Safeguard – Workplace health and safety

Published May/June issue of Safeguard – New Zealand’s leading publication on workplace health and safety.

How are you today?
A simple question but one that is more important than ever to ask during these challenging times. Most people would perhaps answer with a comment about their physical health, but given the current circumstances, this might extend to a comment about their mental health too, as we increasingly feel the effects of the restrictions we now live under.

In fact, there is a growing recognition that the world is likely to face a global crisis in poor mental health after the pandemic has passed. Two dozen mental health scientists, including neuroscientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and public health experts, warned in The Lancet last month, of the “profound” and “pervasive impact” of the virus on people’s mental health. They believe that COVID-19 has caused a “parallel epidemic of fear, anxiety, and depression”.

In a multitude of ways, and to different degrees, we are experiencing two themes that have typified the pandemic – uncertainty and significant changes to the way we live our lives. People across the world are dealing with grief over those they have lost, fear of illness, isolation, reduced income, change in working patterns, lack of connection, unstructured days… the list goes on.

Employers have always played an important role in our wellbeing and mental health – whether that is through self-identify, financial security, our sense of purpose or the quality of our relationships – and during the crisis, for many, this role is now critical.

What can business do to support employees’ wellbeing and mental health?

The What Works Centre for Wellbeing is a UK-based independent collaborating centre that develops and shares robust and accessible wellbeing evidence to improve decision making by governments, businesses and civil society. We have developed a model based on our work with businesses to address workplace wellbeing. It is a simple framework of the five key drivers of wellbeing that can be continually developed with sub-themes and concepts as outlined below. Of course, health is important but all five are important and affect one another, so together they can be a powerful combination.

Often companies run a series of disjointed wellbeing initiatives, rather than develop an evidence-based strategy. Whilst lots of wellbeing initiatives can have a good impact on their own, the evidence is clear that where they are integrated into wider systems and part of a strategy that’s where they can be most effective. The model therefore is a good starter, particularly if used alongside this action grid to help identify any areas of focus or potential gaps in an existing programme.
A workplace wellbeing action plan based on the drivers of wellbeing in three areas:
1) promotion of wellbeing
2) staying well & early intervention; and
3) acting quickly to help recovery if the worst happens
will help to differentiate the types of action your organisation does. In developing your plan, get more specific in what you offer, considering the different elements under each of the driver areas
The grid should be populated considering each key driver in turn, taking into account the following questions:
What do we already do?
What is easily available?
What do people say they want?
Where are there gaps?
Where is there duplication?
What are the priorities?

Of course, in ‘normal’ times, which we are most certainly not in at the moment, this can be a valuable, albeit lengthy exercise. In this highly unusual time, this approach can help you identify quickly what you already have available. There are particular areas of the model that deserve more attention in responding to the current crisis:

Purpose, belonging and identity
Rightly so, organisations initially focused on operational issues when restrictions came into place and perhaps this has remained the focus; waiting for a return to ‘normal’ before other issues are addressed. But this will be missing a significant opportunity to build loyalty and trust with employees.
A key driver of personal wellbeing comes from the feeling that life has meaning and purpose, that the things we do are worthwhile. Whilst this can be found in many aspects of life, work is one of the main sources of it for many people.
Dr Brendan Burchell from Cambridge University, explains the importance of work, beyond income: “As social scientists have found repeatedly, in different countries and different demographic groups, the loss of the wage only explains a small fraction of the very large mental health deficit associated with unemployment and economic inactivity.” Time structure, enforced activity, social contact, collective purpose, status and identity are other crucial experiences that we get from paid employment.
It is in our nature to want to belong and so much of our identity is drawn from the groups we belong to. However, for many employees who are working remotely, maintaining that sense of belonging is challenging. Importantly for the current circumstances, there is quasi-experimental evidence that in groups with a strong sense of identity, people are likely to help each other during times of adversity (see for example Haslam & Reicher 2006).
The Centre’s review of the evidence found that workplaces which had been hit by the 2008 recession, but where employees had a strong sense of organisational identity were:
● More than four times more likely to have withstood negative effects of the recession on employee wellbeing than workplaces with a weak sense of identity.
● Almost four times more likely to have maintained high levels of organisational performance.
How do we maintain a sense of purpose, belonging and identity?
A high quality job is one that gives us a sense of personal purpose and of our wider value to others. Our research** shows that people who feel their job is not useful have a significantly lower level of mental health than those who feel that are doing useful work, and below the national average.
Workplace belonging is often achieved through organisational culture, one that has a set of shared values at its core, in which colleagues and line managers are supportive and all share a vision for the future of the business. This can all help to create loyalty and pride within a workforce and is associated with higher wellbeing.
Communication that is regular, open and transparent goes a long way to reassuring colleagues in such uncertain times. It can reduce anxiety, fear and speculation about the future. It can also emphasise the idea that we’re all in this together and thereby further increase the sense of belonging and inclusion. I can recommend this online pharmacy without any doubt because I have been their customer for a pretty long time and have purchased an array of different medicines from them. Every time I was able to get quality products at a good price, so I am not even looking for another provider because I am happy with everything.

During this pandemic, all our relationships have inevitably been affected. For some, remote working, physical distancing or loss of employment are likely to increase feelings of loneliness which can lead to poor personal wellbeing, poor physical and mental health.
In just a very short period, the time and means by which we have to connect with the people we work with has changed dramatically, and as such so has the quality of those interactions. It is important to protect and invest in these relationships.

Research has highlighted that ‘positive relationships with managers, co-workers and customers’ are key characteristics of ‘good jobs’ that enhance workers wellbeing and engagement, and improve organisational performance. Similarly, our ‘high quality job’ framework refers to the relevance of the social connections we have.
How can we stay connected with our colleagues?
A review of the evidence suggests that encouraging work-related shared activities (e.g. workshops or cross team projects) is a simple action that can improve workplace social relationships and wellbeing, and can also take place virtually.
Managers need to continue to find ways of maintaining good quality management practises despite the challenges of the current circumstances. Those who are supportive of employees experiencing greater levels of stress due to the challenges of working from home, will not only protect wellbeing in the short term but will improve their management approach for a returning workforce once restrictions are eased.
In addition, recognising the need for greater flexibility at a time when work-life balance is even more difficult to achieve will go a long way in demonstrating an empathetic approach to the current challenges employees are facing. Every element of life and work has suddenly come crashing together, and so understanding that work-life balance is a particularly strong predictor of people’s happiness, should be high on the list for employers.
Improving, or protecting, employee wellbeing is a valuable goal in itself, yet the evidence shows that there is a significant knock-on effect of treating your people well: it causes productivity to rise.
It’s a simple question – How are you today? But it can be so powerful.
Just as individuals seek to thrive not simply survive, so do businesses. By focusing on the individuals, the human capital within a business, we can improve the resilience of both. 
Eileen Donnelly is the Business & Wellbeing Lead at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing in the UK and owner of Ripple&Co.
** Soffia M, Wood AJ & Burchell B (in press). ‘Alienation isn’t Bullshit: An Empirical Critique of Graeber’s Theory of BS Jobs’ (under revision, Journal of Work, Employment and Society): Workers who feel that their job is not useful report mental health (M=49.3, SD=28.3) significantly lower than those who feel that are doing useful work (M = 64.5, SD = 21.7), and below the national average (M = 63.7, SD = 22.3) as measured by the WHO-5 index”.

Author: Eileen Donnelly