The pandemic’s impact on workers' mental and physical health should be a wake-up call for employers, says Ian MacRae. One of the greatest challenges for employers and workers in 2020 was finding ways to work to keep companies afloat and to support people, people managers and their psychological wellbeing.

This trend will not disappear in 2021, and it will be necessary to bolster and cultivate employee wellbeing while people continue to work remotely or in partial return to offices. There was a growing awareness of mental health and wellbeing throughout 2020, but the challenges are not over. In 2021 and beyond, all organisations should be:

  • assessing overall levels of wellbeing of staff on an ongoing basis; and
  • ensuring frontline managers and teams are still sensitive to individual wellbeing.

Why work engagement?

Based on decades of research into both burnout and wellbeing, work engagement has emerged as the best psychological measure of psychological wellbeing in the workplace. Work engagement is a “positive, fulfilling work-related state of mind”. 

People with high levels of work engagement have energy in their work, feel a sense of purpose in their work and feel immersed in their work (similar to a state of ‘flow’). That means engagement is an excellent way of measuring psychological wellbeing in the workplace, and is the opposite of burnout.

How did wellbeing change in 2020?

Last year was a bumpy one for people’s wellbeing. We would normally see fairly stable levels of psychological wellbeing in aggregate. Individual wellbeing typically depends more on individual circumstances and major life events than general economic or social trends. Good employers with supportive and constructive policies tend to foster wellbeing, while unstable work environments, volatile working relationships, financial insecurity and unreasonable job demands tend to have a negative impact on wellbeing.

The past year has seen different patterns in wellbeing with more concerted and dramatic changes in people’s wellbeing. When people lose job resources like autonomy, social support and a sense of control it negatively affects their wellbeing. When a company is in trouble and people do not have the job resources to deal with the stress or instability, we might expect to see wellbeing levels decrease across the company. Yet it is rare to see that instability hit wellbeing levels nationally or even globally.

Wellbeing data from Clear Review’s My Mindspace was collected from thousands of people across dozens of UK companies in 2020. The trends in wellbeing are worth noting:

  • Lockdowns, curfews and similar measures tend to trigger an immediate and drastic reduction in employee wellbeing.
  • Wellbeing levels tend to bounce back but it takes weeks or months.
  • The lower levels of wellbeing appear to have lower troughs each time; each subsequent set of restrictions hits wellbeing a bit harder.

This data suggests that people are not necessarily adapting to a ‘new normal’. Anecdotally, many employees may have been reporting overall changes in wellbeing, but it’s always difficult to know how we are doing relative to everyone else unless we can see the bigger picture. The ongoing demands of work, combined with the reduced resources such as social support networks, indicate that, on average, people are becoming more strained. Traditional coping strategies and behaviours that often take place outside of the home and with other people are mostly unavailable, so fewer of these resources can make balancing job demands more difficult.

Organisational wellbeing

People managers cannot control government policy, and this data should not be interpreted as a criticism of measures that are designed to control the spread of a pandemic. However, it is important to recognise and continue to support employees at individual and organisational levels. Wellbeing is not just a nice to have, it’s also an excellent predictor of employee productivity. If we want people to perform well, we need to take care of their wellbeing.

Understanding the organisational – or even national – trends can help to identify times when employees may need extra support, or when people managers may need to be even more mindful of employee wellbeing. While we saw relatively high levels of wellbeing in April and May, with an upsurge in awareness of wellbeing and mental health, some employees are now feeling there is less workplace support and people are expected to just get on with it. Similarly, the ongoing challenges of the pandemic and related winter restrictions mean that many people’s resources (social and psychological, as well as financial) are being depleted.

Individual work engagement

Analysing overall trends in wellbeing are a useful indicator, but they should not be used to ignore individual wellbeing levels. Just because there is an overall uptick in engagement levels does not mean every employee is at peak engagement. People’s individual wellbeing and psychological health do not always fit neatly into wider trends.

Therefore, it is still important that frontline managers have regular conversations with employees, and maintain a direct connection with them. This should enable managers to support people when necessary and possible.

What can we do about it?

  • Track employee wellbeing levels both individually and at an organisational level. It can help people managers identify trends and intervene accordingly.
  • Do not assume that after nearly a year of trying to adapt to Covid, most people have settled into a new normal. Some will be adapting successfully; many will still be struggling.
  • When it’s not possible to change job demands, think about job resources. What can people managers provide that will help balance demands? Independence and autonomy? Social or managerial support? Tools, tech and equipment? Many people have been working remotely for a significant period of time, and likely have good insight into what resources would be helpful. Make sure there are still mechanisms in place to get this information.
  • Find ways to bolster people’s wellbeing when things are running relatively smoothly. It’s easier to boost people’s wellbeing from a healthy baseline than trying to run emergency interventions when people are at their lowest points.
  • People managers often end up taking on the stress and challenges of the people around them. Be mindful of your own wellbeing levels, consider your own social and psychological resources, and make use of them.

Ian MacRae is head of workplace psychology at Clear Review and author of Motivation and Performance

This article was first published in People Management magazine on 3 March 2021.

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