According to a study commissioned by work management tool, Asana, 75 per cent of UK employees reported feelings of burnout over the past year, as the effects of the pandemic took their toll.

It’s hardly surprising. For many, COVID-19 not only brought with it a complete disruption to normal routines, but also the additional challenges of finding a suitable work location within the home, and, potentially, the added stress of home-schooling. Many of those working from home found themselves working longer hours, with presenteeism redefined by a lack of separation between home and workplace and the need to prove personal value in uncertain times. Meanwhile, the twin impacts of a lack of social contact with colleagues and the oddness of digital interactions proved a further stress, as office banter was replaced by the invasion of the home environment by colleagues and customers on screen.

For those in keyworker roles, the responsibility of keeping services going during the crisis and worries about the potential health risks of going to work were extraordinary burdens to bear. Meanwhile, those on furlough had the impact of unstructured time and job insecurity to handle.

The experience of every individual has been different, but the outcome for all employers is the same: there is a fundamental need to prioritise wellbeing to support employees and protect productivity as we look towards recovery. The question is, what does that look like and whose role is it to make sure wellbeing is delivered in a meaningful, appropriate and sustainable way?

Increasingly Complex Wellbeing Challenges

For larger organisations, employee wellbeing has traditionally been part of the HR function, or, for those with an occupational health professional on the team, via a partnership between HR and OH. But COVID-19 has been a gamechanger. The importance and complexity of wellbeing has spiralled. The need for more meaningful and tailored programmes, aligned to what employees need and value now, is not only essential for supporting retaining and recruiting employees; it’s also vital for maintaining motivation and productivity. For HR departments – many of which are overstretched with return-to-work transitions, policy considerations and changes in recruitment strategy – responding to the new shape of wellbeing best practice and increased demand for specialist support is a huge task. For companies without a dedicated in-house HR function, the task is potentially even greater.

But, as companies continue to firefight their way out of the pandemic crisis, considered and meaningful employee wellbeing strategies are potentially one of the most valuable tools at their disposal. Employees are any organisation’s biggest asset and companies have never needed their loyalty, commitment and productivity more.

Tokenism and re-hashed ideas simply won’t cut it. Leadership teams that rely on their HR department to drive the company’s focus on wellbeing are failing to embrace what’s really required: a cultural change that inspires every employee and touches the entire business.

Thinking Beyond Perks and Gimmicks

The good news is that pushing wellbeing up the corporate agenda makes it an area of best practice that’s accessible to all, regardless of the size of the organisation or whether it has a dedicated HR department.

Leadership teams have the potential to engage and inspire their teams by working with employees to understand their needs and concerns and developing programmes tailored to their requirements. This may even involve developing a range of programmes for different demographics within the company, which reflect the varying experience of the pandemic on diverse job roles, family circumstances and generations. Consultation and communication as part of the wellbeing development process not only helps employers get it right, it also reassures employees that they care and are invested in all individuals on the team.

What employers who do dig a little deeper into what employees want from a wellbeing programme are likely to find that priorities have changed. Wellbeing is not about perks: free fruit in the office and yoga classes in the foyer are nice-to-have initiatives but, as something that employees could access themselves quite easily outside of the work environment, how much value do they really add?

Creative thinking when it comes to wellbeing initiatives is not about gimmicks either. Amazon has recently taken a bettering on social media for its mooted ‘AmaZen Booths’, which were to provide employees with a space for mindfulness. In principle, encouraging mindfulness is a positive step towards supporting wellbeing, but there has to be holistic thinking around the whole of the work environment and work/life balance. Employees are not looking for a shiny new initiative with a clever name, they want to know that what matters to them inside and outside of work also matters to their employer.

Prompted by Now, Designed for Forever

So how can a company develop a wellbeing programme that reflects the unique circumstances of 2021, while also investing in its team and the future health of the business?

The old adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ comes into play here. True wellbeing is not about the sticking plasters that respond to stress, fatigue and burnout; it’s the initiatives that can help to protect employees from these things now and in the future. The employee benefits we offer through The National Bereavement Service (NBS) are a good case in point. By providing employees with a source of support and advice at a difficult time in their lives, employers not only demonstrate they care, but also protect both individuals and productivity with resources that reduce the potential stress and mental health issues associated with bereavement. Similarly, our Adroit estate planning and legal services packages provide a helping hand to employees to assist them in navigating potentially stressful times in the lives. In this way the employer not only demonstrates they care for the employee, but also demonstrates they understand what the employee cares about most: their home and family.

Why is Leadership Involvement Critical to Wellbeing Best Practice?

Wellbeing cannot be a tick box exercise, nor should it be a static area of HR policy. A company is made up of real people and their lives outside of work have a significant bearing on their workplace performance. Only when budget, resource, training and strategy are committed at the very highest level is this fundamental principle truly integrated into wellbeing best practice.