It’s widely known that our work can have a direct impact on our mental and physical health – from promoting a sense of wellbeing through to triggering problems – but just what happens when you incorporate an unprecedented global pandemic into the mix?
The changes to our working and personal lives brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic are unlike anything many of us have ever experienced. From the move to remote working, being asked to work on the front line, being placed on furlough, or the necessity to home school or carry out caring responsibilities, the pandemic challenged people in different ways and on different levels.
So as an employer, just how do you go about supporting your employees in such circumstances, and how do you continue to look after their wellbeing as the course of the pandemic – and our recovery – continues?
“We knew we had to communicate well”
For Claire Elliott, Group People and Brand Director at Wilton and Bain, winners of the Special Award in the ‘small’ category, communication was key to showing employees that support was available.
“At the beginning of Covid, not only did we have to keep a close eye on the financial aspect, but we also knew it was vital we looked after our employees’ wellbeing. We knew we had to communicate well, even if we didn’t always know what we were doing,” she said. “We had to let them know what support was available, and, ultimately, adapt to their needs.”
Elliott explained that after the sudden onset of the first lockdown, by the third the organisation was a lot more prepared. “There was a mild panic when we heard schools would be shut for the third time,” she continued. “But this time, we reacted quickly, we provided five hours of childcare for those with parental responsibilities, and, for those without children, we gave an extra day as ‘Covid Leave’ per month to use in a way that best suited them.”
As a business, this flexibility is not something new to Wilton and Bain, having always had an appreciation of the importance of work/life balance. “We have a lot of empathy around people needing the space to recuperate [after the pandemic] and allowing the time to become stronger,” Elliott added. “As a business, we are so aware that ‘health is wealth’ – whether it’s mental or physical.”
"It was about listening rather than trying to second guess"
Being honest about the little time the onset of the pandemic left for planning was something that Emma Ratzer, CEO at Access Community Trust and the winner in the ‘mid’ size category, also found to be important when communicating with employees.
She explained that by being upfront and open with staff, she was able to get them to open up about the challenges they too were facing in the light of the sudden changes.
“For me it was really about listening what they were asking for rather than trying to second guess. I did a broadcast every day to the staff about how we were responding to some of the Government messages, and then asking people to email, text or call and tell me how I could help,” she explained.
“It was about being open and honest. Honest in saying ‘I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m listening to you’.”
Initiatives undertaken by the company on the back of feedback included supplying the family of employees with PPE, meaning they had an extra level of protection when its frontline workers returned home, as well as joining a healthcare scheme offering 24/7 access to any physical or mental support. One of the biggest areas of focus, however, was actually getting employees to focus on their own wellbeing.
“For us, as an organisation that provides support, the first thought for our staff was ‘how can we help support our clients?’", Ratzer explained. “We needed to make sure that this time our staff understood that they needed to focus on their own wellbeing, and not that of others. It was really important that they put their own wellbeing first.”
To help make this happen, Access Community Trust introduced #WellbeingWednesday, a dedicated day each week where Ratzer would record a video on a topic surrounding health and wellbeing – something that has seen such great success and uptake that the organisation will continue it beyond the pandemic.
"We tried to be as creative and agile as possible"
It was the latest lockdown, and the third time schools were shut that Rachel King, People Director at Camelot UK, the winner in the ‘large’ size category, says was a “really significant factor” when it came to its employees’ wellbeing.
“Luckily, we have a working parent’s group, which was great in terms of getting feedback and understanding what people were struggling with,” she explained. “If you’re a working parent, you’re juggling a lot, so we gave an extra 15 days’ leave throughout the lockdown so people could flex their time.”
King explained the pride she and the team felt in how the company’s working parents used their initiative to find a schedule that worked for them around home schooling. “We tried to be as creative and as agile as possible and give as much guidance as we could around how people could structure their day differently”, she said. “In the later lockdowns, we also ran classes for parents themselves at the end of the working day, aimed at helping them to switch off and have some time for them.”
Camelot’s wellbeing journey actually started long before the pandemic, with King describing some of the initiatives that were already in place around mental health, including 16 trained Mental Health First Aiders. These trained staff have been a great support throughout the pandemic, she explained.
“Wellbeing is a very individual thing – good wellbeing means different things to different people,” she explained. “I remember when the pandemic first rolled out feeling very anxious,” she added. “It’s the realisation that it’s scary for all of us."
"We wanted to reach out to the most vulnerable"
For Jane Wynn-Jones, Head of HR Business Partners, Health and Wellbeing at Admiral, winner of the Special Award in the ‘big’ size category, supporting their employees during the pandemic meant reaching out to all – but with a special focus on those considered the very most vulnerable.
“Our people services team identified those they felt would need the most support and called them to see how they were doing,” she explained.
At Admiral, the approach to post-pandemic working means a hybrid approach, something that Wynn-Jones says means they need to have an ongoing awareness of people’s wellbeing.
“As we plan for our future, and our hybrid approach, we acknowledge that people will work from wherever suits them best,” she explained. “This means they may come into the office, they may dial in from home, or they may join a meeting whilst on a walk. Everybody has something different they are dealing with, so it’s made us all the more compassionate and understanding. Ultimately, we recognise that no matter what situation you’re in, it’s important to support one and other.”
The full lists of winners across all list sizes and categories can be found here and full recordings of the day can be accessed here.
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