Employee wellbeing is slow to recover from the pandemic
As organizations are slowly but surely planning their return to the office, there is a growing concern in terms of the long term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health and wellbeing of employees. Recent research showed that the number of employees reporting mental health worries in May 2021 was up by 24% since the same period last year. Another study reported that employee wellbeing is slow to recover from the pandemic, as only 40% of the respondents said that they held a positive view of their wellbeing compared to 49% before the COVID-19 pandemic.
What we know for sure at this stage is that the coronavirus pandemic has affected the mental health of the general population. Though, as most of the investigations focused on the short-term impact of the pandemic, we lack data or available research on the long-term wellbeing effect. Though, our earlier experience with similar healthcare crisis has shown that those who go through such traumatic events may have various mental health problems including posttraumatic stress disorder, stress and anxiety, or depressive disorder.
What's more, the long-term impact of the pandemic on the workforce may manifest in other areas as well, such as the physical health of employees. The extended remote working may also hurt the learning and development programs of companies. In particular, it may negatively impact the training of new employees who are not able to promptly learn, observe or exchange while working from home.
Organizations have stepped up their efforts to support employees with their wellbeing needs
Employers did not sit on their laurels while the global pandemic unfolded and provided a variety of support to their employees from online mental health counselling services to wellness programs. From the early days of the pandemic, at the WorkLife HUB, we have been supporting organizations with their employee wellbeing, work-life balance and stress management training needs. So, what lessons did we learn from this work? Here are some of the insights gained:
1) Separate training for employees and managers
For a significant proportion of the working-age population, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way they worked. This shift not only had an impact on everyday interactions between employees and teams but also how staff were managed. Organizations were quick to recognize this trend and focused on their training programmes and requests on employee wellbeing and work-life balance on two target groups: employees and supervisors/line managers.
This shift has been key. The pandemic, which inadvertently kicked off the golden age of remote and home working, made it necessary for managers to deploy new skills and work practices which have a direct impact on the wellbeing and work-life balance of employees. In addition, managers at our training report being stretched between their new remote-work roles and their own wellbeing needs. A recent survey, by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), confirmed this trend as employees with line manager responsibilities reported lower work-life balance than those who did not manage anyone. Workplace relationships play a huge role in driving the overall wellbeing and experience of staff. The same research, by IES, indicated that employees who had more contact with their line managers during the pandemic reported improved levels of organizational commitment and job satisfaction.
Building on the above findings, and our experience, we have learned how important it is to cater to the different training needs of both managers and staff. Therefore, we design our workshops in a way that targets the skills and knowledge development of two target groups but aims at increasing the overall workplace wellbeing. What has been the impact of these learning and development activities for line managers and staff? They became more confident in conducting conversations around employee wellbeing, recognize and attend to their own wellbeing needs, and contribute to safe and healthy workplaces, one that encourages active participation in wellbeing practices.
2) Peer support - increased desire for employees to provide support to their peers
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on our lives both at home and at work. Many of us needed to face daily challenges that resulted in us experiencing higher levels of stress, feeling overwhelmed or anxious. Social scientists advocate for the use of different coping strategies for us to deal with such situations, among which one gained popularity during the pandemic, the ability to support each other: peer support.
Some of you may know that we often start our client engagements, when delivering tailor-made training, with a pre-event survey based on which we build our training content. Perhaps, not surprisingly, it was eye-opening to discover through the survey results that during the times of social distancing and forced lockdowns, for many it was important to stay connected with their colleagues, and not just help them cope with stress through calls or video chats to deal with isolation or mental health issues, but be able to identify if a peer was going through a difficult time and needed extra support.
Thus, to guide learners in plugging their skills gaps we built in specific content on peer support. What did we focus on? First of all, peer supporters need to offer a listening service, therefore they need to be trained on active listening skill sets, counselling skills, the ability to properly read verbal and non-verbal communication, and be proficient with problem-solving. Secondly, peer supporters need to be able to effectively educate on a given subject, such as mental health, isolation or depression, and so they need skills to educate. Thirdly, peer supporters are often part of a “buddy or ally” system, and require skills to mentor and guide colleagues through hardships. Lastly, peer supporters need to have mediation skills and be knowledgeable with conflict resolution.
Becoming a peer supporter is no small feat but our experience is that with the right motivation and targeted skills development anyone can become one. The COVID-19 pandemic is and has been leaving us with complex challenges, thus neither employees nor managers should be left behind or ill-equipped to handle these important challenges by themselves.
3) Coping strategies to manage stress - a complicated subject to teach in an online environment
Not everything we proposed in our training curriculum worked entirely. In particular, participants found some of the stress management coping strategies we explained through our sessions overly complex and difficult to implement in real life. Researchers have been studying for decades the source of stress and what coping strategies work best in different situations. Looking into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our mental health and stress level, studies found the use of several coping strategies (stress reappraisal and stress mindsets) promising. Even though these stress management strategies can be useful for anyone to learn about, we found that fully grasping their meaning, through an online format in a limited amount of time, from the perspective of the learner, can be challenging.
On the other hand, our training participants have had positive experiences with, or have found the following stress management coping strategies easy to understand and more implementable: frequently connecting with friends, community members or family; exercising or taking care of oneself; taking breaks and disconnecting from online news and social media; or, other stress management techniques such as meditation or mindfulness.
Employee wellbeing training after the COVID-19 pandemic
The pandemic has indeed brought forward more open conversations and discussions about mental health, wellbeing and work-life balance. Many of these issues are likely to remain important topics for both employers and employees over the coming years. We are fortunate to have been able to work with some of the most forward-looking and employee-centric organizations in the world, catering for their employee wellbeing training needs. We look forward to continuing this work, and sharing our experience with you in this space, so as to create better, more effective ways to support those colleagues and organizations.