How have employers’ priorities changed around wellbeing?

Need to know:

  • Mental health is a growing issue in the workplace with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and suicide likely to rise.
  • Education is key to improving employee financial wellbeing, enabling staff to make informed choices and improve their resilience.
  • Managing employee wellbeing remotely requires a new set of competences including more observation and questioning skills, as well a regular one-to-ones.

Living and working through a pandemic has heightened awareness of the importance of health and wellbeing. But, as well as making it a higher priority for employers, it has also resulted in a shift in the areas that need attention.

The shift can be seen in research conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Rachel Suff, senior employee relations adviser at the CIPD, explains: “We’ve been running surveys since March, asking employers and employees how the pandemic is affecting them. Employee health and wellbeing, especially mental health, is the top priority among employers, although this doesn’t always translate into employees feeling supported.”

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This gap between what employers want to do and what employees experience is, in part, due to the pandemic, says Suff. “A large proportion of an employee’s wellbeing is down to how they’re managed,” she adds. “Having to do this remotely has introduced a number of challenges, which add to the pressures and concerns that employees are experiencing.”

Mental wellbeing concerns

Worries about everything from their health to their job security means there has been a sharp uptick in mental health problems. This is highlighted by research from Sheffield University, Mental health during Covid-19 lockdown in the United Kingdom, which was published in October 2020. It found that depression and anxiety tripled during April, at the height of lockdown, with 52% of people reporting clinically significant depression and anxiety problems, compared to a pre-Covid-19 average of 17%.

While anxiety and depression may be the more common mental health conditions during the pandemic,other problems may well emerge too, says Dr Wolfgang Seidl, partner and workplace health consulting leader at Mercer. “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will become more common,” he says. “People who have survived a prolonged period in intensive care have a higher risk of PTSD but it may also affect front-line workers and anyone who has experienced a complicated situation, such as multiple bereavements or being unable to escape domestic violence during lockdown.”

Worries in lockdown have also fuelled addiction, with more people self-soothing through alcohol and drugs, says Eugene Farrell, mental health lead at Axa Health. “Employers will need to be mindful of this and consider the support they want to provide,” he adds. “I also expect to see suicide rates increase. Many employees are worried about money, job security and the threat of recession. Suicide has come to the fore in previous recessions.”

Financial wellbeing

These financial worries are affecting a significant proportion of the workforce, according to research by Close Brothers. Its report, Changing trends of financial wellbeing, which includes Covid-19-specific research undertaken in May 2020, found that 36% of respondents are more worried about their financial health than before the pandemic, with just 11% less concerned.

As the pandemic has created these winners and losers on the financial front, employers must think carefully about the support they provide, says Alistair Dornan, director, organisational wellbeing consulting at Gallagher. “Financial education remains key but we’ve also seen a significant increase in the provision of workplace savings,” he explains. “It’s about giving employees the tools to make informed choices and to be more resilient.”

Workplace loans are another option, giving employees access to preferential rates. Although many of the lenders provide financial education alongside to encourage sensible borrowing, many employers are nervous, says Dornan. “The biggest objection is that, by giving employees access to cheap loans, they’ll become more indebted,” he adds. “Financial wellbeing should be about education.”

Repurposed wellbeing support

As well as new worries and concerns, employers are finding they have to change the way they deliver support for all areas of wellbeing. Providers have repurposed classroom-based training on everything from mental resilience to retirement planning so it can be delivered digitally.

Even the provision of one-to-one support and counselling has had to move into a digital space. Dr Leena Johns, head of health and wellness at Maxis Global Benefits Network, says: “Telemedicine has taken off, with employees able to access healthcare professionals by video or phone, whatever suits them. This has also changed employees’ perceptions of these services: before the pandemic, they were reluctant to move from traditional face-to-face, now they prefer a digital option.”

As well as a switch to more virtual support, changes in the working environment have also forced a rethink from line managers. “When employees are working remotely, it’s much harder to check on their wellbeing,” says Farrell. “Line managers have had to learn more observation and questioning skills to ensure they don’t miss any potential wellbeing issues.”

This is something other experts have seen too. At Mercer, Seidl says he has been inundated with requests for line manager training to equip them with the skills to manage people remotely. Similarly, at the CIPD, Suff has been producing practical guidance for managers to help them support staff. “It’s difficult for line managers as they’re going through their own challenges too,” she says. “However, our August employee survey found that around a third of employees say their line manager hadn’t checked in on their health and wellbeing. This isn’t good.”

This shift in delivery can also be seen when it comes to employees’ social wellbeing. “We’re social animals,” says Farrell. “Organisations must do everything they can to encourage staff to talk to one another about things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with work. It promotes collaboration and creativity.”

As well as using chat and video conference platforms to host virtual coffee meetings, quizzes and catch-ups, some organisations have also had board members calling employees for a chat. Farrell recommends mixing it up and letting employees create different groups, in exactly the same way they would in the workplace. “Don’t overlook one-to-ones with line managers,” he adds. “These are a great way to check on an employee’s wellbeing and can be really good for their self-esteem too.”

Reshaping workplace wellbeing in light of Covid-19 has been a challenge, especially as it happened at the same time the world switched to working remotely. However, it will have long-lasting benefits, says Seidl. “Many organisations will build back better,” he says. “Employee health and wellbeing will be much higher up the agenda and workplaces will be designed around human beings. This is good for employees and it’s good for employers.”

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