Feb 18, 2021 | by Magdalena Soffia

What do employee wellbeing and productivity look like in a crisis?

In last week’s blog and the Business Leaders’ webinar, Gail Irvine from Carnegie UK spoke about how the current Covid-19 crisis has created two problems in terms of the quantity of available jobs; and the unprecedented changes in the quality of existing jobs.

Here, I’m looking at evidence of the impact Covid-19 has had on employee wellbeing, as well as how different organisations have dealt with decreased employee wellbeing and productivity. We’re also sharing the latest research from University of East Anglia, Propel Hub and RAND: an infographic summarising what employers can do to make interventions to improve wellbeing and productivity more effective.

>>Download the infographic 

What do employee wellbeing and productivity look like in a crisis? New research-based infographic for #HR & employers from @WorkLearnWell @PrOPEL_Hub @RANDEurope Click To Tweet

Unemployment is at its highest since 2016. There were 1.72 million people out of work in November 2020. There were still over five million furloughed workers at the beginning of 2021. Sectors where young workers and women are overrepresented – such as food, accommodation, recreation and other service activities including hairdressing – have been the most affected with temporary business closures. 

Along with unemployment comes decreasing productivity within these industries. According to the Bank of England productivity at the firm level is likely to decrease given: 

  • the increased costs of measures to contain Covid-19 (such as the purchase of PPE)
  • a reduction in capacity (such as reduced number of tables available in restaurants due to social distancing)
  • reduced investment in research and development, and innovation
  • The diversion of senior managers’ time spent on dealing with the pandemic (both at work and home). 

Increases in burnout and anxiety associated with the circumstances are also likely to impact on productivity.

Approaches to wellbeing and productivity challenges

The quality of the jobs of those who have been fortunate to remain in employment has also changed. Of all of the aspects that constitute a good job, some are receiving particular attention from employees, employers, human resources teams and policy makers:

  • Autonomy and control: Having a degree of flexibility and control to define working time arrangements is being considered essential for the work-life balance of the nearly 15 million people currently working from home and juggling with domestic tasks. 
  • Work effort: working shorter hours or fewer days a week has gained attention in the policy arena, mainly as a mechanism to redistribute scarce employment as well as to avoid the ever-growing problem of work-related stress.
  • Security: it is expected that the increase in unemployment at the macro level is followed by higher feelings of job insecurity among workers (that is, feelings that it is likely to lose your  job in the near future) which can be as detrimental to mental health as unemployment. In European countries, job insecurity during the pandemic has significantly affected self-employed and male workers aged 35–49 on a contract of limited duration. 
  • Prospects and training: understanding that the digitalisation of work and the demand for higher skills has been accelerated by the pandemic, the UK Government has been pushing for their re- and up-skilling agenda as a mechanism to boost productivity. From the academic sector, informal learning has been promoted as part of the solution with associated benefits for workers’ autonomy and job security. More comprehensive strategies have also been promoted from the business sector (see, for instance, PwC). Our Executive Director, Nancy Hey, has been advising the Lords’ Select Committee on digital inclusion and Covid-19.
  • Physical safety: the risk of exposure to physical risks in the workplace is traditionally associated with specific industries, such as manufacturing, construction and agriculture. The rapid spread of Coronavirus through close contact between people has forced us to think again about occupational risk management in jobs that previously seemed physically safe, especially among essential and client-facing services, from teachers and doctors to drivers and delivery workers.
  • Supportive workplace relationships: healthy relationships with colleagues and managers have never been so necessary to cope with the effects of job insecurity and isolation during the pandemic. Managers, in particular, face new challenges to promote this collaborative social environment in the context of remote work

There is still not enough evidence to predict how these changes will impact workers’ wellbeing and organisational productivity in the long-term. Yet we are optimistic that, beyond productivity, the wellbeing of workers is gaining attention in the discussions employers are having about recovery

We know that both wellbeing and productivity impacts are more likely when wellbeing interventions are part of an integrated organisation-wide approach rather than ad hoc, which means having an organisational strategy. Planning and implementing workplace wellbeing strategies is not an easy task when employers think that they conflict with productivity priorities, in a context of economic recession and financial challenges to businesses in many sectors. 

What can employers prioritise?

Research conducted by the University of East Anglia, Propel Hub and RAND provides some evidence-based resources for employers and HR professionals to reconcile these competing concerns and make workplace wellbeing interventions more effective in a context of crisis. They have summarised their findings in this infographic.

The team interviewed over 90 staff members from different organisations who attributed their success on both employee wellbeing and productivity outcomes to the following three design principles which underpinned their wellbeing programme:

  1. dynamically balancing consistency and flexibility
  2. providing combined resources for wellbeing
  3. and having engaged actors to help make sure those resources are used.

Bringing these elements together and communicating them transparently to employees, the researchers suggest, will not only make wellbeing improvements more sustainable but also more coherent with productivity.

How to ensure the best possible jobs recovery?

Watch the Business Leaders webinar on good work for wellbeing in the Coronavirus Economy.

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How to ensure the best possible jobs recovery?

Watch the Business Leaders webinar on good work for wellbeing in the Coronavirus Economy.

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