When the Prime Minister gave the instruction to ‘Stay at home’, from 23rd March 2020, little did we all realise the enormous challenges we would face. Schools, offices, shops, bars, restaurants, sporting and social events all closed down, meaning every single one of us faced our own personal mountain to climb; and despite the recent success of the vaccination rollout, no end is in sight to the social distancing restrictions, and a return to the old way of working is not an imminent option.
For those who could continue to work from home, bedrooms, kitchens, lounges, and frankly, any spare space available, were transformed almost overnight into makeshift offices, as businesses adapted to the new way of working, and staff had to quickly familiarise themselves with meetings over the internet to keep the wheels of business and commerce from completely grinding to a shuddering halt.
According to ONS data 87% of parents faced the unenviable task of home-schooling, whilst caring responsibilities for our most vulnerable friends and relatives has also significantly increased, with an estimated 13.6 million of us providing care during the pandemic, including; shopping, providing meals or cooking, assisting with online or internet access, or dealing with personal affairs such as letter writing or paying bills, being among the most common tasks.
Moreover, we have experienced sadness, grief, and shock as the pandemic took its toll, and from people losing their jobs and way of life, to losing loved ones and not being able to say goodbye; the overriding feeling is one of loss, emptiness and for many, despair.
Assessing the individual impact on the working population
So how can responsible employers help their employees during these challenging times? And how do we assess the individual impact of working from home?
For every mother, father, older sister or brother coping with work in cramped conditions, trying to hold important Zoom meetings with colleagues whilst the dog barks, the child cries, the partner or sibling yells; there’s another person feeling completely isolated, with 16-39 year-olds and those living in single households being the most chronically affected.
For every city dweller missing the social connections from that swift after work pint before a short journey home, there’s countless others revelling in the fact that they no longer have to face hours commuting to the office which, pre-pandemic, put a considerable strain on the health and wellbeing of the workforce. Raised anxiety levels and stress amongst hapless travellers on their way to and from work led to the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) producing the report ‘Health in a Hurry’.
It might seem obvious, but the best way forward for employers to look after the wellbeing of employees in a post-COVID-19 world has to be continued flexibility towards future working arrangements. Finding that perfect balance between looking after individual needs versus the needs of the business continues to be holy grail of employment and employing.
Indeed it would appear that many are already adopting this approach, with over 50 large firms already committed to not bringing all employees back to the office full-time post lockdown and some organisations abandoning thoughts of returning to the traditional office way of life for good.
The cost to business through work related ill health
Having a proactive approach to employee health and wellbeing is not only underpinned by law, but also fundamentally good for business, too.
Creating a healthy work environment means reduced absenteeism, greater staff retention and employees who are fully engaged with increased productivity.
Employees are less stressed, more creative, and indeed, able to thrive, which translates in to a positive and more motivated culture throughout.
Most recently, during the period of 2018/2019 alone, over 28 million working days were lost due to ‘work related ill health and non-fatal workplace injuries’ in Great Britain, of which over half a million were lost to ‘work related stress, depression or anxiety’. The total cost to businesses and the tax payer was a staggering £15 billion, and whilst the overall number of lost days had reduced slightly compared to 2017, the overall cost and the figure for stress, anxiety and depression continues to rise.
During 2019/2020, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic early last year, the trend has continued to rise dramatically, with the effects on business and research far reaching, and costs now exceeding £16.2 billion. We have now reached almost 39 million working days lost due to ill health and non-fatal injury in the workplace.
5 ways of supporting employee wellbeing in the workplace
So, what else can supportive employers offer their employees? It’s clear that even in the days BC (Before COVID), workplace health and mental wellbeing was at a ‘tipping point’, and as we tread gingerly in to this brave new world of working from home, this has to be a good time to look at other ways of supporting employee overall wellness.
As we are all trying to ‘add value’ to what we do, paying attention to health and wellbeing is demonstrating a firm commitment to at least one of the UN’s 17 Sustainability Goals. And as organisations look to embed social value within their business practices, such initiatives can be aligned to the Themes and Outcomes of the National TOMs Framework and easily measured via a software like the Social Value Portal.
So here’s 5 things you can do right now:
1. Review policies and procedures
Are they up to date? Do you have a policy for overall wellbeing (including a positive policy approach towards carers’ and/or those with mental health conditions)?
2. Workplace assessments
Are workplace assessments available for those working from home to ensure they are aware of things like the right posture, taking regular breaks away from their screen and other health checks?
3. Find your people people
Do you have people champions? You know the ones – they are passionate about inclusivity, diversity, wellbeing and encouraging healthy habits in the workforce. They will go the extra mile when it comes to keeping the workforce motivated through group activities or social events, be that online or otherwise, depending on the culture we are all working in.
4. Find an EAP
If you haven’t already, do some research on Employee Assistance Programs. Even before the pandemic, EAPs were becoming increasingly popular with progressive employers. Now, with the rise in mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, having access to a 24/7 counselling service can provide confidential and vital assistance to employees struggling to come to terms with their own personal issues that might be impacting on their work.
5. Find ways to promote physical and mental health
Encourage staff to focus on their physical health as well as their mental health. The World Health Organisation defines overall wellness as ‘not just the absence of disease and infirmity, but having good Physical, Social and Mental health’, and so encouraging your staff to take walks or go for a run or a cycle during the day is showing your commitment to their overall wellbeing.