When offices and workplaces shut their doors to control the spread of coronavirus, employees were asked to either adapt quickly to a remote set-up, accept furlough, or — as is the case for some sectors — continue to come to work despite infection risks.
As a result, this pandemic has forced us to reconsider the definition of, and support for, employee wellbeing at our organizations.
In one way, it’s thrown up some challenges — how do you nurture and care for an employee’s wellbeing during a time of social distancing, economic downturn and global stress? But on the other hand, this brief hiatus from “normal life” also presents opportunities, and a chance for companies to ‘reset’ on the activities, initiatives and cultural cues that just aren’t working for staff.
Employee wellbeing has always been important. But looking forward, when we eventually regroup and physically come back together as teams, what we as managers and employees ourselves do in relation to employee wellbeing will be critical.
Defining employee wellbeing in 2020
To help us navigate employee wellbeing right now and into the future, we need a definition with flex in scope and scale.
Today, the pressures of professional, social, familial and civic responsibilities will be having a massive impact on how positive or negative an employee’s wellbeing will be.
A simple example: if it takes 30 minutes to connect to your inbox, and another 15 minutes to open an Excel sheet, then you can bet an employee’s patience and positivity will start to fray!
Conversely, if managers are receptive to, and understanding of, a team member’s need for flexible working hours — balancing being mom or dad, home teacher and an employee — then this will certainly take a weight off their shoulders and, in turn, help with their wellbeing. Even better if they can provide the tools required to remove any friction from the experience.
That’s why we like the following definition of employee wellbeing. While it’s a few years old now (written by Bridget Juniper in an issue of Occupational Health in 2011) its simplicity and adaptability makes it perfect for today’s current climate:
Employee wellbeing is “that part of an employee’s overall wellbeing that they perceive to be determined primarily by work and can be influenced by workplace interventions.”
There are three key elements in this definition, each with an important subtextual meaning:
- An employee’s overall wellbeing: employee wellbeing isn’t a separate entity, it is part of an individual’s overall, or total, health, happiness and satisfaction. This is more true today than ever, as digital connectivity has meant the lines between working hours and downtime are more blurred.
- That they perceive to be determined primarily by work: the way that employees see their wellbeing, and the factors which contribute to it, might be different from what their managers and colleagues think or see.
- Can be influenced by workplace interventions: while the workplace can help or hinder, employee wellbeing comes down to more than workplace interventions — it also comes from within the employee themselves. This is a key insight, as it means that both organizations (and the managers who represent them) and individuals are responsible for employee wellbeing.
So let’s look at that in practice.
What are the key ingredients that amount to positive, or negative, wellbeing at work?
8 of the most important factors for employee wellbeing
Research from the UK’s Banking Standards Board has presented a useful framework for understanding employee wellbeing in the workplace. The BSB breaks it down as follows:
- Work setting
- Job control and autonomy
- Security and change
- Relationships at work
- Organizational justice
- Work-life balance
- Meaning at work
With just a quick glance at this list, you can instantly see how many of these factors could be under threat in the current climate. And, it’s what we as managers and employees do in relation to these right now that will help with our current wellbeing and set the tone for the future.
We need to reflect on:
- Work settings: in the home, in lockdown with other family members or alone, contributes significant stress. What do you know of your team’s work settings and what they’re coping with?
- Workload: may be less, it may be more (depending on your sector) — both changes can add stress and unsettle wellbeing. Now is the time to focus on output, not “busyness” or clocking up hours.
- Job control and autonomy: some may be seeing more autonomy in their work (which is a good thing for most), but others may feel their control slipping away (we’re in the midst of uncertainty for the “foreseeable future”, after all!) Are you encouraging autonomy or has your own uncertainty as a leader caused you to be more controlling?
- Security and change: for obvious reasons, job security is a concern for many right now. Okay, maybe you can’t give any reassurances but that doesn't mean you should avoid the topic.
- Relationships at work: organizations are quickly adapting to video calls and instant messaging to maintain company culture. But how well is it working for relationships?
- Organizational justice: some may feel that furlough was unjust, or they may feel their managers are being unreasonable with expectations during this stressful and confusing time. Reflect on what you’re asking people to do.
- Work-life balance: when your home is your office and your office is your home, it’s very hard to switch off. What ground rules have you agreed to make sure the team “ends” their day?
- Meaning at work: what does purpose look like during a pandemic? Are you helping employees to identify, understand and lean into their current purpose?
It’s worth exploring that last point further.
Purpose is often forgotten as a factor in employee wellbeing, but it plays a central role. A sense of purpose or meaning in the work we do contributes greatly to intrinsic motivation. Some would say that purpose is what gets us out of bed in the morning. Yet it permeates deeper than that.
Purpose touches every single aspect of our employee experience. It marks the difference between giving a job what you need to give it — to get paid, to get a promotion, to please other people, etc. — and what you want to give it. In this way, the greater our sense of purpose, the more fulfilling our experience, and the better our wellbeing.
So what’s happening to purpose right now?
While some employees have a crystal clear purpose — healthcare workers, for instance, and those upholding public services like postal delivery and essential retail — others do not. If you’ve been furloughed, you could have shifted your intrinsic meaning elsewhere. Perhaps now you’re focusing more on being a good parent or partner; maybe you’re simply finally putting time into that personal project you’ve been meaning to start for years.
But regardless of role or sector, this pandemic is (hopefully!) only temporary. Will retail assistants still feel that deep sense of pride for supporting their community in a year’s time? And how can we support furloughed staff for the time being?
Equally as important, for those of us whose workload and job role continues close to “normal”, how well are we nurturing their sense of purpose despite physical distances and the inevitable drop of business activity that we all see during a recession?
These are all critical questions to ask ourselves and our organizations. Because — as we hinted to before — this time of change presents a valuable opportunity for reflection and growth. As individuals, the sudden disturbance of our day-to-day routine gives clarity on what we consider essential for our wellbeing. And leaders have the responsibility of learning from this experience and using this break for the norm to hit ‘reset’, investing more in the elements which lead to positive employee wellbeing, and moving away from the elements which could damage it.
Employee wellbeing: a health check for the rest of the year, and beyond
Us humans are highly adaptable. If you think back to when lockdown first began, everything felt strange and unusual, yet now we’re sort of in a rhythm — even if it is still slightly staccato.
Similarly, if we’re not careful, we’ll fall back into old routines and habits when we do reenter the office. And to do so would be a mistake.
Chances are, work won’t go back to “normal” for a long time, if ever. Some experts are claiming that we’ll see a continued uptake of remote working long after physical distancing measures are loosened. The World Economic Forum says that the very design of our office spaces will change.
But regardless of which predictions come into fruition, one thing is for sure: we’ll have a new appreciation for employee wellbeing.
If WEF is right, then our physical health will be supported like never before. But, writing for Forbes, sociologist Tracy Brower says she hopes that companies will provide new and improved emotional support for employees, too. She also says that leadership will need to step up, and we couldn’t agree more.
Because, while it is true that both the employee and the employer share responsibility for protecting employee wellbeing, managers and leaders are central to this exchange.
It’s up to managers to facilitate the dialogue between employee and employer when it comes to positive wellbeing. This means having the big conversations — where do you see yourself in five years? — and the frequent check-ins — how’s your week been?
Upon returning to work, managers would do well to speak to their teams and hear what they’ve learned about themselves during this time. Better still, they could start that conversation now and have planted the seeds of thought, ready for the day they can be face-to-face again. Even better still, this should become standard practice — an employee wellbeing health check, that happens not once a year or once every global crisis (!), but on an on-going, continuous basis.
After all, if our definition of employee wellbeing has taught us anything, it’s that — just like any other form of wellbeing — workplace health, happiness and satisfaction needs nurturing everyday.
But it’s also highly individualistic: managers can’t possibly know what’s contributing positively or negatively to an employee’s wellbeing without speaking to them.
Research from McKinsey points out that:
“SAS Institute, often found near the top of “best places to work” lists, is a company whose business strategy is premised on long-term relationships with its customers — and its employees. The company signals in ways large and small that it cares about its employees’ well-being.”
And the daily face of attention and care? Leaders. The manager-employee relationship is a pivotal part in how much an individual feels supported by their employer — how much they feel their physical and mental wellbeing is a priority.
So managers, here’s your challenge. Find time right now to consider how well your organization stacks up again the eight factors of employee wellbeing listed above. Do your own reflection, from where you’re standing. And then, when you can, ask team members to feed back, too.
As individuals, we can all take a little time to consider what contributes to our own positive employee wellbeing. What do we want and need from our role? What do we want and need from our managers? What do we want and need from our organizations?
Let these insights shape your actions for the coming year. Reflect on them frequently. Talk about them openly. And, before you know it, together you’ll have created a culture much like SAS Institute’s: one that shows in large and small ways that it cares.
And we can always do with a little more of that, especially today.
Duuoo’s continuous performance management software empowers meaningful conversation. With frequent touch points, and an emphasis on on-going conversation, get in touch today to see how Duuoo can help you understand and support employee wellbeing in your organization.