Employee wellbeing – through COVID-19 and beyond.

Most of us are now thinking about the return to the new different. Whether this is a return to work for those employees on furlough or a return to workplaces for those of us that have been working from home for these last few months, change is on the horizon.

Wellbeing needs to be on all our agendas right now. I’ve been thinking about this a lot of late, reading and researching. I’ve collated here, for those who might find them useful, what I believe are the important factors for us to consider – and share with your leaders and managers with key roles to play in facilitating this return.

Disclaimers first. There’s lots of stuff on mental health here. I’m not a mental health professional; this is a distillation of stuff that I know from and have read from a range of sources. I am drawing on academic research and papers, so some points are somewhat simplified.

Now onto the helpful stuff.

We have each of us been living though a shared situation but we have experienced it very differently. From isolation to overwhelm, busier than ever to furlough. There will be people that have copied well, others that are not coping at all. We cannot assume what category people will fall into, what their particular concerns will be, what they will need in the week and month to come.  Mental health professions are telling us that during the last few months many people have experienced poor mental health – and these effects are likely to be long lasting.  Check out this report from Mind Charity.

When it comes to experiencing potentially traumatic events, people tend to fall into one of four groups.

1. People that will be fine
2. People that will need some support but recover reasonably quickly / well
3. People that are ok now but will become not ok in the future (delayed responses)
4. People that will not be at all well and will need lots of support.

It isn’t that straightforward to say how many people will into each group. There are a number of factors at play here from personality type, demographic factors, availability of resources to the proximity to the experience. So for example, if there’s a traumatic event (like a pandemic) you might be more likely to fall into group 4 if you have actually become ill rather than just been worried about being ill.

Broadly, the majority of people will probably be fine (group 1) – possibly up to 65%. Again, we just don’t know. We cannot know a person and then guess where they will fit.

Lessons for HR? We need to prepare for what each of these groups need, from some basic wellbeing support for those people in group 2 to those in group 4 who may need long term support. We also need to make sure whatever we put into place is available long term – not just for the next few months.

Generally wellbeing interventions fall into three categories: primary, secondary and tertiary. Simply, primary is about tackling the source and preventing poor workplace wellbeing. Secondary is the wellbeing stuff that many of us do in the workplace – mindfulness, fitness classes and training and learning. Tertiary is the stuff that supports people who are ill (occupational health, EAPs, counselling). HR also needs to ensure that we have all of these available. Regarding primary interventions we can’t necessarily tackle the main source of stress (the pandemic itself) but we can reduce stressors of returning to work through good, timely communication, trained managers and effective health, safety and hygiene. Right now, we need to ensure that we are considering wellbeing initiatives at every level. We can’t tackle all of the primary (the source of the problem is outside of our control – but our response is not). We can address the particular sources of stress relating to returning to the workplace or the source of stress for particular employees such as working parents or people in BAME groups. We then need to have proactive wellbeing support to enable people to boost their wellbeing – and support for those who are currently unwell or will become so.

What about those employees who have been on furlough? Again, we don’t know. There’s no research that we can look at because it’s never happened before. We can however draw (to some extent) on research into unemployment and its impact on wellbeing. There are of course key differences (people on furlough have continued to have income even if reduced and there has been an end point even if it was not exactly known throughout).

Work, for some people, is associated with meaning and purpose in life. Furlough has challenged this. Just like with trauma, people react differently to being unemployed. Some of the factors around wellbeing and unemployment are less relevant but still possible (fears about re-employment or financial worries – noting that people may have had reduced incomes or be worrying that furlough will lead to longer term unemployment). Unemployment is linked with poor mental health and poor physical health too. This is often greater for those who have high levels of work-role centrality – e.g. their sense of work is highly linked to their sense of self. People’s response to unemployment isn’t homogenous and neither is the response to furlough likely to be either. There’s a whole range of factors that will impact how much someone’s wellbeing is impacted from their ability to be able to use coping strategies, retain some sort of structured time use and routine, financial implications and the duration of the unemployed period.

Onto quarantine now.  We’ve never before quarantined a whole country – so we are back to not really knowing the long term implications of it.  But there is research into other quarantine situations like SARS and Ebola, and it has been associated with stress, anxiety and increased substance misuse – some of it long lasting.  One thing that does need to be in the secondary and tertiary support mix – help for people who have struggled with substances during COVID-19.  Make this about wellbeing, not discipline.

As HR professions or people managers we are unable to make any assumptions about how people will be or what they will need. We can make an educated guess or two. If someone has been seriously ill as a result of COVID-19, they may be more likely to fall into the group that needs more wellbeing support. If someone has been bereaved the same might apply. But as we cannot assume; our only option therefore is to engage on an individual level to find out whilst making sure that organisationally we have the right tools in place.

I believe it is critical that managers are provided with tools and information.  Many organisation train managers on mental health – but we need to help them understand the specific implications of COVID-19, and how to support staff now and for the months to come.  I attended a CIPD webinar last week where one of the speakers commented that (for furloughed employees but I think it applies wider too) returning to work isn’t a one off event, it is a process.  Improving wellbeing and mental health post COVID-19 and lockdown is similarly a process, and possibly a long term one too.

There’s one more thing to add. For some, a potentially traumatic experience leads to deep reflection. It challenges what we believe to be true, what we think we have always known. This can lead to a desire to change, to new motivations a new life course. We should expect some of our employees to be in this space too.

And finally.  Not everyone has seen a negative impact upon their wellbeing.  For some respondents to my recent research, the last few months has meant less stressful commuting, more time for exercise, a chance to eat better food and have the opportunity for hobbies.  Although I am not sure many of them were also home-schooling……

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