Across the globe, companies are still considering how best to respond to the pandemic. In the UK, more than 70 per cent of private firms have furloughed staff, while jobless claims in the US spiked 1,000 per cent at the end of March 2020.
The pandemic has seen a large percentage of the workforce become full-time teachers, parents, cleaners and carers, as well as full-time employees. This sudden shift in working patterns can induce feelings of social isolation and anxiety. The World Economic Forum predicts there will be a secondary pandemic of burnouts and stress-related absenteeism. And The Global Wellness Institute predicts that mental health will be at the forefront of minds for the foreseeable future.
However, we’re seeing positive implications too; teams across industries are successfully adopting remote working, technological change and embracing flexibility at unprecedented speed. And we’ve seen wonderfully ingenious examples of how organisations and individuals have responded to COVID-19.
As we wrestle with the future of work, leaders need to create conditions where employees feel supported, valued and able to perform in a fast-changing context. This will be the only way to continue to deliver for customers, protect core business, win the war for talent and harness new opportunities. And those able to navigate this period successfully will emerge with a more engaged, loyal workforce, better prepared for our post-COVID world.
Three actions can help us all get there:
In the rush to support colleagues, leaders must remember that many will be experiencing an upside to home working – with no commute, more time for exercise and more time with family. People may not want to return to legacy ways of working as we edge towards some semblance of normality.
In response, leaders must define a wellbeing culture now that’s sustainable for the future. Start by recognising people’s individual differences and needs, taking the time to understand as much as possible about what makes them tick, what works for them and where their biggest challenges are. You can do this using personas – fictional employees created based on research and understanding of the different environments and situations your workforce are experiencing, for example, someone isolated and working at home alone. These personas help managers to understand people’s needs, experiences and behaviours, you can encourage line managers to test these personas with their teams and ask people which one they relate to most. This creates an opportunity to discuss the future and set clear expectations.
In the meantime, you’ll need to work with employees to co-create the right way to collaborate online, evaluate working patterns around any new and anticipated pressures, and restructure or review processes with a wellbeing lens.
With fast-evolving government policy and diverse workforce needs, your people will need access to wellness resources and support at different times. That means you need a multi-channel wellbeing platform that caters to different styles and needs.
When it comes to content, focus on simplicity – key updates, important phone numbers and responding to, or pre-empting, common questions with tailored learning resources. Consider the needs of your people by thinking about wellbeing on a spectrum, from good to poor health, and make sure you have the resources to respond. You’ll also need training resources for managers and senior leaders to deliver effective wellbeing programmes.
You might also consider wellbeing chatbots. These surprisingly simple apps offer functionality akin to having a coach in your employees’ pockets. They can answer and respond to questions, as well as push out relevant content to groups and individuals. The clever part is how the chatbot can let you check the temperature of your organisation by measuring and analysing, anonymously, what people are using and saying on the platform – providing an aggregated summary of the mood across departments and teams.
We recently conducted a review of the provision of mental health and wellbeing services at a major international university. The project assessed the environment from the students’ perspective, making recommendations to introduce a ‘whole university’ approach that combines new preventative measures and curriculum reform with more effective reactive services that provide the right type of support, at the right time, through the right channels.
Through video meetings, we’re now seeing the inside of people’s homes, what they wear in their own space and more of their personal lives. Embracing these moments, rather than clinging to traditional office etiquette, creates a new opportunity to deepen social ties with colleagues.
A social approach to wellbeing – such as sharing memes, playing games as a team or organising virtual group meets – can maintain morale and a sense of belonging, as well as foster the openness, energy and environment for teams to share, challenge and improve ideas.
Another way to actively engage people is to invest in technology that encourages good habits. An example of this is our work with leaders at a pharma company to improve performance and strengthen teams by embedding the notion of a ‘successful leader’ who is compassionate, mindful and thinks selflessly. As part of a leadership development programme, we enrolled communities of leaders onto a behavioural change app to enhance these skills. The team commented that the regular nudges, along with access to additional resources, helped them practise and embed appropriate behaviours.
We’re in the middle of an unprecedented change that will endure. Our world won’t be the same after COVID-19. The pandemic provides a unique opportunity to reset businesses, communities and countries for the future, and to create much more resilient, supported and engaged workforces.
In surviving the present, leaders must also look to the future – providing the support, infrastructure, culture and leadership that will shape and define a people-centred employee experience.
Leaders have the potential to strengthen their working community – and fast. It starts by putting your people and their wellbeing at the heart of what you do.
Mental health and wellbeing are more important than ever. Help your people build healthy habits.