The global pandemic has brought about significant change and upheaval across all areas of life. National and international lockdowns created a global shift in working practices, with remote and flexible working patterns becoming the norm.
Now, with workplaces preparing to welcome employees back into the office, a whole new raft of challenges will come to the fore. There are likely to be new anxieties – and potential conflicts – around vaccinations (those who are vaccinated versus those who are refusing), on-going worries about falling ill, new fatigue as people resume the daily commute as well as difficulties adjusting to a return to work, to name a few.
At the same time, employers are starting to realise the importance of employee resilience in the face of future global health crises.
Just a year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Aon’s Global Risk Management Survey 2019, revealed that pandemic risk was ranked 60 out of a possible 69 identified risks. Two years on and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s highly likely that pandemic risk will be in the top ten of identified global risks.
As the pandemic has shone a light on employee resilience and the need for a healthy and financially stable workforce, the way employers support employee wellbeing needs to adapt and change.
Here are four ways employers can support wellbeing in a post-COVID world.
There’s been an enormous change in a relatively short space of time, from adjusting to lockdowns and tier systems, to re-adjusting as things start to reopen. Employers need to acknowledge anxieties their employees are likely to experience – but they shouldn’t make assumptions. Some employees may find the adjustment to returning to an office environment difficult whilst others may relish the opportunity to return.
It’s essential to understand the range of emotions that employees may be experiencing, and then communicate with relevant information, from business updates, workplace policies around social distancing and infection control measures to health information, especially around vaccinations.
Employers may want to consider developing responses addressing employee questions which may include:
- How can my employer keep me safe if my colleague won’t get vaccinated?
- Can my employer tell me how many of my colleagues are currently vaccinated?
- What happens if I don’t want to get vaccinated?
- What happens if I don’t feel safe returning to work?
It’s important then for employers to alleviate any concerns and anxieties as much as they possibly can while continuing to offer flexibility.
Line managers and those responsible for staff wellbeing need to be on the look-out for signs and symptoms which may be a cause for concern. In the old world, seeing an emotional or behavioural change in a colleague was easier if you were seated next to them, but it can be harder to identify remotely or even in a hybrid work location model.
Employers need to adopt a proactive approach, with enlisting not only line managers to look out for their teams but for everyone to be on the look-out for colleagues who may be struggling. Educating teams on mental health awareness including potential signs of mental health issues can help everyone understand more, as well as normalise it. And even once there’s a full return to the office, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of assuming that everything has returned to normal and everyone is okay. People will still be suffering, albeit in different ways. Awareness of mental health needs to be on the top of the agenda.
Normalise a balanced work-life
Since smartphones and laptops moved from ‘nice to have’ to ‘essential’, the always-on culture has smashed up any work-life balance there once was. During the pandemic, home workers worked longer hours, working on average an extra two hours per day more than their office peers, according to research. Gaps and down time people may have once had, either during the daily commute or travelling in-between meetings, have now been filled with back-to-back online meetings at home. The expectation seems to be for everyone to be available, all the time.
But the pandemic has brought all this to a head, and has led to unions, pressure groups and charities lobbying for a ‘right to disconnect’ bill to become enshrined in employment law. The Republic of Ireland passed a bill in April which gives employees the right to switch off from work outside of normal working hours.
Regardless of whether it becomes law in the UK, employers are well aware of the risks of not addressing work-life balance: work-related stress, burnout and high staff turnover, to name but a few.
To properly address this, employers need to ensure work-life balance is covered in business policy, which is then reiterated regularly to their workforce, that it’s okay – and expected – that staff switch off after their normal working hours.
Focus on early intervention in sickness absence
There are a lot of question marks on sickness absence trends post-COVID. ONS figures in March showed that sickness rates were at a record low between March 2020 to March 2021, despite the pandemic, but it’s still too early to fully understand – or even predict – the effects of Long COVID and related mental health issues. Yet the pandemic has re-emphasised the importance of early interventions, underpinned by good employee data, rather than focusing on treatments and cures.
Aon’s 2019 Prevention is Better Than Cure whitepaper found that prevention techniques were most effective while employees are healthy and ‘thriving’ as well as being significantly more cost-effective than claims costs of treatments and medical interventions.
Ultimately, the pandemic has increased the profile of health and wellbeing. It’s brought challenges and risks but it’s also forced businesses to work and think differently about their approach. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention.
You might also be interested in this mental health crisis guide from Aon
About the author
Charles is Head of Wellbeing Solutions in the UK, leading a team of experts who advise employers on people health risk. During his 20-year career he has worked with many diverse organisations to help them achieve their employee wellbeing aspirations. Drawing on his lived experience of mental health issues, Charles is a strong advocate for the role the workplace can play to protect and enhance mental health. He is a qualified Mental Health First Aider and holds an MSc in Workplace Health and Wellbeing. Charles represents Aon at the Manchester Business School National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work and serves on the Board of the mental health charity Dorset Mind.