One of the biggest workplace shifts brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has been that, overnight, most office-based employees have gone from doing an occasional bit of remote working to having to operate exclusively - and indefinitely - from home.
Unsurprisingly then, feelings of a lack of choice over the situation combined with fears over job security and the health threat to family and friends have inevitably led to increased levels of stress and anxiety.
As Cary Cooper, president of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and professor of organisational psychology at the Alliance Manchester Business School, notes: “Workplace wellbeing issues, which were already big, are now becoming massive. From an HR perspective, it boils down to how to ensure mental and physical employee wellbeing when all kinds of basic questions about remote working need to be readdressed.”
Such questions include how individuals can best cope without their regular routines and create new ones when the lines between work and home have become blurred, potentially leading to burnout. There is also the matter of how to cope with feelings of isolation on the one hand, and disruption on the other, particularly if children need to be cared for.
Physical wellbeing is a further consideration. The ready availability of food in the fridge and a lack of incidental exercise, like walking to work as part of the commute, can all take their toll here.
Just as important though are the little interactions with colleagues, which do not take place naturally in a remote setting. Such interactions are not only important socially, but also provide vital breaks that give people’s brains time to absorb and consolidate information, thereby preventing exhaustion.
HR crisis management at its best
As Stephen Koss, Asia Pacific Workforce Advisory Leader at EY People Advisory Service, points out: “These things can all impact wellbeing, which in turn affects productivity.” So, what can HR do about the situation?
The first thing that the function can do is to educate leaders and the workforce how to manage remote working effectively and highlight the importance of self-care. This means taking personal breaks and balancing this with physical movement. These little activities renew energy levels, restore mind clarity and boost productivity, believes Mr Koss.
HR should encourage leaders to be transparent about the business direction and foster trust by keeping employees engaged and well-informed about the whole process, so they understand and remain connected with the organisation’s purpose.
“Effective management impacts engagement and engagement impacts productivity - and this is a time when people want to feel engaged because they’re after a sense of community and want to feel part of something”.
How HR can best support employee wellbeing
Indeed, Mr Koss warns, if line managers do not get it right and “don’t recognise people and their unique situation or fail to show them empathy, it will be hard to bring them back online later as they’ll have checked out”.
Professor Cooper takes it a step further. “From the shop floor to the top floor, we must have bosses with good people skills and high emotional intelligence in order to maintain team feeling, motivate people and recognise when they aren’t coping,” he says.
As a result, he believes that a key role for HR is to provide both line managers and leaders with suitable development, training and support to enhance their social skills, using tools ranging from online courses to coaching and mentoring provided either by themselves or other colleagues.
Another core element of the HR role is to act as an influencer and advisor to the business to help lead effectively through the ongoing process of change.
Mr Koss explains: “It’s about clarifying what good leadership looks like and reinforcing the right behaviours. But as we move into the next phase of the crisis, there’s also going to be a huge opportunity to learn from what’s happened and come out stronger by taking the best of the past and the present and incorporating it into what we want and need moving forward.”
In other words, the fact that the current crisis is throwing everything up in the air is presenting HR with an opportunity to position the workforce and its wellbeing at the centre of the business going forward, he believes.
Ultimately, HR plays a pivotal role in supporting employee wellbeing at a number of levels: facilitating clear, open and transparent communication; supporting and developing leaders and managers so they have the skills to keep staff motivated, engaged and productive; and acting as an influencer and advisor to the business to ensure the workforce and its wellbeing sits at the heart of all activities, now and in future.