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What does employee wellbeing look like in 2021? 10 HR and business leaders tell all

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By: Chris Bourne Head of Marketing at Natural HR. Natural HR

The past year has turned everything we thought about the future of work on its head. HR leaders across the globe navigate a return to the office, the introduction of hybrid working models and the changing needs of employees.

In a year where the way companies treated their people was under more scrutiny than ever before, the priorities of every HR department changed and workload increased significantly. Companies were, and continue to be, measured by how they prioritised the needs of their people.

In this article, we talk to 10 HR and business leaders who share the ways in which the pandemic and the rise of remote working have contributed to marked changes in their employee wellbeing strategies.

What has changed in employee wellbeing?

COVID changed the game when it comes to employee wellbeing and benefits. Employees may now value perks such as flexible working, online yoga classes and wellbeing days more than the likes of free fruit and subsidised gym memberships. Remote working has meant many employees have reassessed their work/life balance entirely.

Simon Roderick is the Managing Director of Fram Search, a financial services recruiter and shares the same outlook on the changing needs of employees in relation to working from home: “COVID has raised the bar on employee benefits. What was a rare benefit and a way to attract staff pre-pandemic is now the norm and office workers will benefit financially, emotionally, and in terms of productivity from hybrid working.”

While some organisations have already returned to the office and others plan to this summer, many more are considering a hybrid or full remote workplace. For example, full-service digital marketing agency, Absolute Digital Media have gone down the latter route, becoming a fully remote agency.

Following a companywide vote, the unanimous decision was taken to close and sell their office in Chelmsford. Their CEO and Founder, Ben Austin has shared with in the past just how critical ensuring his team’s health and wellbeing in this new normal for the team: “…it is incredibly important as a business owner to ensure my staff’s wellbeing and mental health is a big priority. The initiatives we have introduced have caused a huge improvement and we have had fantastic feedback from the team.’’

As a result of this move to a 100% remote workforce, just some of the wellbeing initiatives introduced include:

– Fully remote working (anywhere within Europe).

– A library, where employees can select a book of their choice and Absolute Digital will send it to them for free.

– A premium Perkbox account covering medical, insights, perks and recognition categories.

– The opportunity to be involved in our charity fundraising events.

– A birthday gift and the afternoon off

– Extra treats on an employee’s work-versary.

– Opportunity to take part in a professional PT session each week. Confidence coaching with ROAR Training (Kirsty Hulse).

On the face of it, remote work is perceived as flexible, enjoyable and comfortable. No commute, no rigidity and more freedom to be creative alongside colleagues. But it comes with its fair share of challenges: a blurring between personal and professional lives, the feeling that we need to be ‘always on’ and unable to unplug after a day’s work. Research published in 2019 by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions found that 41% of employees who more often worked from home vs. on-site considered themselves highly stressed, compared to 25% of those who worked only on-site.

Clearly, even in a world before COVID, remote work came with its own stressors. At a time when entire industries were devastated, businesses closed and others weathered the storm; the pressure on employees to support their companies, working harder than ever before to ensure business survival was huge.

And yet, research by LinkedIn and the Mental Health Foundation found that those that have been working from home throughout the pandemic have been experiencing increased levels of fatigue, burnout and overworking. An article by Winningtemp curated a number of eye-opening statistics from Statistia, the ONS and LinkedIn about the real impact of working from home:

– 68% say they work more hours at home

– On average, office workers were increasing their workload by an extra 28 hours each month by working from home

– A disproportionate amount of childcare is falling upon women who have been working from home

Michael Alexis is the CEO of teambuilding, an organisation that runs team-building events for clients that include corporate giants such as Apple, Amazon and Google. They introduced a ‘dark week’ in 2020 that gave staff a week off as a way to say thanks for their hard work and dedication during a busy year.

He explains: “One of the best employee wellbeing initiatives we’ve started in the last year is “dark week.” Essentially, any full-time staff that have been with us since Q1, can take the week off between Christmas and New Year. This extra time off has a few major benefits. First, Q4 is busy for us, so the time away gives the team a goal to look forward to, and also time to rest and recover. Also, since the season tends to be one where employees take time off, employees can now use other time off throughout the year. The result is better work-life balance, and a happier and healthier team.”

What does the future of employee wellbeing hold?

After over a year of remote work, business and HR leaders must recognise the impact that returning to the office may have on wellbeing, too. The physical environment of the office, along with stressful commutes and increased levels of air pollution in urban locations can all impact job satisfaction, wellbeing and productive at work. Especially since so many of us have become accustomed to our home environments, comforts and workspace over the last 16+ months.

Susy Roberts, executive coach and founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts, shared her thoughts: “When people have been working from home, coming back to the office can be quite a jarring experience. Issues they may have previously learned to live with, for example noise pollution, unreliable air conditioning, or uncomfortable office furniture – can take on much more importance after they’ve spent a year delightfully free from irritations.”

The team at health and lifestyle brand, The Last Verdict, have also transitioned to remote work. Their HR Director, Julia Bass shares an insight into the cornerstone of their wellbeing strategy in this new remote world of work: “Ensuring that employees have a clear differentiation between ‘down time’ and ‘work time’ is at the forefront of our 2021 wellbeing strategy and very new for us.”

She continues: “As working from home is now a permanent fixture within the company, it only made sense that HR evolved the wellbeing strategy around implementing it. In place of season ticket loans, we have implemented ‘WFH station loans.’  We have seen employees convert garages, spare rooms and even balconies.  Initiatives such as these has alleviated employees from the pressures of creating a work environment that will not interfere with their downtime. Those that do not have working from home space are invited to serviced offices within their hometown.”

Importantly, every good wellbeing strategy must account for the preferences of your people. To really understand your employees’ changing health and wellbeing needs – simply ask them! Carry out a survey, hold virtual discussion groups to understand sentiment and changing needs, or poll employees on a selection of health and wellbeing initiatives available.

As the the UK Manager of Winningtemp, an AI-driven engagement, performance management, social praise and e-learning platform, Tim Conroy shares the importance of employees being able to provide anonymous feedback and developing a culture of open communication where employees can share feedback freely, without fear of any repercussions.

“Companies are very often blindsided by the real issues within their team. That is because, we all know that, when asked on a human level, “Is everything okay?” We usually say it is. However, if given opportunity to discuss how we feel anonymously, in our own space, we open up.”

Developing your health and wellbeing strategy in partnership with your employees, ensures that any initiatives are in line with their needs during this time. Greg Wixted is the Founder and CEO of Britain Loves Baking – a business born out of the pandemic and a demand for innovative and thoughtful wellbeing initiatives: “We started Britain Loves Baking last December, and it was just the odd Zoom baking party for teams. We have since created several wellness programmes around baking for companies and especially mental health. We have a lot of clients that order our Mindful Baking Boxes and have them sent as a “keep until needed” stress reliever. But it has become part of their engagement plan as baking does provide some unique benefits to those WFH or remotely.

“We found that isolation issues are the biggest problem younger workers faced so we would create coffee mornings, we’ve done a surprise bake off for an AI Tech firm on pancake day, we help an Ad agency regain its Friday night social with our cupcakes and cocktails evening and for one company that used to have crèche for kids, we created a baking course and our bakers would keep the children entertained while mum or dad got on with their day.”

How critical is employee wellbeing to business success?

As the impact of the pandemic continue to be felt, the HR community is swiftly coming to the realisation that free fruit or subsidised gym memberships are simply not enough. Employees have come to thrive in the flexible work/life balance that COVID has brought with it. Less time commuting, being home for the school run and having more time to spend with loved ones have contributed to the changing needs of our people – especially where wellbeing is concerned. COVID has led many to experience one of the most challenging and devastating periods in our lives, and our mental health and wellbeing has suffered. Unable to see friends, isolated from family, the closure of places we used to socialise and ultimately, not having a lot to do can, and did, become overwhelming.

In our most recent ‘State of HR’ survey, leaders from across the nation shared one common priority in 2021: employee health and wellbeing. With 65% of respondents citing health and wellbeing initiatives as their number one priority this year.

Jane McNeice is the Director and Principal Trainer for Mind Matters, a provider of mental health and wellbeing training, and shares just how quickly mental health and overall wellbeing quickly became a priority for all of us.

“Wellbeing – mental, physical, and social – has moved to the forefront of our minds and businesses. Not just for industry, but society has never before seen such a sizeable shift towards valuing health and wellbeing in an authentic and genuine way.

“Staff will have talked about wellbeing much more, started to truly think about what this looks like in the workplace, what it looks like for them, and started to measure themselves against their new barometer. Professional and personal lives don’t sit apart, and many have considered one alongside the other, and for some made wholesale changes, including occupation change. This re-prioritised shift in our psyche does not sit in isolation, it feeds into our interpersonal relationships, including those at work.”

At a time when the help or advisory services available to employees to support their health and wellbeing in the past may not be available or accessible right now, savvy HR leaders have stepped up to provide wraparound support for their employees throughout lockdown and beyond.

Susanne Grant is an award-winning Work-life Balance Expert and Business Consultant and has witnessed first-hand the prioritisation of health and wellbeing among business leaders: “The most drastic shift I’ve witnessed is that there is a real change about the importance of (mental) health and wellbeing. Prior to 2020, that was probably still years away from happening but as the global pandemic hit, it became clear that a lot of businesses had no idea how to navigate these drastic new requirements in our work-life situation. So, companies had to learn fast.

“I’ve introduced two additional programs for SMEs and small businesses to help change and improve the conversations they have with their staff (whether or not through their HR department or myself as contact person) and make it easier for employees to raise their concerns. By doing so, we can create a fantastic new way forward where we incorporate real long-term sustainable wellbeing as an integral part of the business.”

What’s more, wellbeing programmes must now equip our people with the ability to recognise, monitor and respond to their own health and wellbeing, and that of their peers – free coffee and a table tennis table just doesn’t cut it.

Sophie Coulthard is the Co-Founder of workplace wellbeing company, FidlLeaf and believes that wellbeing programmes now need to be proactive, rather than reactive: “Companies have realised that lunchtime yoga and self-care packages don’t go deep enough, and that they need to be offering a broad range of initiatives that are more proactive than reactive. The number 1 thing we are being asked for at the moment is resilience workshops, which shows that employers are thinking about personal wellbeing which is positive. Our research over the last year has found that self-criticism levels have risen by 32%, so anything companies can do to combat that will help with employee wellbeing.”

About Author: 

Chris Bourne Head of Marketing at Natural HR. Natural HR is a cloud-based HR software company for growing businesses with 100+ employees. Since launching in 2010, we’ve been building a comprehensive suite of HR functionality that equips the small to medium-sized enterprise with everything needed to build an effective and efficient HR operation.

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