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Why employee well-being is a top priority for HR

9th Nov 2020
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The last few months have challenged businesses globally and it is likely that the way we work will be forever changed as a result of COVID-19.

HR professionals have been at the centre of their organisation’s response, and have been playing a key role in keeping the workforce engaged, productive and resilient. Add to that, they have been instrumental in ensuring that the transition to remote working is smooth – which has been more successful than many ever imagined.

The pandemic has created the opportunity for HR professionals to “regain the reputation of a true contributor to business outcome,” says Konstantin Korotov, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at ESMT Berlin, “the ability to maximise the productive use of human talent despite the current COVID-related challenge becomes a competitive advantage, and HR can be at the forefront on companies efforts in it.”

So, what should HR professionals be doing during COVID-19? According to leading academic, Dirk Buyens, a Professor of Human Resources at Vlerick Business School, the key to a successful organisation in this current climate is to put your employees first. “A team who feel valued and that their mental wellbeing is important to their managers, their company are much more likely to perform better – a happy team really is a more productive one.” He says that HR professionals should be doing the “upmost” to ensure all of their employees are well. Without the opportunity to sit across a desk and converse with your colleagues, home working can have a negative impact on people’s mental health.

One organisation that has demonstrated “putting employees first” is the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU). As soon as the COVID pandemic hit the UK in early March, the ACU’s priority was not only to provide support to their member institutions, but also to focus on the wellbeing of their employees to reduce the impact COVID will have on them as an organisation.

Without hesitation, they moved to complete remote working and once that was sorted, they provided specific training courses such as ‘managing remote teams’, ‘how to set up for remote working’, and ‘online communication skills’, to ensure that the transition to remote working was as smooth as possible.

The ACU’s focus on wellbeing was paramount from the beginning, COVID-19 had left many people feeling isolated, so creating an environment where employees can be open about their personal and professional lives is vital – employees need to be supported in their role. Professor Buyens says that, “Managers and HR professionals have to go the extra mile to keep up to date with everyone in their teams on a weekly, or even daily basis … people’s situation and wellbeing can literally change overnight at the moment, so it is important to keep on top of this.”

The ACU’s HR team, led by Tarrance Ryder-Downs who is director of HR and Willorna Brock, the ACU’s first HR business partner, enhanced advice and support for their managers and staff by, creating a staff wellbeing forum where employees can share tips on what helps their mental wellbeing, and offering more flexibility to those who have caring responsibilities, like children for instance.

“Staff wellbeing has been our top priority during this crisis, and we put people at the centre of our response,” said Willorna Brock. “We launched a range of initiatives to support wellbeing, including lunchtime yoga, virtual cooking classes, drop-in coffee breaks, and an extra day’s leave. We also found new ways to thank our staff and show appreciation for all their hard work – our Chief Executive sent out a care package to everyone with little treats and goodies.”

This mentality in leaders is so important, and crucial in ensuring that a business retains its employees. “In times of distancing imposed on us by the epidemiological situation, people genuinely caring and being interested in how a person is doing can really make a difference,” says Professor Korotov. It is crises like this that really separate the good leaders from the bad, and this will have an impact on the work ethic of employees. Ultimately, if businesses and organisations treat their employees well, they’ll treat the business well which will lead to success. HR professionals globally have been key in ensuring that employees are the priority in the business, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this is something that should continue.

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