Putting employee wellbeing at the heart of a return to the workplace

Bob Andrews at Benenden Health discusses the importance of businesses supporting the wellbeing of their teams as they head back to the office.

With an anticipated end of lockdown as the national vaccine rollout continues, many employers are planning a partial or full reopening of workplaces. As they do so, it is vital that organisations support employees’ wellbeing, to boost productivity in highly competitive post-pandemic markets; meet moral and statutory duties of care; and maintain a positive image and culture.

Millions of employees across many sectors have been away from the workplace for more than a year, adopting a ‘new normal’ way of fulfilling their roles, whether socially distanced or remote. Many more have been furloughed for all or much of this time.

With Coronavirus still a threat, though – and likely to remain so at some level long term – many employees are understandably nervous about the perceived infection risks of a return, including travelling to their workplace.

In addition, after getting used to being home-based, with the privacy it offers and operating more autonomously than pre-pandemic, some may be anxious. Many won’t welcome the disruption of comfortable routines, the physical and psychological toil of commuting, direct supervision by managers and being among large numbers of people again.

They might also worry about navigating changes to the workplace to make it COVID-19 secure, while those who have been furloughed could suffer crises of confidence about their ability to meet their job demands again after so long away. Even those looking forward to going back may find the reality unnerving.

It means that businesses must work together with employees to ensure safety and mental wellbeing are priorities in any comeback plan.  

Failure to do so could prompt lowered morale and productivity, absenteeism, poor punctuality and an exodus of top talent. A Benenden Health survey last year showed the importance colleagues attach to mental wellbeing support from their employer. It revealed that nearly half (42%) of organisations have seen an employee leave because they felt they were not being cared for and quarter (25%) lost a key staff member. Meanwhile, 55% of workers (78% of 18-24s) said they would leave a business that didn’t support their mental health.

Raised attrition rates come with heavy costs – recruitment, onboarding, retraining and retention of replacement staff, not to mention reputational damage.

And problems need not be confined to individual companies. Whole sectors and regions could be beset by them, at huge economic costs. Further Benenden Health research on employers’ plans to go back to the workplace recently reported that more than 600,000 UK employees could be made to go back before they’re comfortable doing so.

There are a number of ways to provide the crucial support that ensures a return-to-the-workplace exercise works for all employees, all of which will help enhance employee productivity and subsequent business performance.

Remain flexible

Throughout the crisis, many employees have had 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 isolating older relatives.

Those with these commitments may have found it difficult to stick to strict working hours and might well not be freed of domestic burdens for many months. For example, schoolchildren are still being sent home if thought to have been in contact with someone testing positive for Coronavirus, while elderly and vulnerable people could be told to isolate again.

Clinically extremely vulnerable employeesmay continue to shield, while worried others might wish to, and it is important to consider all situations sensitively and cautiously.

Allowing hard-pressed, anxious employees to maintain a flexible approach longer term, where possible, can be a big boost to productivity and wellbeing.

Do not rush

Returning to a workplace will be easier and more comfortable for some than others. Employers should 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 go back. This consultancy will help reduce stress and anxiety levels and make people feel part of a process over which they have some control, reducing stress and driving up satisfaction levels and performance.

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 traditional working environment.

With employers 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 introduced during remote working or furlough to ensure that colleagues remain positive and healthy. If anything, though, these should be enhanced and built on during anticipated returns.

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 interactions permanent fixtures when back at 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 any official guidance, to reacquaint colleagues in informal, enjoyable experiences, ensuring that everyone feels comfortable doing so.

Open up

The best ways to improve mental health in the workplace are often the simplest.

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 workers in the direction of counsellors, Mental Health Helplines like the one included with a Benenden Health membership – 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.

Encourage exercise

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 going back. 

Simply encouraging employees to make the most of the opportunity to get some fresh air and exercise each day can be of huge psychological benefit.

To help those who may find exercising alone difficult, employers and managers should consider lunchtime sporting groups for workers of all abilities. Whether yoga, Pilates, circuit training, corporate gym membership or another route, they are fantastic for all round fitness and wellbeing – and give colleagues more time to socialise.

In conclusion, even organisations plotting only a partial return are likely to have a host of people issues along the road to recovery. All worries 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.

Bob Andrews is the CEO of Benenden Health, a not-for-profit organisation, founded in 1905 with the purpose of people joining together to help pay for medical care. For Benenden Health’s guide on how to safely return employees to the workplace, go to https://www.benenden.co.uk/for-business/returning-to-work-guide/

© Business Reporter 2021

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