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Employee wellbeing must not be sidelined in recovering economy


John Moore

John Moore

John Moore

The expression “a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor” will have taken on new, personal significance for many of us this year. Coronavirus pandemic restrictions have been hard to anticipate and leaders in all businesses have been put under pressure to make prompt, reactive decisions without a clear line of sight on what the future holds.

It might be tempting at the start of a new year, with a Covid-19 vaccine on the horizon, to hope that you can go back to doing things the way you were doing them at the start of 2020. But it is likely that some of the changes forced on us this year will be permanent changes, and some of them are changes for good.

One key change I’ve noticed is in the way employers are treating their employees. With so many people furloughed and working from home for the first time, the wellbeing of employees has perhaps never been in the spotlight as much as it is now. Many employers we work with have responded admirably, realising how important it is to provide support and make sure staff are in a good place mentally and physically in what have been challenging circumstances.

But it is not an issue that will just go away the moment more of us are allowed back into our physical places of work. The evidence shows that wellbeing needs to remain a top management priority. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hays’ latest survey from professionals in Northern Ireland has found that wellbeing has plummeted since the onset of the virus. Responses from over 450 employers and employees in Northern Ireland at the end of October found that only 41% of professionals rate their wellbeing positively. This has dropped significantly since the first lockdown in March, when 59% gave a positive rating.

It matters to employees that employers take their duty of care seriously. In our survey 86% of people said it is important to them that their organisation supports their mental health and wellbeing but less than half thought the support available is adequate.

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to change the way we work. As those restrictions have evolved, the support employees need will change as well. Now is the time to make use of any employee assistance programmes you have available – everything from financial or legal advice to the provision of mental health support services, which allow your team to reach out for help in their own time.

Despite the reported drop in wellbeing, three quarters of respondents (75%) say that their organisation offers some support for their wellbeing and mental health. That’s a really positive number but the challenge now is to make sure the support on offer is relevant and reaching all parts of the workforce. For example, fewer professionals (32%) in Generation Z rated their wellbeing positively than other age groups in our survey, so specific initiatives for them may be needed.

A one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to be effective when it comes to managing a team through change, putting the onus on working with team members on an individual basis to understand their needs.

Work-life balance was also revealed to be an issue for professionals across Northern Ireland and has shown no improvement since the onset of the pandemic. Nearly half (48%) rate their work-life balance between average and very poor, comparable to what they felt in July (49%) and when the first national lockdown commenced in March (51%).

It will continue to be an issue in 2021 and in a world where hybrid working will become more prevalent, we need to make sure there’s clear guidance in place to enable employees to switch off from work.

If wellbeing initiatives are properly implemented and embedded now, then the workplace that emerges will be stronger than ever and better equipped to meet the needs of the business in the future.

Ulster Business