HRreview conducted a Q&A with Chief of HR Research at Gartner, Brian Kropp, which discussed research that Gartner carried out earlier this year linked to employee wellbeing, motivation and engagement over lockdown.

This Q&A outlines key concerns linked to employee wellbeing during COVID-19 and how HR can best support wellbeing, especially in the face of the tier system that comes into force today.

Q. What are the different factors that have so many employees dreading another day on the job (at least 55 per cent of employees*)?

2020 has bought about incredible change and uncertainty for everyone, but for employees it has meant adapting to new ways of working, working longer hours, and meeting increased demand from employers. As they work through a second lockdown, and into a long winter, employees are physically and mentally exhausted, and have used up their reservoirs of will.

On top of this, you have a pandemic that is once again surging across the globe. Employees are hearing news of friends, family and colleagues testing positive for COVID-19, and are therefore distracted by fears for health and safety.

Finally, employees feel that their social and emotional connections with colleagues have broken down as we enter this second lockdown. Whereas in the first lockdown they were excited for the virtual happy hours and team quizzes, many have realised it’s no substitute for in-person interactions and now feel isolated and lonely.

 Q. Have you been surprised by any of your own data about the mental health/wellbeing struggles of employees in the UK?

The extent of the mental health and wellbeing issues suffered by employees during this pandemic comes as absolutely no surprise – it is after all the biggest health crisis of our generation. But what has surprised me is just how open workers are to letting employers become involved in their personal lives, and how much employers can help them when they do so.

Our studies show that when an employer is actively involved in the personal lives of their employees, the number of employee that report having good mental health increases from 54 per cent to 77 per cent. And the number of employees that report sleeping well at night increases from 60 per cent to 83 per cent*.

It highlights that the initiatives rolled out by organisations, whether it’s supporting a social cause close to the employee, providing access to wellbeing programmes, or simply listening to their fears and concerns, can really have a positive impact.

Of course, the business needs to remain sensitive to issues of privacy, as different employees will have different levels of comfort about the role of employers in their personal lives. But if they can strike the right balance, they can improve the wellbeing of staff, and in-turn increase loyalty and engagement.

Q. With almost one-fifth (19 per cent)* of the UK workforce stating that their emotional wellbeing is poor or fair, what are some vital warning signs that employers need to look out for which could show an employee is struggling?

Identifying emotional wellbeing issues is especially difficult in a remote working environment, however there are a few clues that managers can look for.

Some employees will begin to shift the hours they work by either starting much later or taking extended lunches. Others find themselves unable to deliver the same volumes of work. These sudden changes can be indicators of an employee attempting to avoid social interactions or being distracted.

However, it would be a big mistake for employers to jump to conclusions, as it can be more damaging to assume a mental health issue. Instead of trying to predict these things, employers should focus on lowering the perceived barriers to receiving emotional support.

Offering company wellbeing days is a good tactic for achieving this. It reduces the stigma around mental health and makes it easier to have honest conversations with employees.

Q. What do you think are the biggest barriers for UK businesses in supporting the wellbeing of employees?

Mental health remains a taboo subject in a number of organisations. Often, people choose not to take up wellness programmes run by their employers as they fear judgement and impact on career progression. And employers subsequently stop running these initiatives because of a lack of uptake.

However, during the uncertainty of the pandemic, we have seen businesses becoming an important safety net for employers. And we have seen that by shifting focus from improving employee experience to improving life experience, employers can have a genuine positive impact on the wellbeing of staff. Therefore, businesses need to focus on breaking down the stigma around mental health.

We have seen a number of employers offer mental health days off for employees, which is effective in encouraging employees to think and be honest about their wellbeing. Others have had senior leaders speak openly about their own wellbeing to the organisation, which has demonstrated that mental health is not a barrier to progression.

Q. How can employers increase the level of job satisfaction which, in turn, will likely improve employee attraction and retention?

Employers need to appreciate that the workplace is, and always has been, a place of social connections. Before the pandemic, employees would see their colleagues as much as their family members, and the relationships and interactions with those individuals were an important part of their lives. So naturally, some 9 months later, employees are missing those connections.

Social connections are a critical component in an employee’s satisfaction and engagement when working in an organisation. As the world (hopefully) returns to some normality in 2021, the job market will rebound. At this point, there will be a risk that without the strong social connections, employees will be more likely to seek new jobs.

Therefore, organisations need to get creative in the ways they rebuild social connections amongst their employees. At the start of the pandemic, business leaders did well to arrange virtual happy hours and social activities to keep workers connected, but this can only be effective for so long. Some companies are starting to experiment with more innovative initiatives like walking meetings, show and tell sessions, and virtual exercise classes for example.

Q. As almost half of staff responded that they were either not working carefully as they should’ve been (43 per cent) or were not concentrating enough (42 per cent)*, how can HR teams ensure employees are engaged and productive even whilst remote working?

Since the dramatic shift to remote working in March, employees have been forced to merge home and working lives. This has created vast differences in productivity patterns based on everything from sleep cycles, to childcare responsibilities, to when their house is quietest.

Businesses have relied on the sacrifices of their staff to operate during the pandemic, and they should be returning the favour by offering radical flexibility during winter. Instead of focusing on engagement at certain times of day, they should look solely at output, and trust employees to deliver the results. This will reduce pressure on staff to be always on.

Another thought as we approach Christmas. Ordinarily, businesses would be preparing to decorate offices, roll out lavish parties, and purchase presents at this time of year. This of course, will not be possible, so companies should think of new ways of creating that warm feeling and happiness amongst staff and keep them engaged.

*The research cited within this Q&A is from ‘Gartner Employee Sentiment Survey’ which surveyed 400-500 employees over July and September 2020.