Happy workers are more productive – 13 percent more productive, in fact. But throw a never-ending global pandemic in the mix and there’s a conundrum. How do we stay mentally healthy while isolating, with frazzling amounts of screen time, let alone be at our most productive? And how can we help our teams compassionately, but virtually?
COVID-19 unleashed a health crisis, both physical and mental. With it came magnified interest in personal well-being. From pumping iron in the garden to workouts next to the cooker or hula hooping while home-schooling, people have been trying to come out of it physically well.
But mental well-being is less tangible. It’s hard for business leaders to see the wood for the trees when it comes to how employees are feeling.
With limited or no face-to-face, virtual team activities have taken off. But despite intentions, team cheering events may not always mean good outcomes. One more remote commitment may add to feelings of burnout. Leaders who address burnout head-on and invest in integrated ways to connect their teams will reap future rewards. Why? Because the future will be all about ‘hybrid’ working: A flexible combination of working in the office and at home.
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Burnout is a hot issue for workers
Professional services multinational Deloitte found 38 percent of workers feel lockdown has harmed their well-being. A US study found the proportion of adults reporting anxiety and depression symptoms went from 11 percent before the pandemic to 41 percent by January 2021. Lack of social interaction is fueling overwhelming feelings: Seeing colleagues face-to-face is what people most miss, Kaspersky research found.
But employee burnout has been on the rise for a while. The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found mental health was behind most long-term sickness absence between 2017 and 2019.
“We talk about Zoom burnout as if it’s a new thing,” says workplace guru Jennifer Moss. “But it’s just a new manifestation of a bad workplace practice on overdrive. We’ve had meeting fatigue forever.” Sustainable learning and development expert Professor Gianpiero Petriglieri agrees. “It doesn’t matter whether you call it a virtual happy hour – it’s a meeting because we are used to using these tools for work.”
With this backdrop, it’s not surprising ‘welltech’ – technology for personal and business wellness – is on the rise. “Senior execs have a lot on their plate,” says Bernadette Thomas, Founder of welltech start-up The Wellbeing Games. “But it’s an urgent matter that’s been bubbling away unnoticed. Mobile technology has led to most of us being always available. While we’ve been trying to bolster mental health with virtual activities, these can be alienating for those who can’t speak freely – whether you’re an introvert, carer or someone who shares a flat.”
Well-being in the workplace needs to be nurtured away from laptops.
Bernadette Thomas, Founder, The Wellbeing Games
How welltech can help businesses and staff
Born of the COVID-19 outbreak, Bernadette’s start-up The Wellbeing Games aims to make work a healthy, happy (and profitable) place now and when we return to the office. Through simple daily well-being challenges, it’s designed to strengthen professional relationships and bolster social connectivity between colleagues.
Daily tasks cover five areas: Movement, connection, nutrition, sleep and mindfulness. A nutrition target might involve drinking certain amounts of water to boost brain function. A connection challenge could encourage doing something that makes you feel great, like self-compassion – it’s been found to lower heart rates (and helps you procrastinate less.) What’s more, looking after yourself earns points.
“Before The Wellbeing Games, we had quizzes and open discussions over video calls,” explains Sholto Hunter, Researcher at talent-sourcing firm and The Wellbeing Games client, Carlyle. “They were great to begin with but became repetitive. The Wellbeing Games was a breath of fresh air because it included activities to improve mental and physical welfare. The points system added an element of competitiveness, and there’s a toolkit of exercises to improve mood, state of mind and ultimately, the way we work.”
Individual nurturing matters
The welltech wave is the antithesis of another virtual coffee. An advantage over remote team-building exercises is the emphasis welltech places not just on nurturing employees physically and mentally but nurturing them as individuals.
Other welltech offers include cloud-based Wellable, with nutrition tracking, healthy location check-ins and special challenges. Friday Pulse lets employees track their own positive and negative emotions and collects feedback for line managers, so they can be more in tune with their team’s mental health struggles.
Changing a culture of overwork
Working hours are up, with more meetings and more emails: We’re working 48.5 minutes more a day since the pandemic, a study of more than 3.1 million workers across North America, Europe and the Middle East found. Its authors say, “It becomes easy to overwork due to the lack of clear delineation between the office and home.”
Ironically, our more ‘flexible’ virtual workplace has reduced professional boundaries. Some of us are working from our bedrooms – normally a place for rest and recovery. Then there’s boredom: What else is there to do but work? Fear over job security has increased presenteeism: Clocking in more than needed. It’s little surprise experts warn mental health shockwaves could be felt for months, if not years, to come. But they were already staring at us in the face.
“We’ve been on the treadmill for so long, it’s come back to control and command: Being told what we can and can’t do rather than being empowered to make our own choices and trusted to act like adults,” says Thomas.
Leaders should avoid adding more activities and step away from ‘forced fun.’ Instead, instill an innovative and inclusive culture with connectivity at its heart. With the right parameters, teams support each other and discuss more than just work-based tasks.
Bernadette Thomas, Founder, The Wellbeing Games
Three ways for business leaders to boost team well-being
Thomas recommends some steps business leaders can take to help employees right now and when they return to the office.
1. Let them step away from the screen
Introverts may find too many virtual meetings confronting, while for people who live with others, it may be hard to listen and be heard. Challenging colleagues to fulfill tasks away from screens, like mindfulness and movement, encourages a more holistic, deep-rooted well-being.
2. Do meetings differently
It’s time to hit reset and take control of an out-of-control meeting culture. Are they all needed? Can colleagues attend while on a walk? Why not set a 45-minute time cap – or try Nicole Steinbok’s popular 22-minute meeting format.
3. Accommodate individual preferences
Do you have night owls who thrive in the evenings and early birds emailing at dawn? More flexibility on work hours and practices encourages productivity. It’s time to shake up the norm.
Our workplaces of the future won’t be ‘one size fits all.’ If business leaders can use this moment to embed employee well-being in the organization culture, when we do skip back into offices, we’ll be healthier, happier and more productive.