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Employee wellbeing in 2021: is it more important than ever?

Employee wellbeing in 2021: Is it the most pressing HR issue of the new year?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Going into 2021, it’s safe to say that we’re all hoping that the new year will go a bit more smoothly than the old. 

Employers have always had a duty of care to support employee wellbeing, but the unrelenting stress of 2020 has forced business leaders to seriously think about how they approach this responsibility. 

So, while we hope everything gets better soon, it’s worth considering how we manage the important role of employee wellbeing in 2021, and what we could be doing better.

2021 and the “new normal”

It almost feels quaint, looking back at early 2020. The way people talked about social distancing restrictions, you’d have thought they would blow over in a few months. But now, it seems like we’ll be putting up with them for a good part of the new year, as well. This means that a big part of supporting employee wellbeing in 2021 is going to revolve around dealing with the continued fallout from COVID-19 and the so-called “new normal” of working life.

So, while a lot of businesses were getting ready to bring employees back into the office and return to a more centralised form of management, the emergence of a new strain, combined with the fact that most of the UK has now entered Tier 4 lockdown rules, means that people will be working from home for a while longer.

The role of remote work in employee wellness

Remote work certainly existed before 2020. But that was the year in which business leaders were forced to take a more serious look at it. Remote work’s popularity isn’t new either, as Buffer’s State of Remote Work reports from previous years show that almost all surveyed remote staff want to keep working remotely to at least some degree for the rest of their careers. But it’s taken lockdown to show that the technology is there and that working remotely is a fully viable career option.

But now that it’s been legitimised in the eyes of business leaders, remote work has the potential to do a lot of good for employee wellbeing in 2021. For starters, remote work opportunities can support physical wellbeing, as they enable people with disabilities or chronic health conditions to pursue careers which may once only have been available to fully able-bodied applicants.

Then there are the benefits to financial wellbeing. While most employees are either working in essential frontline roles, or are safely furloughed for the next few months, a lot of people are grappling with a lack of financial security, or even joblessness, as a result of COVID-19. But increasing the number of remote positions can not only broaden an employer’s pool of potential applicants but can also help individuals get back into work while social distancing rules are still in place.

Supporting mental and social wellbeing in 2021

But perhaps the biggest threats to employee wellbeing in 2021 are those which threaten our mental health and sense of social connection. Between the stress of the pandemic and the isolation of being unable to see family and friends, it’s easy to see why these forms of employee wellbeing have been the most under fire in 2020.

And while we’d all love to leave all of that in 2020, where it belongs, the continuation of social distancing means we’ll be grappling with these issues well into the new year too. Research from Oracle shows that 78% of surveyed employees reported being negatively impacted by their mental health last year.

  • Supporting mental health at work: Mental health at work has long been a controversial subject. This is due to the outdated idea that working professionals ought to leave their personal issues at the door when they come into work. But unfortunately, that’s not how it works. There isn’t just an off switch you can flick to get rid of your anxiety and unhappiness. And the same should be said of things like job stress and work-related anxiety, that follow you home at the end of the day. If someone’s job is damaging their mental health, then a few hours on their own after work aren’t going to fix that.

People are a lot less likely to talk about their mental health if they think it’ll result in them being judged by their colleagues and managers. This is why business leaders need to take a proactive role in acknowledging, discussing and supporting mental wellbeing at work. This means making sure that employees have access to educational resources. But more importantly, it means working with your staff to help them seek effective treatment. Companies that can afford to give employees access to private counselling and therapy can definitely benefit from doing so, but for businesses that can’t, simply providing the flexibility for employees to work around their appointments for services like the NHS’s IAPT program is a step in the right direction.

But getting people to open up means establishing a dialogue. This is why it’s important for managers to regularly check in with their employees, not only to be able to accurately gauge employee sentiment but to stay on top of the issues affecting your staff members on an individual level.

  • Supporting social wellbeing: Human beings are inherently social creatures. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand why so many of us have struggled through 2020. Being separated from friends and family, or even just being deprived of the day-to-day interactions we normally have with our colleagues can really take its toll.

Even in normal circumstances, poor social wellbeing is one of the most prominent issues affecting remote work wellbeing, as remote staff are at risk of becoming isolated from their centralised colleagues. This is especially important when you consider the impact that workplace friendships have on things like employee productivity. That’s why helping workers to develop social connections at work needs to be a huge part of the push for better employee wellbeing in 2021.

But to build strong social bonds that support staff wellbeing in your team, communication needs to be at the core of your workplace culture. Aside from individual interactions like 1:1s and check-ins, this means it’s in your best interests to schedule regular group stand-ups. Not only does this give your team members a chance to update each other on things like objective progress, but it also gives them the chance to make a bit of small-talk and interact as actual people. But going beyond meetings, it can even help for you to set up social activities for your team. Granted, at the moment, these probably won’t be in-person at the time of writing. But even if a good old-fashioned pub crawl isn’t on the cards, there are still plenty of virtual games and activities to help your employees bond with each other.

But ultimately, whether things return to some sense of normalcy in 2021, or whether we’re doomed to spend another year learning every detail on the living room wallpaper, employee wellbeing is set to be one of the big workplace issues of 2021. So, to learn more about managing employee wellbeing, or to learn about how our platform supports employee engagement, head on over to the Weekly10 blog today!

Did you know that giving employees the opportunity to share feedback and write about their experiences weekly has been shown to reduce anxiety? Why not take a look at how we can help.

Head of People Science