How has COVID-19 affected employee wellbeing?

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Dominic Merlin-Cone, Tax Partner and Head of Reward Advisory Services at Grant Thornton UK LLP shares his thoughts with Business Leader about the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on employee wellbeing.

The bonds between employee and employer have been tested and challenged during the last year, a period where a huge percentage of the UK working population was abruptly forced into furlough and/or remote working. The upheaval caused by the pandemic has become a watershed moment for workplace culture and has had a significant impact on employee well-being.

The University College London’s ongoing Covid-19 social study, for instance, has found that depression and anxiety rates have risen amongst the general population during each lockdown, and fallen once restrictions are eased. Whilst some triggers for the decline in mental health are related to the restriction of movement, health concerns and isolation – the blurring of personal and professional lives is also a key source of stress.

A 2021 survey by the Royal Society for Public Health found that 29% of UK workers think working from home has been worse for their health and wellbeing. Of those surveyed, 46% reported they were taking less exercise, whilst 39% said they had developed musculoskeletal problems. These factors contribute to poor sleep quality, low metabolism and low energy levels.

Grant Thornton’s people advisory team works closely with HR managers across all industries. The good news is that we are seeing more businesses becoming aware of the importance of wellbeing and introducing measures to support it.

Communication is key to this challenge. Leadership teams need to be loud and clear about their policies if they want to properly engage with employees. This means having the channels in place to communicate effectively, ensuring staff know where and to whom to go for help if they are struggling with stress.

Team members who are passionate about the subject can be a valuable resource by acting as wellbeing ambassadors or champions, to inform about the support available. The caveat is that companies need to invest in the proper health and safety training to avoid this being a tick-box exercise. Line managers should similarly receive specialist guidance on how to help employees, to help supplement the communication from senior management.

Another option is to create a wellbeing hub. Straight-forward infrastructure can be used to host online information about financial, physical and mental wellbeing, with a wide market of intuitive web platforms available. Companies can complement the service with links to external charities or additional content from their benefit providers to keep employees aware of any available support, such as sick leave or gym membership.

Our team also recommends that when it comes to designing a wellbeing agenda, think first about your business’s biggest areas of concern. Tech firms are more likely to be based online post-lockdown and are probably better off providing computer upgrades for staff than rapid-flow tests, for example, which high street shops will need to offer their employees who don’t have the option of working from home.

Healthcare schemes will be a popular all-round choice as companies look to relieve anxieties around fitness following the pandemic. But choosing the right employee package means also considering your company’s available resources. Do you have the admin skills available to set-up and maintain these platforms? Some, like Bupa, offer online GP support which can be purchased at a relatively low-cost to help short-cut the first line of healthcare. It’s best to get advice on the market before committing to a scheme which might prove to be the wrong fit for your operations.

Perhaps the most important consideration to make when designing a wellbeing agenda is how to identify the successes and failures. For companies who have introduced wellbeing policies in the past year, now is the time to look at what’s working and what’s not. But how do you calculate improvement in a person’s stress levels or financial strain? After all, mental health is not a binary statistic.

Qualitative research is the answer here. Surveys and specialist engagement events can assist companies in measuring the employee response to their policies and benefit packages. These will provide invaluable statistics as businesses move away from the more reactive policies brought in during the beginning of the pandemic, and look towards longer-term improvements. If a programme isn’t being made use of, ask your employees why and consider adapting or refocusing your efforts to streamline resources based on the response.

All these points prove that it will take some experimentation before companies hit upon the right mix of benefits and motivation to support employees as we transition into the post-lockdown period. The extreme forms of remote working we’ve seen have highlighted the need for leaders to begin looking for advice on futureproofing their wellbeing policies as we look towards a new, flexible and digitally connected way of working.