Industry leaders are waking up to the fact that employee well-being needs to be a part of every corporate strategy
It is a known fact that stress is a killer. Hundreds of studies have been conducted on how stress affects physical and mental wellbeing. At the physical level, it can lead to severe chronic ailments. Stress is equally devastating to one’s psychological faculties. To make things even more complicated, stress-related psychiatric conditions can induce physical symptoms too.
At the workplace, stress has been directly associated with below-par performance. In addition to physical and mental conditions, office stress has certain unique manifestations too. Absenteeism and presenteeism are two such oft-discussed phenomena. While, in the first case, stressed-out employees refrain from attending office, in the second, anxious people dutifully attend work even when they are not fit enough to do so – leading to poor work and unnecessary health hazards all around.
None of these are particularly new findings, but businesses had so long treated stress as a necessary evil and left it at that. Not anymore. Suddenly, everyone realizes stress can no longer be ignored – and industry leaders are waking up to the fact that employee wellbeing needs to be a part of every corporate strategy.
A complicated scenario
So what led to this change? The pandemic. It was a totally unforeseeable disruptor on an epic scale, and it complicated the stress scenario. Work fatigue and associated stress assumed new proportions. As the pandemic evolved, the series of changes that the employees were going through made things tough to cope with. A fully remote communication set-up proved to be a great stressor, leading to virtual meeting fatigue. People were absolutely sick of looking at screens all day, and yet the panic induced by the uncertainties all around drove many to needlessly work beyond office hours, even if there was no real need. Since times were uncertain, employees got too edgy, and there were growing concerns over constant financial stresses against a backdrop of rising living costs and an unpredictable future job market.
The employers felt the stress too, as the “great resignation” syndrome set in. Suddenly people were ready to leave their jobs for reasons as diverse as health, home, family, me-time, the impermanence of life, unexpected bereavement, staying close to the elderly, returning to their roots… …resignation had never been so varied! Add to this the sudden opening up of a nationwide talent pool owing to remote working – allowing recruiters to select candidates from anywhere. The resultant turbulence in the recruitment scenario and the current buoyant labor market in many countries meant decision-makers seek immediate measures to make the workplace more conducive to retention and recruitment.
The push was twofold. While younger employees are resigning for better remuneration packages and non-monetary facilities prompted by remote working, there are parallel concerns across industries as older, more experienced staff are leaving unable to cope with the sudden changes in working conditions.
Attitudes are changing
Till now organizations took routine, half-hearted actions toward wellbeing. It had been more of an incidental add-on. Companies thought it was enough to sermonize on healthy practices like greater physical activity and holistic eating, arranging occasional sessions on office ergonomics, setting up a subsidized corporate gym membership, and footing periodic health check-up bills. The organization took no proactive steps to keep the employees physically healthy and mentally alert. And office stress was never in the focus.
But now that has got to change. And attitudes are changing fast. COVID-19 acted as a catalyst that shook-up employers’ response to the well-being of employees. Now there is no option but to accept employee well-being as integral to business strategy if productivity is to sustain.
There is widespread recognition of the need for adopting strategies that address the mental well-being of employees and go deeper to tackle underlying structural causes of workplace stress. Links between well-being and productivity are getting established through new research findings almost every day. And decision-makers are admitting – however, reluctantly it may be – that the problem is frequently rooted in poor management practices.
And companies are trying out different things. For example, Japanese technology company Fujitsu encourages employees to block out an hour every week in their calendars for any non-work activity of their choice. They also reserve periods for undisturbed “protected focus time”. Indispensable online meetings are scheduled for25 or 45minutes – not 30 or 60 minutes – so that the people get comfortable breaks between calls.
No ideal Wellbeing Model yet
However, there is still no quality support – even for organizations that are genuinely willing. Authentic, rigorous studies on well-being Models are rare – if not non-existent. The topic can be difficult to define and implement – and outcomes are hard to measure so as to formulate standardized approaches. The evidence of what works is slender. To make matters worse, both academia and industries are unwilling to invest costs and effort. Both parties still feel such research will not give them any immediate benefit.
Meanwhile, the market is getting flooded with opportunistic offerings of wellbeing products. There are numerous apps and websites, CDs and training videos, as well as corporate consulting services to sensitize and counsel. But quality is a serious concern, and what works is still a question that is open to debate.
Speaking to Financial Times, the UK, chief medical officer at Rolls-Royce, David Roomes, expressed this very concern: “There are a tonne of vendors out there selling all sorts of interventions from foot massages to beanbags and table football. They look nice in a brochure and possibly make people feel good, but we wanted to make sure we had an evidence base.”
Wellbeing is not about health alone
Concern about well-being can take many forms. Apart from the mind and the body, it also includes ensuring healthy workplace dynamics. This realization has led industry leaders to consider certain strategy shifts which were unthinkable in a pre-pandemic era.
- It is now generally agreed that the best employers leverage regular training, flexible working practices, and frequent staff consultation on every issue to promote inclusion and a sense of belonging.
- Overall, companies are letting go of the time-honored myth that productivity can only be achieved by driving people harder. The transformed approach is to look at the whole person.
- Accommodating flexibility in the work model to counter the current uncertainties is something companies are focussing on. The emerging hybrid work model needs to be evaluated in terms of employee experience.
- Diversity and inclusion must be practiced while recruiting, and unconscious bias must be proactively thwarted. All employees want to feel valued by their employers.
- Investment in corporate social responsibility (CSR) leads to improved stakeholder satisfaction and positively influences corporate standing. Employees want a positive culture in their organization. Hence, genuine CSR initiatives are bound to generate goodwill and employee satisfaction.
As David Roomes had commented: “We spend tens of millions of pounds a year on plant and asset, and everybody says our people are our assets but our investment, by comparison, is modest.”
This is changing now, and with millennials and Gen Z forming the majority of the workforce, this trend will likely continue longer and beyond.
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