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Pandemic: Employee Well Being And How Institutions Must Face The Challenge

The employer will have a larger role in both physical and mental wellbeing of its employees.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the world of work. One big change is the fillip to work-from-home. Large companies have announced policies that will allow employees to work from home. You can be on a beach front home in a tropical island and still continue to be a productive member of an office that is based in New York. I currently work for a school in Delhi while living in Princeton, New Jersey.

There is uncertainty about job security. Companies have laid off a large number of employees in a desperate attempt to ensure cost containment as revenues plummeted. Those who did keep their jobs were not given pay raises. In some cases there have been pay cuts of 25 percent or even higher.

As companies seek to maintain manpower flexibility they will increase their contingent workforce. The new Code on Social Security 2020 allows for Fixed Term Contracts, gig workers etc. in addition to the full time employment that was standard in corporate India till date. Their usage will continue to increase.

The employer will have a larger role in both physical and mental wellbeing of its employees. Offices will see increased emphasis on social distancing, health and safety, private cabins etc. as well as support for initiatives that promote mental wellbeing.

We all know that even in normal times it is necessary for individuals to feel safe to give their best. If you are stressed out and feeling pressured all the time, you cannot be delivering peak performance. The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the day to day stresses and makes it much more important that leaders create conditions at work that allow individuals to feel supported and helps reduce stress. 

A stressful situation, whether physical or psychological, releases hormones that prepare the body to face danger. Unfortunately this survival tactic, called the fight or flight syndrome, can also lead to us all overreacting to day to day stresses that are not life-threatening, such as an electricity failure before an important Zoom call, job insecurity, and relationship problems. This continued stress has long-term effects on our physical and mental health. It can cause high blood pressure, heart problems and may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. 

The Centre for Disease control says that “Poor mental health and stress can negatively affect employee in areas of Job performance and productivity, engagement with one’s work, communication with coworkers, physical capability and daily functioning. 

It is therefore important that the leader create an organizational culture that promotes well-being and psychological safety.”

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines well-being as “the state of being happy, healthy, or prosperous.”

So how does a leader promote well-being in the organisation?

  1. Promote relationships at the work-place: Relationships provide people with an anchor. Multiple studies have documented the health benefits of social ties. Lack of such ties can lead to mental problems such as depression. It is therefore important that we promote a culture where getting to know the people you manage is encouraged.
  2. Promote a culture of physical exercise: As Marcus Tullius Cicero said, “It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keeps the mind in vigour." Physical activity increases our mental alertness, energy and positive mood. The hormones released by stress are washed away from the body when we exercise. Providing employees a membership to a gym or calling a yoga trainer to the workplace is a great way to promote exercising.
  3. Reward and recognise employees: An online survey carried out in 2012 for the American Psychological Association by Harris Interactive, found that employees who feel valued are more likely to report better physical and mental health, as well as higher levels of engagement, satisfaction and motivation, compared to those who do not feel valued by their employers. Low salary was reported. as a major cause of stress in the survey.
  4. Allow for failure to build resilience: As we experiment with new learning and attempt new challenges, failure is inevitable. This is true for individuals as well as organisations. Resilience, the ability to adapt to difficult situations and bounce back in face of adversity comes from the learnings from failure. The key is to not let fear of failure become an impediment to action. The reward system should allow for support and payouts to those who attempt to develop new products, services or processes even if they fail. This will reinforce that failure is necessary part of growing and successful problem solving. 
  5. Work-life balance: It is important that employees have time to recharge, be with loved ones, exercise and take care of themselves so that you can come to go into work ready to do their best. Work-life balance and wellbeing go hand in hand. One cannot be successful without the other. Leaders have to set an example and role model these behaviours. They should leave on time and take all holidays as well as avail their vacation leave. E-mails and messages create a 24/7 work-place, leaders should not send them after work hours to their subordinates.
  6. Employee Wellbeing and Assistance Programme: These are a useful benefit that help employees deal with personal or work related problems. Confidential access to trained counsellors allows employees an opportunity to discuss their problems. 

In conclusion, proactively addressing these problems leads to a happy and healthy team, resulting in higher productivity. In India where mental health is not given much attention, this can be an important benefit and a competitive advantage. The psychological and physiological costs of stress and mental health issues on individuals negatively impact team and organizational performance. The initiatives set out above and other similar steps will set the tone for ensuring that employees are able to lead a productive, safe and fulfilled life while contributing their best to the organisation. In addition being a progressive organisation that takes care of mental wellbeing will pay a dividend with a stronger employer brand able to attract the best and the brightest. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Sudhanshu Pant

The author is HR leader and domain expert currently Head of Human Resources at The British School.

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