Prof Hew Gill
Over the last decade or so, the concept of wellbeing at work has become more prominent across many organisations. Wellbeing is a very broad area that is generally considered to cover every aspect of a worker’s physical, psychological and social comfort. HR professionals have argued that senior business leaders must prioritise wellbeing because it is essential to maintaining productivity and competitive advantage, but many companies have been reluctant to embrace what many see as a passing fashion.
If businesses do consider the wellbeing of their employees it’s often around the much narrower concerns which are associated with traditional health and safety. This is a well-established and clearly understood area where various laws and regulations make it mandatory for businesses to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent employees from coming to any harm. However, health and safety is almost always about preventing physical harm and this focus has inevitably led to much attention being given to the ways in which workspaces and everything in those spaces is designed and installed, but the unexpected and major impact of Covid-19 has led to significant changes in all of that.
The pandemic changed the way in which every business went about its activities. Employers became partners with governments in the protection from infection of all their employees and also acted as agents tasked to minimise viral transmission. Companies were required to comply with a set of standard operating procedures (SOPs) and to enact a series of physical and public health measures such as social distancing, improving workspace ventilation, ensuring the wearing of face masks, and carrying out regular disinfection. The frequent changes in guidance and SOPs made all this pretty difficult, but it many ways these regulations were still very much in line with the traditional health and safety approach. What really changed things was the movement control orders (MCOs) because lockdown completely interrupted the established working patterns and business models of most organisations. Health and safety in an office, factory or shop means ensuring that the chairs are ergonomically and safely designed or that the lighting levels are correct, but when the workforce is sitting at their own kitchen tables trying to adapt to new work schedules it becomes business-critical to ensure that employees remain healthy, motivated and productive in order to achieve their work outcomes. This meant that for the first time many employers suddenly had to take responsibility for supporting their employees outside a managed workspace and outside normal working times. Traditional approaches to employee care were simply not adequate to cope with the pandemic and this made it inevitable that wellbeing quickly rose to the top of the agenda.
This new awareness was also sparked by the employees themselves because Covid changed the ways in which many people approached their work, particularly as the boundaries between work time and home time became blurred. Lockdowns meant most people stopped following their familiar work routine and this led to disruptions in everything from meal times to sleeping patterns. Trying to cope with all the challenges of lockdown and keep working was very stressful. Many people found that they were not hitting their targets, some were working much longer hours others working less. The initial feelings that MCOs were a bit like a vacation began to subside as the weeks dragged, and by the end a large proportion of employees felt isolated and alone. The fact that all these things happened simultaneously to millions of people across the globe rapidly increased awareness of the importance of the psychological and social dimensions of health, and that productivity and profitability can be greatly affected by happiness and wellbeing.
The scientific advances of the last two or three decades have made it clear that maintaining good all-round health requires attention to a combination of things, and has underscored that psychological factors are at least as important as physical considerations. This holistic approach to maintaining health and preventing illness has developed from a broader understanding and recognition that an individual’s health can be greatly affected by what does or does not happen in the workplace. Indeed, the briefest moment’s thought shows that this is obvious because most working people spend a considerable portion of their waking hours either at work, or engaged in activities related to work. In exactly the same way that a poorly ventilated office increases the risks of catching Covid and threatens physical health, so a stifling work culture or poor team relationships can threaten psychological health. This is why wellbeing takes into account how workers think and feel about their jobs, their working environment, the social climate at work, and the quality of relationships across the organisation. An effective wellbeing strategy develops a positive organisational culture that nurtures and supports employees to maximise their performance and fairly rewards them when they deliver. Simple things like employee assistance programmes and teaching managers how to appraise, counsel and coach, can make a real difference. The scientific evidence shows that companies which embrace wellbeing as central to their culture are more efficient, have higher performing staff and also have higher profitability and better returns on investment. Post-Covid, wellbeing will be important to maintaining competitive edge and this means wellbeing will become mainstream. In other columns we’ll look at how you can implement effective wellbeing strategies to put your organisation in the lead.
Professor Hew Gill is the Associate Provost of Sunway University and joined the University after a successful multi-track career as an entrepreneur, UK politician and public servant, banker, senior business leader, and media pundit. He has served as a chair, governor, trustee and lay member of various educational, charitable and professional institutions and organisations in the UK, Singapore and Malaysia. He is an alumnus of several world-class universities including St Anne’s College, Oxford University, Leeds University Business School, and the Derek Bok Center, Harvard University. He is a frequent broadcaster and sought-after public speaker on a range of educational, business, and psychological subjects.