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How organisations can ensure well-being at work during COVID-19

Organisations need to quickly come to grips with how to best support employees during COVID-19.

With most employees across the public and private sector in the UAE now working from home, we are having to redefine the concept of ‘well-being at work’. If trying to maintain (and in many cases, save) business is not challenging enough, organisations need to quickly come to grips with how to best support employees who are working remotely, possibly for the first time, and who are dealing with disrupted daily routines, physical isolation, and potentially experiencing more than a little worry and anxiety.

From two global surveys that Aetna International recently commissioned about ‘the business of health’, it would seem that this is going to be quite a challenge for some companies. One of the most surprising results that came out of these surveys was that, before the COVID-19 outbreak, over three-quarters (76 per cent) of UAE employers believed they provided good access to programmes that support health and well-being, but only about a quarter (27 per cent) of employees thought the same – 26 per cent actually rated the support provided by their employer as poor. That’s quite a gap.

These statistics highlight how important it is for businesses to stay in touch with what’s actually happening on the ground, and never has this been more relevant than now. Once seen as a ‘nice-to-have’ bonus, we’ve known for some time that comprehensive health and well-being programmes are increasingly linked to employee performance. In fact, research shows that the provision of these benefits has a direct impact on job satisfaction, engagement and retention. Yet, if the aim is to empower people to take charge of their mental, emotional and physical health at work, there was clearly considerable work to be done before the coronavirus outbreak – and substantially more to be done at the moment.

From a corporate point of view, these difficult times call for something of a culture shift. It can be a tough call for leaders, particularly if they haven’t previously experienced working with remote teams, but as with any type of culture change, the only way to effectively implement change is to model it from the top down. Here are some strategies that can help managers support their teams by embedding new behaviours and offering reassurance where possible:

Inspire psychological safety

It’s highly likely that some members of your team are feeling scared and vulnerable at the moment, due to the ambiguities we’re all facing, so now is the time for leaders to be empathetic, clear, communicative and available. Being realistically optimistic about work, life and how the two might blend together in the short-term is the kind of positive outlook that is contagious. Also, encourage your team to open up and express whatever is worrying them, without fear of judgement or negative repercussions. Simply listening can be hugely helpful.

Keep teams engaged

With so much going on that is out of our control, it can be tricky for people to fully concentrate on their work. Yet being completely engaged in a task – and in flow, when an activity absorbs you to the point that time flies by – can bring a sense of calm and focus that elevates our feelings of well-being. Be wary of micro-managing but do check in regularly with individuals to see how they are progressing on projects. And bear in mind you might need to manage your own expectations about how workloads are handled – flexibility will be especially appreciated by any parents who are also supervising their children’s distance learning while schools are shut.

Look out for signs of struggle

Keep an eye on how isolation and loneliness might be affecting people, particularly if they aren’t used to working remotely or if they live alone. We’re sociable creatures and the risk is that feeling cut off can lead to depression. If your team is particularly large, you might like to consider a ‘buddy’ system. Stay as connected as you can by using online options that allow you to see each other face-to-face whenever possible and consider rotating who chairs each meeting. It can really make a difference to people feeling involved even though they are physically distanced.

Ensure resources are easily accessible

Now is the time to publicise the different options available as part of your corporate wellness scheme. Check in with your employee assistance programme (EAP) plan and any additional support your health insurer may be providing such as mindfulness apps or access to virtual coaching, counselling or other health services. Then send regular round-ups and reminders about what is on offer, as well as links for convenience. And as a leader, if you decide to try a resource, talk about your experience so your team know it’s ok to try it for themselves.

Think differently

Instead of feeling stuck, encourage your team to use this time as an opportunity to develop new skills and have fun. Many companies have online training programmes that are underutilised, or you could pull together team quizzes, bake-offs and even painting competitions. Learning something new offers a great psychological boost as well as being a good distraction from other worries, so creatively come up with (or welcome) ideas, see what people are enthusiastic about and then do what you can to make activities fun and interactive. Even something silly will spark a sense of camaraderie that can go a long way in keeping spirits up.

COVID-19 is challenging us to come to terms with new ways of working, but it’ also presents an opportunity for organisation leaders to build a strong organisation culture — one that can serve as a platform for growth and attracting talent, long after this crisis.

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