27 September 2023

Well of contentment: Why wellbeing at work matters more than ever

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Liz Lewis* says with COVID-19 bringing massive disruption and uncertainty, now is the time for managers to focus on the wellbeing of their employees.

Today, workers and employers alike find themselves in uncharted territory.

The impact of COVID-19 has left us all considering many factors.

But what about wellbeing?

How does it factor into the situation?

According to Dr Jan-Emmanuel De Neve of the University of Oxford, wellbeing — and the factors that contribute to it — is perhaps more important than ever.

“The only thing that can mitigate the negative economic and health shocks that we’re seeing will be the strength of our social ties and social capital being activated throughout this crisis,” he explains.

Social ties are crucial for wellbeing

First, let’s take a look at what we mean by “wellbeing”.

At the highest level, Dr De Neve defines it as “how you are doing — both you and your community — and how that makes you feel”.

Simple enough, perhaps — but when you look more closely at the work context, many different factors come into play, says Dr De Neve.

In fact, employee wellbeing is shaped by multiple intersecting forces, or “drivers”.

Typically, these include fair pay or a sense of feeling energised about work.

But while these remain important, priorities shift during crises.

Dr De Neve believes that the most important drivers of worker wellbeing during COVID-19 are belonging, appreciation and inclusion.

These factors help workers feel more confident about their future and can also reduce fear and speculation during uncertain times.

“There is some evidence from past traumatic events … where you find that communities with strong ties and strong social capital to begin with are the ones that cope better,” says Dr De Neve.

Workplaces are communities, too.

But what does this mean in practice?

Employers can support wellbeing and productivity during COVID-19 by nurturing belonging and inclusion, explains Dr De Neve, and showing their appreciation for workers.

Showing support and recognising the constraints and challenges facing different workers will help build cohesion and morale during these tough times, and is important for coming out of the pandemic stronger than before.

Focus on openness, transparency and belonging to support workers now

With millions working from home for the first time, while also juggling personal responsibilities, this brings added stress to our lives, so another factor identified by Dr De Neve — flexibility — is a crucial driver of workplace wellbeing right now.

Being sensitive to these needs can go a long way to maintain wellbeing among employees.

Something else Dr De Neve says that employers should bear in mind is that the COVID-19 pandemic is very difficult for people because they feel “they have no sense of agency”.

Leadership needs to communicate “transparently and openly” about the organisation’s future, suggests Dr De Neve.

This helps reduce uncertainty and gives workers a sense of control.

One way to boost communication and belonging simultaneously is through regular team meetings or even organisation-wide Q&A sessions.

These help keep everyone on the same page while also bringing people together, helping workers feel both connected and informed.

The impact of unemployment on wellbeing

“When people lose their job, they lose about 20 per cent in terms of life satisfaction but only about half of that effect comes through the loss of income,” says Dr De Neve.

His research shows that the other negative effects are from the social experiences that result from layoffs: loss of identity, self-esteem, social connections and daily routine.

As a result, the negative effects of unemployment persist even after a worker restarts their career, because getting laid off isn’t just bad economically — it can cause psychological and emotional turmoil.

It’s also why wellbeing is particularly vulnerable during economic downturns.

“Overall, we find that people are twice as sensitive to economic losses as they are to economic equivalent gains,” Dr De Neve explains.

Dr De Neve thinks the COVID-19 crisis is different from a typical recession: “This is really hitting the economic pause button and hopefully restarting in a month or two,” he says.

He hopes employers and employees can weather the storm together.

Prepare for future conversations

Of course, there are many conversations going on right now about the future.

“One thing I would advise to senior leaders is to have a transparent and reasoned argument for … when they think people will be expected to come back to work and change from this ‘new normal’ back into the ‘old normal’,” suggests Dr De Neve.

Until now, some more traditional employers and managers refused to consider remote or flexible schedules.

Dr De Neve believes workers will push back if employers try to revert to their old ways once the pandemic passes.

Now is the time to nurture wellbeing and weather the storm

Supporting employee wellbeing isn’t just the right thing to do — it also helps support productivity.

In fact, Dr De Neve’s research shows that workers are up to 20 per cent more productive when they feel happier — and this is even more critical during times of crisis.

Belonging and flexibility are especially important for workers right now, and employers who prioritise these will see long-term advantages.

Employers should use clear, open communication to keep workers informed and give them a sense of control and — whenever possible — they should find creative solutions to keep people in jobs.

Finally, Dr De Neve believes that remote and flexible options are here to stay for many workers and will shape a new future of work.

These are unprecedented times for work and society, but if, as Dr De Neve advises, we can work together and weather the storm — then we may very well come out stronger on the other side.

* Liz Lewis is a writer and researcher at Indeed.

This article first appeared at blog.indeed.com.

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