Matthew Lawrence: Wellbeing in the new normal

With Covid-19 infection rates doubling every seven to eight days across the UK, the country is on the cusp of a second wave of the virus. Already, we have seen a huge increase in the numbers of people suffering with mental health problems as a result of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown.

Job cuts and salary reductions have led to significant financial worries for many, even despite government support. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, due to end in October, paid up to 80% of wages and will be replaced from November by the Job Support Scheme, which will pay a third of wages of those whose hours have been reduced. Despite this, concerns around job security and pay as unemployment levels rise are going to be a big worry for many.

The challenge for employers

With a plethora of wellbeing issues around money and jobs, physical and mental health, as well as concerns around loved ones and dependants, employers have a challenge on their hands.

The protection, safety and health and wellbeing of employees is vital to the success of an organisation, whether this relates to addressing rising healthcare costs, improving productivity or as a talent attraction and retention tool. Workforce wellbeing should not be considered a discretionary spend.

The current wellbeing landscape is more complex than ever, with everyone responding to the pandemic differently. The challenge for employers is how to address this.

Some wellbeing-related risks will be more obvious than others: increased fatigue and burnout from home-working setups because of difficulties switching off or increased feelings of isolation following weeks, or months, away from co-workers and the office, for example. Or there may be financial difficulties from the economic downturn and concerns over job security.

Hidden wellbeing risks

But there are other, less obvious, wellbeing risks that employers should be considering. These include whether employees are accessing healthcare in a timely manner in terms of diagnosis, support and treatment or whether the pandemic has made this more difficult. The inability to access diagnostic tests and treatment can have a detrimental effect on an individual’s chance of recovery.  Employers should continue to offer health screening and access to health treatments, especially now private treatments have reopened. But employers need to remind employees about workplace services too, through targeted campaigns and awareness-raising initiatives.

Some employees may also be struggling with growing debt, loneliness or their day-to-day role, having lost enthusiasm for their job and no longer getting job satisfaction. With huge numbers of staff now working from home, it is harder for employers and line managers to check in with their teams and identify potential issues around physical, mental, social, financial and career wellbeing.

Regular catch ups through email, video or even SMS can all help, along with regular social evenings via Zoom or online quizzes.  It is about being connected and keeping in touch.

The right support

Employers have a big role to play in continuing to support health and wellbeing by providing access to the right tools, services and products. Employees will need help in navigating the web of information, otherwise it can feel overwhelming. Effective communication is, therefore, crucial, with clear signposting to the right support and treatment at the right time.

Ultimately, employers must set their own wellbeing agenda and respond to what their own workplace data is telling them rather than following the noise. It is important to try and differentiate when a situation is a reflection of someone struggling with their emotional wellbeing or simply a normal human reaction to the current challenging environment.

The future of workplace wellbeing

The after-effects of the pandemic are likely to stay with us for a long time to come. It will have changed the face of workplace wellbeing as we know it, maybe even for the better.

The core dimensions of wellbeing will not change significantly overnight but the traditional approach to the way wellbeing is delivered will have to change. A top-down, often tokenistic, approach which is poorly communicated just does not work. Instead, there will be greater focus on achieving resilience in terms of both the organisation and employees themselves.

Technology is likely to play a highly significant role too across the health and wellbeing continuum in areas such as preventative care, case management and remote monitoring. While the pandemic has given digital health capabilities a boost, a more strategic approach is required going forward. It is expected that employers will start pushing for a more integrated offering that really informs, engages and supports workforces across a number of health and wellbeing areas.

The work model is also likely to change, with many employers thinking more about providing the best conditions for their staff to thrive: traditional working versus agile working, increased provision for family and care support services as well as creating a connected working environment.

After all, a stable, cohesive and trusting work environment is crucial for workplace wellbeing.

Matthew Lawrence is chief broking officer, EMEA Health Solutions at Aon