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Ask an expert: what does employee wellbeing look like in 2021?

By 03/06/2021October 12th, 2023Employee Wellbeing, Health and Wellbeing
what does employee wellbeing look like in 2021

Ensuring employee wellbeing is front and centre for many HR leaders this year. After the life-changing year that was 2020, wellbeing initiatives have come under more scrutiny than ever before.

Companies were, and continue to be, measured by how they prioritised the needs of their people. And yet, by the end of April 2020, over 20 million Americans had been fired and one-third of all UK under 25-year-olds had lost their jobs as businesses across the globe knee-jerked in response to COVID restrictions and national lockdowns.

As HR professionals became the first port of call for concerned employees about the pandemic, employee health and wellbeing quickly became a critical part of HR’s job for 2021. Our own research found that 65% stated that health and wellbeing was their number one priority for 2021. Throughout a challenging year (and beyond), HR professionals have taken it upon themselves to prioritise employee health and wellbeing in the wake of the coronavirus.

With online searches for ‘employee wellbeing initiatives’ rocketing by 200% in the last 12 months alone, it is clear that many companies are still adapting to this new normal of remote work and the ways in which they can best support their people as remote work becomes the norm.

As such, we are delighted to welcome the founder of Grays Wellbeing, Dr Dee Gray to the Natural HR blog today who will be sharing her advice, tips and guidance for HR leaders who are developing or adapting their employee wellbeing strategies in these remote times we find ourselves in. She draws on her extensive well-being experience with business leaders and the impact the pandemic has had on wellbeing.

NHR: Dee, tell us about where should HR leaders start when developing an employee wellbeing strategy?

Dr Dee Gray: “HR leaders are familiar with a strategy that ties in with organisational goals that encompass recruitment, retrenchment and remuneration, and over recent years will have developed their knowledge to include aspects of wellbeing tied in with specific legal responsibilities (for example managing work-induced stress).

“Today, however, HR leaders need to put wellbeing at the core of their strategy. To put wellbeing at the core of your strategy, you need to first map out what wellbeing at work looks like in the industry you are based in. The reason for this is that while much will apply across industries, some things are contextually important, for example work life balance will apply across all but having clinical supervision will apply in a health setting.

“The first question you need to be asking yourself is ‘what matters to the people who work here in terms of wellbeing at work’? It is likely that you will have some data that has been developed from questionnaires that ask specifics around this. So, you must be seen to act on suggestions or people will mistrust you and disengage.

“From here you need to dip your toe in the water of co-production and include some of the workforce in working with you to develop your strategy. Naturally you will want to engage leaders and managers in this but also think more broadly and include people who have already specified wellbeing needs, and people who work across the organisation too. You want to achieve a variety of input, horizontal as well as vertical engagement and commitment.

“For example, bring in people from comms and marketing, from catering, from estate management, from governance, training and occupational health. Collectively you need to identify your wellbeing aims (these can be broad and ambitious), but underneath these your goals need to specific with checkpoints along the way.

“If you have goals then your strategy must also incorporate evaluation, this is valuable not just for reporting to senior execs to show a return on investment, but also in feeding back to your co-production team so you know what works and where you can become more creative.

“Importantly, your strategy needs to be dynamic purely because wellbeing is dynamic and in order to be successful you must plan to be adaptive. Broadly speaking, your strategy needs to reflect an asset-based approach to wellbeing, this is an extension of viewing employees as assets and draws on the potential everyone at work has to contribute to their own and others wellbeing at work.”

NHR: What does a good wellbeing strategy look like?

DDG: “A good wellbeing strategy is one developed through co-production. This ensures a huge amount of engagement. It is the opposite of having things done for or done to people, it is about doing with.

“The intangible value of this is that psychologically employers recognise that those closest to the challenges of having wellbeing at work also have the solutions. What’s more, the implications for long-term sustained performance from this approach are now generally accepted.

“A strategic wellbeing strategy also informs and interlinks with other strategies, such as the development and provision of training, and workforce planning critically pointing to capability and capacity of the workforce to deliver – and the resources required take the organisation forward. Your strategy needs senior management commitment alongside yours, they need to be wellbeing role models who can open doors and enable the strategy to become real.

NHR: Would you say the pandemic has changed the outlook on the importance of employee wellbeing?

DDG: “Yes. Absolutely. Foremost, I believe it has helped us to realise that in order to fulfil our work role we must be well enough to do it. This might sound obvious but we have known for some time that workplace stressors such as job insecurity, workload, and poor management have contributed increasingly to burn out and compassion fatigue, presenteeism/absenteeism, disengagement, and poor performance. These stressors are still omnipresent but added to the mix is the fear associated with the pandemic, which may manifest as fear of catching and spreading the virus if you work on the frontline, or isolation from crucial team support leading to an increase in lone working and remote working.

“Some employees have simply walked away from their work, some have not coped with pandemic response changes and have refused to take on additional roles, some have become ill with COVID and are faced with adapting back into work, and a percentage of these people are experiencing long-tail COVID symptoms and disability over a year after initial infection.

“Many workplaces have as a consequence become chaotic and the role of the HR leader has itself become increasingly challenging, not least because as they are pivotal to ensuring employees are protected through public health measures.

“One tangible outcome from this in terms of workplace practice is to contribute towards wellbeing through self and peer compassion. I researched (Gray, 2018) and spoke about this recently (Gray, 2021) so it is good to see that compassion as a contributing factor to wellbeing is taking hold.”

NHR: What kinds of wellbeing initiatives do you find have the most impact?

DDG: “I believe initiatives need to be tied in with education, training, culture change, personal and professional buy-in. This will contribute massively to sustainability and the implementation of your co-produced strategy. In order to deliver on this, HR leaders need to have the right knowledge and skills and feel confident in taking things forward. Their focus should be an asset-based approach, not one of fixing deficits, this means developing a ‘best self’ (Gray, 2018) culture that contributes towards holistic wellbeing and accepts that sometimes we need recovery time from work.

“Yes, this means addressing the perennial problem of workload, and ensuring employees have time to think as well as time to rest. For HR leaders who work closely with training colleagues, they will be well aware that when budgets get cut one of the first things to go is training. Yet we all know training contributes massively to wellbeing as it ensures people are competent and confident, and that furthering knowledge and skills is also intrinsic to being rewarded.

Employee wellbeing initiatives

“I have seen a trend in people having ‘wellbeing’ tagged on to their existing roles, so that the role is as fragmented as some of the ‘interventions’ that are offered. The most impactful initiatives are where staff who have the responsibility for wellbeing are conversant with what wellbeing means, know how to translate this into action, and have dedicated time to learn. An employer who invests in wellbeing for its workforce in this way is a learning organisation, these are the organisations who will retain an advantage in the market and will become magnet employers for high quality staff.”

NHR: What are the biggest wellbeing concerns for employees today and how can HR leaders address these?

DDG: “Stress was the emerging challenge for all employers. Today, global problems posed by the pandemic and global shifts in world markets and production are all contributing to skills shortage across all ranges abilities and sectors. In turn, these are posing serious issues for HR leaders to get their heads around.

“To be honest, HR leaders will not be able to address them all, and may only be able to find partial or temporary solutions to some of these. HR leaders have always been good at dancing on a moving carpet but now, the carpet is on fire. In order to not get burned (or experience burnout!), I suggest HR leaders develop a sense of coherence about what is going on. This broadly means seeing the bigger picture and the events we now face in a broader context, managing what can be managed and asking for help and resources, finding meaning in the process they are involved in, so that the learning from the experience is useful and not damaging.

“HR leaders need to look to themselves first, find out what keeps them at their ‘best self’, put wellbeing top of their own priorities, that way they will have the energetic capacity to support others to achieve the same. As things shift and change, the HR leader will need to be well enough to manage the emotions of change.”

NHR: How can leaders ensure health and wellbeing becomes ingrained in company culture?

DDG: “HR leaders are in pivotal roles to steer the wellbeing agenda, if they co-produce the workplace wellbeing strategy and then co-deliver the strategy, they will already be integrating a wellbeing culture that is sustainable.

“The overarching goal is to absolutely not have wellbeing interventions unless they are made integral to whole organisation practices that include ongoing organisational development and learning. There needs to be a massive shift away from HR being visible only at interview, induction, disciplinary or termination of employment, to one that is critical to bringing about wellbeing processes that translate into people looking after their wellbeing outside of work too.”

About Dr Dee Gray:

“I am the very proud author and programme designer of the ‘best self’ method. I create opportunities for people to be their ‘best self’, whatever their circumstances or life experiences. This often brings me up close and personal with people whose work brings them on the ‘frontline’, and who lead within complex stressful working environments. Within this space I encourage entrepreneurial mindsets, and work with people to develop sustainable wellbeing behaviours. I include being in green spaces in my wellbeing practice, and believe the connection between human and planetary wellbeing is something to nurture and protect.

“I have extensive expertise in individual and collective wellbeing, and am at the forefront of wellbeing coaching. I work with our Associates to progressively build our knowledge and gather evidence of what works to improve and sustain wellbeing. I am a published author and international speaker and trainer.”



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