Professor of Human Resource Management and Head of the Changing World of Work Group Cranfield School of Management
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What does 2021 have in store for employee wellbeing?

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The events of last year turned the world of work on its head and so, as we embark on a new year, how will our understanding and approach to employee wellbeing be transformed? 

6th Jan 2021
Professor of Human Resource Management and Head of the Changing World of Work Group Cranfield School of Management
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Employee wellbeing has become one of the most important topics for leaders and human resource management practitioners in the current climate. Employers have long been urged to recognise the link between wellbeing and productivity with evidence suggesting an impressive return on investment from wellbeing initiatives.

Moving forward we see the need for a different emphasis – to more fully encompass financial, physical and digital wellbeing and to rethink inclusion and belonging.

The Covid-19 pandemic means that it has never been more crucial for HR leaders to consider how they can enhance the physical and psychological health of their employees. However, they might also need to reconsider their core understanding and approach to employee wellbeing.  

Against a backdrop of technological advancement and Brexit-related uncertainty, the pandemic has caused a re-imagining of our environment. Not only have we seen acceleration of trends such as remote working and use of communication technology, as we enter 2021 we are faced with potentially the worst economic downturn that many of us have seen. The question therefore is: what does this mean for employee wellbeing in the post-Covid 19 landscape?

Considering the five pillars of wellbeing

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that employee wellbeing is at greater risk in 2021. Factors such as uncertain job security, financial hardship, a lack of social contact and a potentially fatal virus have led to increased stress within the population. However, while the basic objective of employee wellbeing initiatives might remain the same – to create a safe and inclusive environment – the focus and approaches to doing this may well need to be different in 2021. I suggest here a need to encompass more fully the five pillars of wellbeing developed by Natasha Wallace at Conscious Works and detailed in a recent report by HRZone and Sodexo.

Emotional wellbeing

As the pandemic has continued we have seen increasing effects on emotional wellbeing. In a survey conducted by AXA, 64% of respondents said that their stress levels had increased since before the pandemic while 81% said that they had a ‘poor’ or ‘low’ state of mind.

The impact on front-line workers has been well documented, as has the potential blurring of boundaries between work and life in those working from home, but initiatives used to support home workers in the short term might not be fit for purpose in the longer term.

We need sustainable systems and cultures for psychological wellbeing and mental health. These should be the shared responsibility of HR practitioners, senior leaders, line managers and employees. It is HR’s role to provide organisational support systems (including those for mental health), to build personal resilience of employees and to support line managers in managing aspects such as work-related stress and performance in remote workers. We also need to shift attitudes towards more inclusive ways for dispersed teams to operate and address the potential toxic outcomes of stress and uncertainty such as bullying. HR must also work with other senior leaders to develop a positive and supportive organisational culture across the whole organisation.

As time marches on it is important not only to consider the wellbeing of front-line employees but also managers, leaders and HR practitioners themselves. Commentators have previously noted for example that HR practitioners are the last to consider their own wellbeing and are therefore at risk of burn out – moving forward, leaders within the organisation need to consider their own health and to role model healthy, inclusive and adaptive behaviours.

wellbeing hub link

Physical wellbeing

Initiatives related to physical wellbeing often focus on creating ergonomically sound workplaces, access to gyms and healthy eating options. For employers of front-line employees and those returning to the workplace, the notion of a ‘safe’ place to work now takes on a new meaning as we take responsibility for protecting these people from possible infection.

In light of a likely continued move to home working for at least some employees, attention must also move away from creating a physically healthy workplace and towards not only ensuring that employees have ergonomically sound equipment at home but also towards empowering them to make healthy decisions at home. The neglect of physical wellbeing in the rush to move to WFH at the start of lockdown can be forgiven – in the long-term we must ensure that our employees are educated and supported to maintain their physical wellbeing, for example in moving away from back-to-back online meetings.  

Financial wellbeing

Research has demonstrated that financial wellbeing is often neglected by organisations. Given the increased financial anxiety that we are likely to see in employees over the next few years, never has this been more important. Employers can have a positive impact on financial wellbeing through initiatives such as financial planning advice and education.

Digital wellbeing

Digital wellbeing is also more pertinent due to the sharp acceleration in using digital tools during the pandemic. In 2021, we need to see organisations move away from the reactive stance that they have been forced to take in adopting new technologies.

HR should be responsible for ensuring that the workforce has been properly upskilled to work effectively with technology and for addressing challenges related to 'techno stress'. I would also expect HR to be thinking more strategically about how they use technology to support employee wellbeing itself through online development and support, effective online communication and resources such as mindfulness applications and online exercise classes.

Social wellbeing

Closely related to emotional wellbeing and mental health is social wellbeing. We have talked a lot over the past few months about the importance of communication and online social activity to prevent social isolation, so I would like to move beyond this to consider inclusion, which has been highlighted in recent months due to movements such as Black Lives Matter.

Not only do we know that Covid-19 has affected some groups more than others in relation to work-related outcomes (e.g. women), we have also seen the creation of new divisions within the workforce. For example, we have those who work at home vs. front-line employees, essential vs. non-essential employees and those who are furloughed vs. those who are still working.

All of these dimensions present the possibility of new inequalities – we already know that home workers are less likely to receive opportunities or promotions than office-based employees for example. Thus we need to move away from a focus on only traditional axes of diversity – although these of course remain important – and let inclusion take a broader focus. I would like to see approaches that consider inclusion and belonging for everyone, rather than the targeted focus on single aspects that we have seen recently.  

Rethinking our approach to wellbeing

As we embark on a new year, HR leaders should reflect on their current approaches to employee wellbeing and consider whether they are fit for purpose in light of the post-pandemic work environment.

Moving forward we see the need for a different emphasis – to more fully encompass financial, physical and digital wellbeing and to rethink inclusion and belonging. While the core aspects of wellbeing such as support, trust, development, purpose and empowerment might remain the same, our means of delivering these might need to change given new ways of working and the challenges currently facing the workforce.

A continued facilitation of open and two-way communication and, at the heart of this, honesty and realism, is a good basis on which to start.

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