What a difference a single word can make. In a briefing on 20th March, the World Health Organisation no longer spoke of ‘social distancing’ but moved towards using the term ‘physical distancing’ instead. This seemingly small but highly meaningful shift in vocabulary sought to highlight that mental health is just as important as physical health. While we need to keep our geographic distance from each other to protect our health and prevent the virus from being spread, we need to encourage social cohesion and human connectedness now more than ever before.
This is a time of tremendous uncertainty – and thus anxiety – for people around the world. In my immediate environment alone, I have seen first-hand the impact that job loss, being put on short-time work, anxiety around livelihood prospects, mastering the double burden of work and childcare, the fear for one’s (and one’s loved ones’) health or prolonged isolation, is having on employee wellbeing.
While for some this may have proven temporary, for many the negative impacts and uncertainties may continue well beyond the acute Covid phases. Particularly the world of work will not – and should not – look the same after this crisis. The fragilities and fault lines exposed by the crisis need to be tackled. And the research we conducted revealed that employers are now the most trusted to “reset normal” – above any other institution. In fact, 80% of those surveyed said they trusted their employer with delivering a better working world after Covid-19, and 61% of them felt confident the company they worked for would support them during any future crises.
Having gained this trust, businesses now need to show leadership in actively leading their people through this period of change.
So What is it employers can do when it comes to mental health and wellbeing?
As one of the largest employers worldwide, we have been witnessing the emergence of the following shifts which have been significantly accelerated by the pandemic, pointing to opportunities for structural, transformative action:
Enabling new forms of working
Employees are keen to retain the increased autonomy over working hours and schedules enjoyed during the pandemic, with a balance of office-based and remote work. At the same time, employers need to ensure that employees are given the right to disconnect. Constant connection and suffering from the lack of rest carry important psychosocial risks for employees, including anxiety, depression and burnout. When establishing new working models, listening to employees needs to be at the heart, to ensure response mechanisms are human-centric. At the Adecco Group, we invited colleagues from across the world to join us in a series of workshops and open social forums to contribute their thoughts, perspectives and ideas on how they would like to see this concept evolve.
The pandemic is amplifying the need for a new set of leadership skills, where emotional intelligence is the new gold standard: the new breed of leader must be empathetic, a clear communicator, considerate of the holistic wellbeing needs of their employees, and able to foster a working relationship based on mutual trust rather than top-down hierarchical management. But leaders are currently not well equipped. With remote and flexible forms of work here to stay, it is important that managers find effective ways to provide their employees (own and agency workers) the support and resources to help them feel like they belong, requiring more than technology. Investing in leadership development, coaching, and up-skilling is one way to solve this challenge. The second is to recruit a different profile of leader, better suited to the workforce of tomorrow.
Moving to holistic wellbeing programs
Employees want reassurance that their wellbeing and safety remain the utmost priority. While employee wellbeing needs are a key area to be addressed going forward, they cannot be treated in isolation. Leaders need to look after the holistic wellbeing of their employees which acknowledges and supports the whole person. Otherwise workers will not be able to cope with and harness change to the extent that they could if their wellbeing was prioritised. Many companies lack the blueprint to embrace these trends – and the resulting deficiencies were clearly felt during the lockdown period. Our Adecco Group Foundation has developed a methodology – publicly available for the benefit of all – that addresses this. It hinges on a set of four elements of wellbeing (physical, mental, social, and purpose), coupled with four enablers that make any wellbeing intervention and policy work and last: culture & brand, policy & practice, environment, and technology & tools.
Focusing on the skills gap
As we emerge from the current crisis and potentially enter another, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture – that structural challenges such as a widening skills gap will continue to hamper the labour market until we address them head-on, We know that adaptability lies at the heart of career resilience. But our research showed a mismatch between an individual’s self-perceived personal level of risk and their willingness to take steps to address it. Employers thus need to step up and play a role in informing workers about the risks to their jobs, identify what they need for future growth, and the opportunities available – rather than simply supplementing staff with talent from outside the business. Making such a commitment to skills investment is less costly to the organisation in the long-term, addresses skills gaps before they worsen, and boosts employee engagement and loyalty.
Rethinking protection schemes
While the number of atypical workers such as freelancers, gig workers, temporary or part-time workers has increased for some time due to a changing labour market, the pandemic has very starkly exposed the vulnerability of these workers in a crisis – with a significant toll on their mental health. It is encouraging to see some governments applying statutory sick pay to self-employed or gig economy workers, as well as those companies that are extending protection to their freelance or temporary staff. And while applauding our healthcare workers may be a sign of appreciation, we need to rethink our social protection systems more fundamentally. At the Adecco Group, we have been advocating for a new social contract for some time; it has now become a matter of urgency. Our outline for a New Social Contract for Work in the 21st Century offers a vision that identifies, resolves, and aligns expectations and responsibilities of all labour market stakeholders. Extending social protections to workers who don’t normally have them, is not only about social justice and moving away from seeing work and workers as just a commodity, but also an important measure for the resilience of the economy.
One of the traits that makes us humans resilient and helps us bounce back from hardship is our capacity to forget what it was like. Otherwise, it would be impossible to move on. But in forgetting lies also a danger, that in our drive to recover from this crisis as fast as possible, we may automatically move back to applying behaviours and structures that may not have served us well in the first place.
The work ahead of us may be daunting. But returning to ‘normal’ is not an option. Let’s not help perpetuate a broken system. As we have set out at the Adecco Group, the ultimate ambition has to be a reality that will make the future work for all. Words matter, yes. But what matters even more are actions.
You can now watch the MindMatters digital event, discussing how to prioritise the mental wellbeing of you and your teams, in partnership with Z Zurich Foundation, here.