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Understanding wellbeing in a post-pandemic workplace

Julie-Ann Keeble, HR Director at LHH UK and Ireland

In recent years there’s been an increasing focus on mental health and wellbeing at work. The most forward-thinking companies were those that recognised its importance, and were taking active measures to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of their employees. However, the events of the past 18 months have, rightfully, accelerated this conversation.

Taking this issue seriously is no longer an action that companies are praised for – but something that is expected. Just because we are slowly emerging from lockdown measures does not mean that the effects of the pandemic are over. Many will continue working from home, some will be adjusting to a new hybrid working model, and fears over job stability and career progression will be at the front of everyone’s minds.

Here, we assess the current landscape, lay out what businesses need to know and advise on how you can work with the board to act in a considered and compassionate way.

Employees are anxious and feel unsupported

We recently conducted global research with our parent company Adecco Group into employee and business pain points, and found that 35% of UK workers admitted that their mental health got worse during the pandemic. An additional 37% admitted to suffering from burnout.

To complicate matters, the UK was the only country polled which reported higher levels of anxiety about going back into the office (52%) than excitement at seeing colleagues (48%).

The initial wellbeing challenges brought on by lockdown life are well discussed – but it’s important for businesses to consider wider wellbeing issues as we head out of lockdown and into a new normal. By understanding and proactively addressing these challenges, HR will be viewed more strategically by the board and will be better positioned to understand the impact these challenges will have on mental health and wellbeing.

Understanding the impact of change fatigue and burnout
The upheaval and rapid organisational change that many of us experienced in 2020 has fundamentally changed how businesses implement change and how employees react to it. Businesses had no choice but to drastically change their day-to-day processes overnight, catching many off guard. As people we are very good at adapting, especially in the beginning, but after a year this resilience could very well be starting to wane, having a wide range of implications.

Research conducted by Gartner towards the end of 2020 found that an employee’s capacity to ‘absorb’ change without becoming fatigued had fallen by 50% compared to 2019. Change fatigue manifests itself in many different forms with these ranging from burnout and mental exhaustion, through to indifference and active resistance to change.

Navigating back to the office
With many companies currently looking at their ‘return to office’ plans, employers must understand the effects these changes may have on their staff and communicate any changes with care and compassion. After working from home for over a year, some employees may be feeling anxious about re-adapting to social situations, crowds, public transport on the commute, etc.

There is bound to be a huge adjustment period for all employees, whether they are to remain working from home, will be going to the office or a mixture of both. It doesn’t help that on almost a weekly basis the media reports very conflicting opinions from business leaders – from demanding employees back to the office through to those stating that employees will have complete freedom of choice.

Managing and understanding mental health and wellbeing in the workplace
Regarding post-pandemic working arrangements – there really is no one size fits all approach. Plans will completely depend on the nature of the business and needs of the employees. However, no matter what the ‘future of work’ looks like for your organisation, managing mental health and wellbeing will be paramount.

Only 13% of employees in the UK believe their employers will provide coaching to help them deal with mental stress and burnout, with 67% stating that their leaders don’t meet their expectations for checking in on their mental health. To compound this, over half of UK managers have not found it easy to manage the workforce on issues of burnout (58%) and mental wellbeing (60%). This shows us that workers are in need of help, yet managers and leaders also need help to navigate this important area. Here are some key tips for HR leaders to keep front of mind and communicate back to business leadership.

Constant communication
HR teams will need to keep very closely in tune with managers across the company, who need to be the eyes and ears in spotting when a colleague might be in trouble. The right structures will need to be in place to support when identified, and there needs to be good and regular comms to staff on the importance of good mental health, and the support available will promote a culture of people feeling they can speak up when they are not in a good place.

Carefully navigating change
As restrictions start to ease, businesses should continue to dedicate resources, time and flexibility to managing employee wellbeing and reduce the impact of change. More than ever before it’s important to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of our employees and imagine the change load they have experienced in the past year.

Ask leadership whether the introduction of certain changes are necessary and think about how they could be introduced in a way that’s least disruptive to employees. Empowering employees to co-create and continuously encouraging two-way communication is essential for reducing the cognitive load that change can bring.

Culture of inclusion
Remote working has highlighted the importance of support and inclusion on employee wellbeing. With many businesses likely to adopt a hybrid, flexible working system it’s vital this continues otherwise you risk some employees feeling left out of conversations or opportunities because they are not in the office.

Human capital is just as important as financial and product capital. This has always been the case, but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought this into even sharper focus.

With HR leaders responsible for implementing change as well as employee engagement and development practices across businesses, it is vital they are looped into these conversations with C-Suite executives to fully understand pressure points and ways to relieve stress for employees and the company itself, delivering messages with care and compassion.

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