With an anticipated easing of lockdown as the national vaccine rollout continues, many employers are working cautiously toward a partial or full reopening of workplaces. As they do so, it is vital that these organisations support the wellbeing of their employees, but how best can this be done through the challenging months ahead?
Employees across many sectors have been away from the office or work environment for up to a year now, adjusting to a ‘new normal’ way of fulfilling their roles, whether socially distanced or remote. Many more have been furloughed for much of this time.
During this extraordinary period, employers have had to consider how to balance productivity and business performance with the wellbeing of their teams as high numbers of workers have faced new challenges of their own. A recent Benenden Health survey found that nearly one in five people who are experiencing poor mental wellbeing have reported that their job was causing the most stress in their daily lives.
Meanwhile, many employees are also having to balance non-work problems, such as taking on increased caring commitments and managing financial concerns, which pile on the pressures and make this a very difficult time for both them and their employers.
Now, businesses are starting to plot a return-to-work strategy, whether moving back to operations as they were pre-pandemic or retaining some of the new ways of working discovered over the past months.
With the Coronavirus still a looming presence, though – and likely to be with us at some level for the longer term – businesses must work together with employees to ensure safety and wellbeing are priorities in any comeback plan.
There are a number of ways of achieving this, all of which will also help enhance employee productivity and subsequent business performance.
Throughout this uncertain time, many employees have been forced to juggle different areas of their lives, for example hundreds of thousands have shouldered additional childcare and home schooling responsibilities with the closure of nurseries and schools. Many have also had to help their elderly relatives who are isolating.
Those with these commitments may have found it difficult to adhere to strict working hours and, although we are on a roadmap to recovery, they may well not be freed of their domestic burden for many months to come. For example, schoolchildren could still be sent home if thought to have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for Coronavirus, while the many elderly and vulnerable people who are isolating have yet to be given an end date at the time of writing.
Some employees may also be shielding themselves for health reasons and as such, it is important to consider their situation sensitively and cautiously.
Allowing such hard-pressed employees to maintain a flexible approach in the longer term, where possible, can be a big boost to their productivity and wellbeing.
Do not rush
Returning to a physical place of work will be easier and more comfortable for some than others. After a challenging year, employees may still be anxious about coming back – whether fearful about catching the virus itself or feeling isolated after working from home or being on furlough leave. It falls to employers to be understanding about individual circumstances and recognise the daunting nature of the transition.
Managers and business leaders should talk to their teams and seek their ideas for the best way to return to the workplace. Such consultancy will help to reduce stress and anxiety levels and make people feel that they are part of a process over which they have some control, reducing stress and driving up satisfaction levels and performance at work.
Continue the focus on mental wellbeing
During lockdown, many businesses and individuals have worked very hard to protect and promote positive mental wellbeing and this must be maintained once back in the more ‘normal’, traditional working environment.
With businesses under so many other pressures as they navigate an inevitably rocky path to recovery, it would be easy to neglect some of the positive measures they undertook during the period of remote working or furlough to ensure that employees remain positive and healthy. If anything, though, these should be enhanced and built upon during the anticipated workplace returns in the coming weeks and months.
For many people, the regular video calls, quizzes and end of week virtual drinks will have been highly beneficial and vital for morale and wellbeing. Their sense of being part of community or family was maintained, even strengthened, at a time when the perception of belonging was needed desperately.
Employers and managers should try to make such employee interactions permanent fixtures when returning to work, rather than simply assuming that everyone will now have their own activities planned with family and friends. Perhaps look to arrange some outdoor team meet-ups and bonding days or a work picnic, in line with government guidance, to get colleagues back together in informal, enjoyable experiences.
The best ways to improve mental health in the workplace are often the simplest.
A recent Benenden Health survey found that the pandemic has had a negative impact on the psychological wellbeing of more than a third of UK workers (35%). Offering a safe and confidential space for employees to talk is fundamental in helping address these issues and, significantly, also contributes to removing the stigma surrounding discussions about mental health in the workplace.
Some employees who have really struggled during the unprecedented time of Coronavirus may also benefit from professional advice. Employers can help by pointing their workers in the direction of counsellors or mental health practitioners – or even consider appointing wellbeing managers and/or encouraging employees to train as Mental Health First Aiders.
And workplaces that already have these should make employees aware of them and encourage people to take up all support options available to them on their return.
One of the foundations of good mental wellbeing is good physical health. Keeping active reduces the likelihood of the depression and anxiety that can be exacerbated by current circumstances.
Simply encouraging employees to make the most of the opportunity to get some fresh air and exercise each day can be of huge benefit for their mental health and many businesses have been doing this during lockdown.
To help those who may find exercising alone difficult, employers and managers should consider launching lunchtime sporting groups for employees of all abilities. Whether yoga, Pilates, circuit training, corporate gym membership or another route, these activities are great for all round health and wellbeing and provide further ways for colleagues to spend more time with one another in a social setting.
For countless organisations, their ‘workplace’ may never be the same again. Many may be organising only a partial return to traditional environments – especially if they were office-based, with no need to produce or retail physical goods – with more people stationed at home than pre-pandemic. However, even where there are blended operations, it is likely that there will be a greater emphasis on face-to-face interactions with colleagues and clients for most people.
In conclusion, always keep it front of mind that there are a host of people issues to watch out for on the UK’s path to recovery.
For example, even employees who are looking forward to being among others again may find the reality unnerving, while many are already nervous at the prospect. Others may have the added layer of concern that the economy is ushering them out of their safe isolation on to transport systems and into offices too soon to avoid infection. Yet more may simply love working from home and have no desire to revert back to their former setting.
All these worries and more must be canvassed then addressed sensitively to keep teams healthy and happy as they emerge from their homes and head back to shared locations in the wake of Coronavirus.