In the face of enormous social challenges, workplace wellbeing should matter to employers more than ever
In Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change, research psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon and David Schkade theorised that genetic dispositions account for about 50 per cent of our natural ‘baseline’ levels of happiness, but that around 40% of our happiness is shaped by voluntarily pursuing personal goals through meaningful activity.
Meaningfulness in life is something that we have undoubtedly had plenty of time to reflect upon over recent months as the full of effects of COVID-19 unfolded. And, as we quarantined ‘ for some of us in complete isolation ‘ our circumstances forced us to look inwardly at the most important things in life that, in ‘normal’ times, we often forget to appreciate: health, companionship, community and a sense of purpose.
As we battled through anxiety, loneliness, illness and monotony, we saw the very best of humanity come through. D&T teachers turned empty classrooms into manufacturers of PPE. Communities came together to check up on the vulnerable, picking up groceries and medicine for those who could not venture out. Breweries converted their manufacturing capabilities to produce hand sanitisers. Therapy ventures emerged to address self-care and mental well-being in quarantine whilst also providing free counselling to NHS frontline staff. And, of course, we saw some businesses inventively pivot ‘ if not as a means of survival but to collaborate with communities with a shared common purpose ‘ to support those most in need.
‘Purpose’ has been a much bandied about term in the corporate world pre-Covid; yet against the current context, people now more than ever want to shop with businesses that align better with their personal values and work with companies for the same reason too. In a post-Covid world, CSR will become even more important for businesses wanting to engage, attract and retain talent ‘ particularly with personal values becoming more reinforced and a yearn to contribute to something ‘bigger’ than oneself becomes ever more prominent.
What has crystallised this realisation further is the whole spate of events that have defined 2020 thus far ‘ events (and disasters) that have had global repercussions, not just on the health of our planet but to the general well-being of every individual.
From coronavirus to the social injustices highlighted by Black Lives Matter ‘ this year’s events have been particularly hard to process, not least because increased loneliness resulting from remote working and greater worries about financial security have fuelled if not exacerbated our current daily anxieties. No one has become immune or remained untouched by the biggest challenges currently facing humanity.
Wellbeing issues are unsurprisingly on the rise, not least because of the unique set of challenges faced with the pandemic. And it is precisely because of this that we were compelled to undertake an in depth investigation into the general state of UK employees’ mental and emotional health within this current climate in the hope that ‘ as business owners ‘ we can learn something constructive from these challenges in order to become more responsible, attractive and ultimately more productive businesses.
Of the 13,271 employees that participated in this study, 93% professed that their general wellbeing suffered under 2020’s seismic stressors ‘ everything from the environmental concerns that triggered the Australian bush fires which ravaged over a billion animals at the start of the year to the uncertainties of Brexit ‘ has, to a degree, eroded our sense of resilience and faith in the world.
While coronavirus’ pernicious effects on mental health were obviously more ubiquitous (73% of workers say that they suffered here), it’s also clear that some groups of people in society were detrimentally more affected than others too. We found young employees aged between 18-24 struggled the most with their mental health ‘ not least because many are typically employed in industries most affected by lockdown (e.g. retail, hospitality & leisure), adding significant financial worry to an already heady cocktail of concerns that impact on overall wellbeing.
When we separately pulled together a report on the back of Pride this year, examining Stonewall’s recent data and reflected on employee mental health and diversity & inclusion, we likewise saw how minorities and LGBT+ communities were likely to have been hit hardest by the lockdown too.
And when the Black Lives Matter movement was instantaneously mobilised globally in June to protest against the numerous racial injustices that came to light via a series of shocking videos, it presented ‘ what seemed ‘ a seminal moment, not just for people generally but for businesses across the board, to consider how they might’ve personally contributed (albeit unconsciously) to the proliferation of discriminatory systems.
Undoubtedly, there were employees ‘ especially those of a BAME background ‘ who would have identified very deeply with experiences of racism and be traumatised by the events and videos that have spurred global protests. Indeed, in a heartfelt live address to her audience about why she was absent from work, BBC Radio 1 DJ Clara Amfo declared, as she fought off tears, that she was too devasted by events in the US to present ‘ so personally did she take these racially fuelled incidents.
Did businesses react appropriately to support the mental health of employees during this period of social unrest? The research showed a tepid picture: a third of bosses admitted that employees were mentally affected by such injustices and social unrest, yet only 22% of leaders addressed Black Lives Matter within their organisation ‘ raising questions on whether corporate silence may have compounded feelings of neglect experienced by workers who do not think their employers have done enough to support them during an already challenging time.
Whatever the political alignment or world views (save the extreme), many would agree that standing up to social injustice, crises and racism is the very essence of having a ‘purpose’. Black Lives Matter is just one important example of how social issues have affected the emotional and mental wellbeing of (not an unsignificant) number of employees. And while some organisations struggled, panicked even, at thrashing out a genuine response and strategy to communicate the right thing both internally and externally, this was in fact a crucial time for employers to simply check in with their team as a caring employer.
Should businesses ultimately stay neutral to this or should they take stock of many high profile brands who have used their product to communicate messages that propagate meaningful social change? Opinion is sure to be divided.
But the pandemic has incurred some kind of existential attitudinal shift to our values where a search for meaning has become more important. Jobs like shelf-stacking at a supermarket that were once considered lowly have rightly acquired a new found respect. In a crisis we have finally ascribed it with bigger purpose and meaning. How would this have impacted on the ‘happiness’ of these previously forgotten workers? Undoubtedly, this sense of appreciation would have energised and engaged them to complete a difficult shift knowing the valuable service they are providing to their communities at its greatest time of need.
The events of 2020 have had an enormous impact on employee wellbeing. In the face of these enormous social challenges, workplace wellbeing should matter to employers, now more than ever. The ‘new way of working’ is far from business as usual. It calls for a more empathic, human-centric form of corporate leadership that puts employees at the centre of the organisation. Now is the time for employers to listen to their employees; reflect on what can be learnt from these challenges to evolve and future-proof in uncertain times and ultimately become more socially responsible businesses.