What Covid has taught us about workplace well-being

Mark Allan

The Covid-19 pandemic has set in train many changes, particularly in workplace health and well-being. Bupa UK Insurance commercial director Mark Allan discusses some of these and the lessons from business that consultants can use in their practices.

Living through a global pandemic over the last 18 months has acted as something of a wake-up call for many of us. 

As we emerge from the other side of it, the impact that the workplace – and journeys to and from it – can have on health is more important than ever. 

It has also been a reminder to many businesses that keeping their workforce healthy, both physically and mentally, is absolutely central to their success. 

Changes to working practices have also shown them that just because businesses have always worked in a certain way, it doesn’t mean change isn’t possible. 

More than that, it has shown that changes to how businesses work can deliver both greater productivity and improved health and well-being. 

While some of these changes aren’t available to everyone in the healthcare sector, many lessons can also be applied to your practice to improve the well-being of your team and those you work with.

Well-being census

Workplace well-being relates to all aspects of working life, from the quality and safety of the workplace, to how employees feel about their work. 

Our 2021 Workplace Wellbeing Census involved more than 4,000 employees across 13 key sectors. It looked at changes to working practices over the last year and the impact these changes have had on employee health and well-being. 

We’re sharing insights from these organisations to help consultants stay informed as they move their practices to new and different post-Covid ways of working.

The most striking finding is that a record number of employees have reported good mental health at work over the last year – 78% in fact. 

Across the board, employees cited a number of well-being gains, with changes to commutes, home working and availability of flexible working being those most likely to have had a positive impact on employee well-being.

More flexibility

The census also shows that some groups have found changes to working patterns particularly beneficial. 

Eight out of ten working parents, for example, report that changes over the last year have given them more flexibility, which has been particularly important given the added responsibilities of childcare and home-schooling. 

Women have responded partic­ularly well to new ways of working, and employees with disabilities have also seen big improvements. Two-thirds of those with a disability say home-working has removed accessibility issues they previously faced.

And these gains aren’t purely circumstantial. UK organisations have made marked efforts to safeguard the well-being of their workforces over the past 12 months, including nearly half strengthening their well-being services. 

Businesses in many – though not all – sectors have also demonstrated a greater understanding of mental health. In financial services, for example, more than half of employees in the sector report finding their employer showed more empathy now.

Not all of the findings are positive, however. Remote working and a lack of employee visibility have increased the strain and the workloads on employees in a number of sectors. It has also allowed incidents of bullying and discrimination to go unnoticed in some cases.

Lessons from the pandemic

Four business well-being lessons you can take into your practice

1 Favour flexibility for your practice teams, where possible.

The majority of us have experienced a change in our working life as a result of the pandemic. Whether it’s a change to how we work – including a greater use of digital technology – the end of our commuting lives or changes to job roles.

The employees in our census perceived some of these changes as positive. The availability of remote working, the opportunity not to have to travel to the workplace and flexible working patterns were all well-being gains that were considered an incentive.

For your practice, as well as for the businesses we spoke to, the challenge is to make sure that these well-being gains brought about by Covid-19 remain. This will enable more people to work in a way that makes them feel comfortable and empowered to put as much into their work as possible.

Businesses are starting to think about the longer term, including alternative ways to structure work communication and hours, as well as physical presence. And what many are converging on is different models of hybrid working. 

At its core, hybrid working is an arrangement in which an individual employee, team or organisation work part of their time at the workplace and part remotely. It gives people the best of both worlds: structure and sociability on one hand, and independence and flexibility on the other.

Of course, this won’t suit everyone and isn’t available to everyone in the healthcare sector. 

The pandemic has also drawn attention to disparities among those able to work remotely, including the varying quality of internet access, the demands of parenting and caring, and the luxury of roomy homes that make working from home comfortable. 

Some roles, such as those that are patient-facing, won’t allow for home-working. There’s also the question of personality. People who appreciate a fixed routine, for example, may find it difficult to switch between working at home and in a workplace setting. 

For your practice, you may wish to look at the needs of both the team generally and the individual members within it – being as flexible and adaptable as they have been during the pandemic. 

If hybrid working isn’t an option for some practice team members, perhaps greater flexibility around working hours may offer them the opportunity to improve their well-being. 

For example, later starts or changing clinic times to enable school drop-offs or longer lunch breaks to allow for personal activities such as participation in exercise classes. You may also be able to identify elements of work which could be done remotely or asynchronously.

2Put mental health at the top of your practice agenda.

The mental health impact of the pandemic has been enormous, not just in a work setting, but for people experiencing isolation, bereavement or health anxiety. 

Promisingly, mental health is an area which has improved since the pandemic, with many businesses appreciating the stresses and strains of living and working in an uncertain and often worrying time. 

As a result, 36% of workers in our census believe that their employer is more understanding of mental health issues post-Covid than they were before the outbreak.

In business, initiatives such as line manager training, teaching resilience and appointing mental health first aiders was making a significant impact on managing mental health in the physical workplace pre-Covid. 

Now we have the opportunity to rethink the way that we manage mental health to accommodate the new ways of working brought about by the pandemic. As we transition into post-Covid ways of working, we need to keep the mental health of our teams front of mind.

Encourage your practice team to work sensible hours, take full lunch breaks, and take part in well-being activities. They will be more productive in the long run.

Prioritise regular one-to-one meetings and catch-ups with your team and use this time to check how they are and talk through any difficulties at home or work. Knowing your team’s ‘normal’ outlook and activities will help you spot changes earlier, and will make conversations easier if problems do arise.

Add well-being as a standing item on your agenda at practice meetings so your team has the opportunity to talk about how they have been doing and anything that might be affecting their well-being. Don’t forget to ask them for feedback about your management and any additional support you could provide.

Help team members manage their workloads and feel confident to work effectively. It may not be possible to offer them complete control over their workload and hours. But you can work with them to find areas where they could make their own decisions and manage their own time. Make sure they’re properly trained to do their jobs, and look for development opportunities. 

Show you appreciate your team’s efforts. Employees who don’t feel properly rewarded for their efforts are more at risk of common mental health problems and increased stress.

Deal with bullying and conflict. Workplace bullying and conflict can increase symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress-related problems. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, which works to improve workplace relation-ships, offers more information on dealing with bullying, harassment and conflict in the workplace.

Ensure there is an area separate from the work zone where employees can get some respite and consider the impacts of light, noise and so on in the workplace. Do what you can to make it a pleasant environment to be in.

3 Making health and well-being accessible is key.

We’ve seen a marked increase in the number of health and well-being services offered by businesses over the last year, and our census recognises that employees are generally pleased to be offered them, even if they haven’t had to use them yet. 

Most say that their employer has introduced some form of initiative in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and many hope these changes will become permanent.

Good workplace well-being ensures employees are happy, healthy and engaged at work – and need not be costly. One way to start is by creating a well-being strategy. 

It’s a long-term strategy, so it is better to start with smaller changes and build over time. Some of the most effective changes you can make are cultural and effectively free to implement and maintain. It just requires a shift in thinking.  

Taking a health-first approach to people management and ensuring that your practice team has access to help for both mental and physical health concerns will mean greater productivity, reduced staff turnover and less sick absence, which all makes for a more successful working environment.

You can find more information about creating a well-being strategy at: www.bupa.co.uk/business/workplace-wellbeing-hub/wellbeing-strategy 

4 Culture, diversity and inclusion

Organisations with diverse and inclusive workplaces boast a number of benefits: not only does it make for happier working conditions for employees, it also opens them up to new ideas, innovation and greater understanding of the world they serve.

Many organisations are increasingly putting diversity at the top of their agenda. Our census found that some ground has been made over the last year. 

One-in-seven employers (14%) has introduced policies to ensure diversity and inclusion in the past 12 months. For the vast majority (68%) of workers who have a disability, working from home removed some of the accessibility issues they face when going to a physical workplace.

But there’s still ground to make up here. More than a quarter of employees (28%) have personally experienced discrimination at work. This rises to 35% of women and 40% of disabled employees. 

There are also some specific areas where discrimination is still on the increase – 22% of workers claim that age discrimination has worsened over the last year. And a similar number (18%) have seen an increase in gender re-assignment discrimination.

Many businesses find that achieving buy-in from the top is key to boosting inclusivity, and those that are most successful write inclusivity into their core business values. You can mirror this in your practice by prioritising inclusivity and promoting it in your team.

Even while operating remotely, the most inclusive businesses encourage a culture of frequent check-ins – opening a dialogue that allows employees to honestly express their needs and discuss challenges they may experience in the workplace – particularly those of a sensitive nature. 

As an employer, you can make a difference by providing an inclusive and comfortable environment for your practice team. 

Think about trying to find ways to understand more. Every individual’s experience is different, and by educating yourself, you put yourself in a better position to listen to and support your team.

Consider taking time to also think about your policies and how you put these into practice. Assess the facilities you provide, such as toilets or changing rooms, and your practice’s dress code too. Try and find ways to make them more inclusive.

Other simple steps such as encouraging your team to add pronouns to their email signatures and usernames or by inviting them to reserve time for prayer and other personal needs by blocking it out on the calendar help ensure everyone feels comfortable at work. They may find diversity and inclusion training helpful.

Find more resources to support you and your practice at www.bupa.co.uk/business/workplace-wellbeing-hub