I spent the early days of my career in the early ’90s studying manufacturing engineering at university, then working in a ship repair yard. I was taught to weld by a gruff Geordie who handed me a visor and a live arc welder and told me, “Don’t look into the light. You’ll go blind.” I didn’t. That was more than two decades ago, and I can only imagine that they take rather more precautions with students these days.

Even before my student days, businesses understood the importance of looking after their employees’ physical well-being. In the UK, the Health and Safety at Work Act in 1974 triggered the foundation of the Health and Safety Executive, but looking at the HSE website today, its bias is still toward physical safety — words such as “chemicals,” “fumes,” “dust,” “asbestos,” and “construction” are front and centre.

Over the last decade, firms have expanded their thinking from focusing purely on injury prevention to promoting physical well-being. After all, healthy, happy employees are more productive. More recently, it has become increasingly apparent that a key component of well-being is mental health, and the pandemic has highlighted the need to focus on the invisible risks to employees, as well as the more obvious physical dangers.

  • Virtual work brings new pressures. A 2020 study by the CIPD highlighted the risks associated with digital “presenteeism” — where employees feel increasingly pressured to be always connected. The pandemic has accelerated the shift to digital work, and many firms have implemented the technology needed but have yet to make the necessary cultural shift to focus employee productivity measures on outcomes, not input.
  • The monotony of routine and isolation may pose a bigger systemic risk than we realise. Some people thrive under pressure and some break; others just drift. Extremes of overperformance or negative impact are easy to spot, but it’s the forgotten middle ground of those “languishing” — the absence of both well-being and definable mental illness — that could present a greater systemic risk for workers and firms.
  • UK employees are optimistic, but firms can’t take that for granted. In Forrester’s latest PandemicEX survey, 37% of UK workers told us they are “experiencing coronavirus fatigue and feeling overwhelmed.” The accelerated pace of the vaccine rollout and the gradual reopening of the economy in the UK mean that UK workers feel more hopeful than most of our continental European peers, particularly workers in Spain, where some 70% report feeling overwhelmed. But the underlying risks of long-term fatigue, and the stored-up wave of post-pandemic stress, is a very real concern.

Both Leaders And Employees Have A Role To Play

Firms are responding. The shift to focusing on employee well-being encompasses both physical and mental health and is a far-reaching, cultural transformation that must consider where and how work gets done, how people are measured and rewarded, and how firms create sustainable work that drives long-term company and individual growth.

  • As a leader, you provide the framework. Organisational psychologist Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” outlines the three components of motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to create a work environment that enables employees to bring their A-game. Hilton’s Thrive@Hilton program makes a clear connection between great employee experience and great customer experience by helping employees thrive in “body, mind, and spirit.”
  • As an individual, you own how you approach work. As an employee, you share responsibility in creating an environment in which you, and your teammates, can succeed together. Ex-Navy SEAL turned management consultant Jocko Willink’s book “Extreme Ownership” frames your role as a team member, how you as an individual can own the way in which you support your team members, how you relate to success and failure, and how you learn. Smile, Bupa’s global well-being program, helps employees set and own personal wellness goals, encouraging them to identify what they as an individual need to maintain work/life balance.

If you’re a business leader and planning a return to the workplace, why not watch our complimentary on-demand webinar for trends and opportunities on how you can optimise your employee experience strategy? Watch here: The Future Workplace.