United Kingdom

COVID-19: supporting employee wellbeing

16 June 2020

As the COVID-19 crisis progresses towards the recover and reshape phases, many organisations look at new ways of addressing their workers’ changing social, emotional, physical and financial needs.

One of the biggest challenges for businesses who have moved to a remote working strategy in response to the COVID-19 health emergency, is how to support their employees’ wellbeing. While there are many potential upsides to working from home – the end of the commute and more control and flexibility over the working day – there can also be downsides including insecurity, isolation and anxiety.

For the employer, this crisis is a big test of the employee benefits they provide that are designed to promote employee wellbeing: how will these benefits respond to the new challenges facing employees in this new working environment, particularly as businesses move on from the initial react phase and into the recover and reshape phases of their pandemic response.

The four Rs

Aon’s recently published Decision Making in Complex & Volatile Times: Keys to managing COVID-19 – a framework to help businesses navigate their way through the pandemic – details how a crisis moves through four distinct response phases: react; respond; recover; and, re-shape (or raise resilience). These four Rs, in turn, shape how businesses and organisations assess the effectiveness and appropriateness of their existing employee wellbeing provision both now and in the medium to longer term. After the initial lockdown businesses were firmly entrenched in the react and respond phases; undertaking their own threat analysis, looking for information and guidance, and understanding the immediate impact on their own employee benefit programmes. Many businesses in those early stages of the crisis will have asked the question, “are my employee benefit policies covering the different needs of my employees?”

Depending on the financial severity of the situation for each organisation, some benefits might have been cut or restricted as staff were laid off, sent out on unpaid sabbaticals, or furloughed. Discretionary spend may have been reduced and other measures such as deferred compensation might have been considered.

Are the existing benefits appropriate?

If an organisation has not been as financially impacted and has a strong business continuity model in place, there may have been a greater focus on how effective existing employee benefits are ensuring wellbeing and engagement now that greater numbers are working remotely and are likely to be doing so for the foreseeable future. Benefits tend to focus on areas that address employees’ social, emotional, physical and financial needs, but are they all appropriate when employees are no longer in the office? What use is a gym membership when the gym can’t be accessed?

In this ‘new normal’, businesses need to look at different ways to help employees stay physically and mentally healthy. That could be providing access to digital fitness solutions, for example, which can be a good way of promoting physical wellbeing, connecting colleagues and putting some fun into the virtual working environment. A corporate health app encourages employees to take part in health challenges, promoting not just physical fitness but offering users the opportunity to focus on a more holistic wellbeing. Other services like digital GP services, parents’ and carers’ support services, and employee assistance programmes (EAPs) can also be valuable.

Promoting emotional fitness

Addressing emotional needs is important given how remote working can exacerbate depression, particularly for those extroverts not used to working in more isolated environments. At this stage of the pandemic response it feels like the initial novelty of working from home is beginning to wear with no return date yet in sight for many office workers. Technology can help here using web programmes such as Headspace to promote emotional fitness. It’s important to think about other ways to connect people outside of work whether it’s through virtual watercooler moments or using other ways of encouraging verbal communication and feedback.

How well does the wellbeing strategy communicate basic things such as taking regular breaks; eating healthily; drinking enough fluids; not being connected to devices all the time; and the ability to time manage? One of the biggest issues we’ve seen from home working is that people feel they don’t have time to exercise or look after themselves – it can feel like you’re always ‘on’ when working from home and sat in front of endless videoconferences. Financial wellbeing shouldn’t be ignored either. A period like this can be unsettling for employees facing financial issues, which means it is a good opportunity for businesses to think about the financial tools they give to their employees to help them manage their finances – such as the use of budget planners. Employers can’t fix an issue like an individual’s debt but they can provide the tools that will help employees take back control.

Reshape for the future

Now that businesses have started to move into the recover and reshape phases of their pandemic response, there can’t simply be a reversion to the pre-crisis situation and for employee benefits, there will be considerations around cost, design – what risks need to be covered now – funding and benchmarking performance. The objective may be to help create a more resilient benefits framework for a workforce operating in a way that was unrecognisable pre-pandemic. One key issue is that organisations don’t often measure how effective their wellbeing programmes are – they can simply be a tick box exercise. The modern workplace means businesses should be using data to build wellbeing strategies that meet the direct risks that their workforce has. The aim will be to use that data to assess how well employee benefits vendors performed and are performing; it will be an opportunity to learn the lessons from the crisis, reshape vendor relationships and execute revised benefits strategies that will better respond to a changing workforce.

For more advice and tips on promoting employee wellbeing, download Aon’s whitepaper Covid-19 Outbreak: Supporting employee wellbeing and for help with managing the recover and reshape phase of the COVID-19 crisis, download Aon’s Decision Making in Complex & Volatile Times: Keys to managing COVID-19.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this document is intended to assist readers understand COVID 19 issues and is for general guidance only. This document is neither intended to address the specifics of your situation nor is it intended to provide medical, legal or specific risk advice. You should review the information in the context of your own circumstances (including further safety or medical information from credible sources) and develop an appropriate response. Each insurance policy must be specifically reviewed to determine the extent, if any, of coverage for COVID-19 noting that coverage may vary depending on jurisdiction and circumstances. Whilst care has been taken in the production of this document, Aon does not warrant, represent or guarantee the accuracy, adequacy, completeness or fitness for any purpose of the document or any part of it and can accept no liability for any loss incurred in any way by any person who may rely on it. Any recipient shall be responsible for the use to which it puts this document. This document has been compiled using information available to us up to its date of publication and is subject to any qualifications made in the document.