The COVID-19 pandemic brought many changes to the world of work, a key change being a renewed focus on employee wellness – and with good reason.
Because over and above the impact of people having to take time off work after contracting COVID-19, the disease also had – and will continue to have – an impact on mental health. A report published in The Lancet said almost one in five COVID-19 patients develop a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety or dementia within three months of diagnosis. And then there is the mental health impact of simply living through a pandemic – according to the WHO, in the first year of the pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%.
Many organisations have also failed to consider that between 10% and 30% of COVID-19 sufferers can expect to get Long COVID, which some have predicted will be a major form of disability by 2023.
In the past, big corporates tackled employee wellness in much the same way – they outsourced it to a wellness company, usually paying a fortune for access to counsellors, financial coaching and basic health screening. Uptake was quite low; typically between 10% and 20% of employees.
That was before the pandemic – and if it wasn’t working then, chances are it won’t be remotely suitable for the post-pandemic employee, given what we have all gone through since the beginning of 2020.
To their credit, many companies have realised that wellness is a massive issue, and tried to put various interventions into place. However, it’s going to take more than online yoga and meditation sessions, or annual company wellness days to deal with the fallout from the pandemic. Wellness has to be infused into our company cultures.
So how do we ensure that we are creating a culture that is inherently sufficiently caring – and which covers the diverse needs of a diverse workforce? Employees don’t just need their blood pressure and cholesterol checked, they also need support and understanding, and spaces and opportunities for growth and development, so that they can thrive. We need to create psychological safety so that people can bring their whole selves to work.
This will need leaders who have high EQ. It means crafting family-centric, human-centric policies, and a culture of compassion. At the same time, we need to find the balance between creating that empathetic and compassionate environment, and supporting a high performance culture.
We must be aware of the impact of the economy on people, such as the rising costs of fuel and food, and increasing inflation. Many people are experiencing financial stress, despite being fortunate enough to be employed. In addition, there are environmental impacts like water shortages and loadshedding. People are already on overload before they go to work or log on from their kitchen tables.
Then there’s the social disconnect – because we’re trying to create team cohesion in this new world of work. And what we’re seeing now is an increase in something called “quiet quitting”. Before Covid-19, the problem was “presenteeism” – where people were physically at work, but not really there mentally, not engaged. Quiet quitting sees people are in a space where they want to take care of their own health, but resignation may not be an option. So they do the bare minimum required of them, because they don’t feel the organisation cares about them. They quietly check out.
We have to look at the cost of keeping the workforce well versus the cost of not doing it – and the previous approach to wellness won’t do the trick. Companies are going to need to design something bespoke that fits with their values and purpose.
Bearing all this in mind, how do we increase productivity and talent mobility? How do we keep things human in a digital world?
We need to remember that extra aspect of DEI, which is “belonging”. There is a cost that comes with every employee who feels as if they don’t belong, as if they are on the periphery and are not valued. It changes how they relate to their colleagues; it changes how they approach their work. It certainly has a damaging effect on their performance and productivity.
Thinking through health and wellbeing, therefore, needs to be a proactive step that is built into employee experience, because it’s an important part of that. It’s a vital part of our employee value proposition. We give employees benefits like medical aids and pensions, but can we do it better? Can we make wellness part of what attracts them to our companies?
The traditional approach to wellness is not only backward-looking, it’s also not multifaceted enough to address the complexity that employees are dealing with. We need to find ways to address wellness that look to the future, to build stronger, more productive, and healthier employees who are equipped to deal with the demands of the new world of work – and then train our leaders to lead accordingly.