Workforce wellbeing: why it’s time for employers to put their heads together

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched almost every area of our lives and given rise to countless new pressures and concerns. Many have worried about their health and that of their loved ones, their financial security and ability to manage a fundamentally different existence.

But one source of anxiety has shot to the surface over the past 18 months, and that’s work.

According to new research from global benefits and rewards platform Perkbox, an astounding 92% of UK GPs have seen an increase in the number of people seeking help for work-related stress or anxiety since the start of the pandemic. This gives rise to serious questions over working culture, and the role of employers in exacerbating and/or mitigating the UK’s mental health crisis.

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Work pushing mental health to the precipice

Even prior to the pandemic, work was making a significant contribution to poor mental health in the UK. Back in 2019, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), reported that 57% of long-term absence at work was due to stress, anxiety and depression.

Yet the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. Many people have seen redundancies at close quarters and have been putting in longer hours to counteract job insecurity or compensate for job losses or furloughs in their teams. Considering this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that we’ve seen an increase in requests for mental health support.

What can’t be ignored, however, is that 80% of GPs anticipate levels increasing further still in the coming weeks. This is significant cause for concern and should provide food for thought for employers, as they deliberate on what working will look like at their organisation moving forward.

Employers should and can care more

People are clearly the biggest casualty of work-related stress and anxiety, but organisations suffer too. The majority of GPs report signing up to 50% of patients off work when they’re experiencing work-related stress or anxiety. High numbers of instances can negatively affect business reputation, wider employee morale and productivity – meaning that stress and anxiety can have a real impact on employers’ bottom lines.

It’s imperative that employers address this issue, but right now their actions in this area are falling short of the mark. Almost three quarters (73%) of GPs say that patients are referencing ineffective employer wellbeing strategies when reporting workplace stress.

So, what can employers do? They need to demonstrate genuine care. Not a one-size-fits-all approach, but a range of tools and measures that have the flexibility to be tailored.

These could target the mental, physical and financial wellbeing of employees, and could include everything from self-care days, mindfulness apps, financial advice, line management training in social skills and wellbeing audits to discounts on sports equipment, offers on food and drink, and the latest tech and electronics. They might not all seem like big interventions on their own – but, together, they can provide holistic support to workers and make them feel valued.

Beyond this, companies must also ensure their people feel connected. Bringing employees together and creating a coherent, consistent sense of company culture and purpose is more challenging in today’s hybrid/remote world. Global, location-agnostic technology should unlock greater unity between teams and allow colleagues to easily collaborate across geographies and recognise successes throughout the entire organisation.

Employees need to be supported and rewarded, but they also want to be part of a purposeful place to work, to feel part of a community.

Moving forward

So, as we emerge from the pandemic, employers have a real and pressing opportunity to put workplace wellbeing front and centre of plans for the future.

After the rigours of the past eighteen months, people want to be cared for, respected, and even inspired by their employers. In a competitive jobs market this will make all the difference between employees staying with their employer or heading for the door.

Cary Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, University of Manchester