The Critical Importance of Employee Wellbeing in the Time of COVID-19

Kathie Topel, Director Business Performance Improvement
Kimberly Lanier, Associate Director Business Performance Improvement

In the best times, leaders know that people – or human capital – are the heart of a successful organization. In challenging times, this concept is even more magnified; it’s the key to survival. The global Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) is delivering unprecedented challenges to businesses all over the globe.

As organizations seek to adapt, COVID-19 has created a “new normal” for employees – working remotely, online education of children at home, social distancing, the uncertainty of changing lockdown laws, personal financial considerations, as well as health and safety concerns are all contributing to unprecedented levels of change and stress for everyone. This stressful and uncertain situation is having adverse impacts on employees’ wellbeing, which, if unaddressed, can seep into the workplace.  The effects may include difficulty concentrating, poor health, difficulty making decisions, disconnectedness and absenteeism.

The world recognizes that COVID-19 is not a brief aberration; the new normal way of working has already lasted several months and could last years. Organizations need to proactively invest in programs and solutions to support employee wellbeing during this time. Leaders must ask themselves, “What can we do to ensure the physical, emotional and social health of our employees for the long haul? How can we ensure our workforce remains engaged, productive, innovative and loyal?” In this post, the first in a series of posts about human capital in the time of COVID-19, we offer some ideas to get started.

What Is Wellbeing?

When people think of wellbeing, they often think first of physical health.  While physical health is a part of wellbeing, psychological and social health are equally important.

Physical aspect. Avoiding a COVID-19 infection is a primary physical wellbeing concern. While many professionals have the option to work from home, employees in warehouses, factories, retail stores and hotels – to say nothing of hospitals – must work outside the home. This reality is also a psychological stressor: workers worry about their own health and they also worry about bringing infections home.

Psychological aspect. Working from home while educating children, adjusting to new work as business models change and struggling to preserve professionalism on client calls are all examples of psychological stressors.

Social aspect. Missing informal opportunities to talk at the coffee machine or copier, to grab a drink after work or to go to lunch together is a social wellbeing issue. For many, the workplace replaced the village before COVID-19. We saw the same people daily and we found comfort in a familiar office or place to go. As social wellbeing suffers, so too can engagement and innovation, which often spring from casual, ad hoc conversations between colleagues.

Improving Employee Wellbeing

Because employee wellbeing is multi-dimensional, solutions should encompass the physical, psychological and social aspects of health and wellness. Below are some suggestions:

  • Provide access to personal protection equipment (PPE) appropriate to employees’ roles.
  • Ensure that policies are clear. Communicate policies and reinforce them to signal that employee physical safety is a top priority.
  • Develop wellbeing programs with the sponsorship of senior leaders.
  • Support employee wellbeing explicitly and frequently in leadership communications.
  • Educate managers on employee wellbeing so they can be effective in their support efforts.
  • Raise awareness about available employee assistance programs (EAPs). Employers who don’t offer an EAP yet should consider it as a way to deliver a helpful benefit — and a message of caring — for a low cost.
  • Support flexible schedules so employees can coordinate with spouses’ work, childcare, child education, and other responsibilities.
  • Monitor employee wellbeing and gauge its level via anonymous pulse surveys. Employees need to know their feelings are valued and it’s acceptable to express concerns.
  • Consider external advisors to help deliver new programs or identify approaches to make existing programs responsive to pandemic circumstances. An outside perspective can provide a fresh look and incorporate best practices from other companies or industries.
  • Consider updating business purposes and values in response not only to COVID-driven changes, but also to recent global unrest, climate change and changes in employees’ personal values.

Emphasize the Positive

While being physically separated from colleagues is perceived by many as a negative, a different type of connectivity has flourished – and should be recognized and emphasized as a positive by leaders. For international businesses, global connectedness has emerged as a bright spot among COVID-driven troubles. Colleagues from far-flung corners of the globe are working together in a way that suddenly feels natural. Across the ocean feels more like down the hall. While technology has enabled this type of connection in the past, COVID-19 has sped the cultural adoption of using the technology tools in new ways – spurring increased collaboration across borders and resulting in a larger global viewpoint. Fluidity of information and stronger collaborations are a win for businesses that are positioned to take advantage of this unexpected closeness globally.

Retention, Productivity, Engagement and Caring

Investing in employee wellbeing is the right thing to do, but if you need another rationale think about your customers. The time-tested adage of “Customers do not come first, employees come first…if you take care of your employees, they will take care of customers,” has never been truer than during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic, business investor Mark Cuban prophesized that the way companies treat workers during the pandemic could define their brand for decades. Several months later, the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business conducted an annual brand trust survey, which revealed that when it comes to brand trust, consumers put a premium on how companies treated their employees during the pandemic. The rather modest investment that employee wellbeing programs represent can be measured against the across-the-board returns resulting from happier, healthier, more loyal and more productive staff that deliver stronger customer experiences. By improving the health and wellbeing of their employees, organizations not only create a more motivated, engaged and high-performing workforce, they ensure customer loyalty and brand goodwill.

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