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Employee Health and Wellbeing

Employers learned tough lessons about supporting their workers’ health and mental wellbeing during the coronavirus pandemic – and the transition is still playing out. But some employers clearly overcame uncertainty better than others.

As recently as May 28, Amazon, often criticized for its worker-productivity tracking, announced it will install cubicles, dubbed AmaZen booths, so its warehouse workers may jump into them to watch short videos featuring positive affirmations, calming sounds and guided meditations 1.
Yet Amazon workers have told the media they work under a ‘brutal’ reality 2 of long hours, physical labor, workplace injuries and fears about taking time off. One user called the booths ‘dystopian,’ and others said the retail giant should focus instead on improving pay and working conditions.

On the other hand, the Financial Times (FT) created a partnership that lets its journalists explore their fears and anxieties in a powerful, expansive way – by making short films. The FT film series lets journalists collaborate with playwrights, creative artists and other experts to explore today’s top issues, from the most recent drama about giving up privacy in a world driven by algorithms and big data, to Brexit, homelessness and climate change 3.

A wide variety of methods were deployed in attempts to support workers’ mental health during the pandemic, although the relative success of these programs is still playing out 4. For example, Culligan Water, offered free self-care videos, meditation sessions, manager wellbeing calls and health coaching for employees and their spouses. One of the company’s owners also spoke about his own mental health activities in an employee video, encouraging employees to practice self-care.

Devils Backbone Brewing Company in the US took a different tack by engaging its workers in events such as Zoom happy hours and meetings for parents balancing childcare with remote work. They also offered professional development courses through LinkedIn Learning.

In terms of health, a tool at WorkforceNutrition.org lets companies assess their programs and guides them to develop a plan to enhance efforts to give employees access to and knowledge about healthy nutrition 5.

These steps primarily worked because they reflected the company’s values, which was important to both employees and employers alike 6.

What Now?

So, how do companies support their workers during this transition to a ‘new normal’? Advice abounds, like this one report, titled, ‘Nine Steps to the New Normal,’ which includes these guidelines, among others 7:

"Triage: define the critical baseline that enables minimum viable operations and stick to those basic functions; Adjust: assemble small teams that can act quickly, speed is key; and Sustain: recognize bottlenecks and pain points, realizing that some past assumptions or sacred cows can be questioned."

McKinsey & Company predicts that a ‘markedly different mix’ of jobs will emerge. The biggest negative impact will fall on workers in food service and customer sales and service roles, as well as less-skilled office support roles. But jobs in warehousing and transportation may increase because of the soaring growth of e-commerce and the delivery economy. McKinsey’s research shows more than half of the displaced low-wage workers may need to be retrained for higher-wage occupations. It concluded that across eight countries that McKinsey researched, more than 100 million workers, or one in 16, will need to find a different occupation by 2030 in the post-COVID-19 scenario 8

In the meantime, employers also will turn increasingly to gig, or contingent, workers to save money and increase diversity 9. And while the No. 1 priority remains efficiency and productivity, employers may have to start to offer the kinds of services that COVID-19 revealed are vital to worker retention, such as adjusted hours, enhanced sick leave and childcare provisions.

Yet, it should be remembered that many companies also pushed their employees to work in high-risk conditions during the pandemic, and those consequences are still playing out.

Flexibility = Quality of Life

Companies also learned that their focus on efficiency can hamstring them with a lack of flexibility. That means empowering employees in new ways, including cross-functional knowledge and training so they can take on varied, adaptive and flexible roles. It also means giving employees more flexibility in choosing when and where they work. Research has long established that remote work can help mothers better balance their work and family responsibilities, which makes them less likely to sacrifice one for the other 10. Additionally, more couples share family responsibilities more equally now than they did before the pandemic 11 12.

Employers also need to open their eyes to the challenges of employees who care for the elderly 13. Research by Human Research Management on senior care found that 83% of adult children have sought new care options for their senior loved ones during the pandemic and 89% were considering switching from a nursing home to in-home care. About 17% of the U.S. workforce care for a senior relative or loved one, and nearly half of them are sandwiched, also caring for children under the age of 18. And family caregivers are not solely Gen X and Boomers. Of the 41 million Americans who are unpaid caregivers to the elderly, 10 million are Millennials.

Flexibility and Openness to Employee Needs Are Not Just for Pandemics

Corporations need to acknowledge that the world of work has changed and there may be no ‘going back.’ While it is impossible at this moment in time to truly gauge how the impact of COVID will play out, it is clear that support, flexibility and awareness will go a long way to advance employee health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Picture of Sandra Guy

Sandra Guy

Sandra Guy is an award-winning journalist, editor and freelance writer and blogger who has written for the past 21 years for the Chicago Sun-Times. Guy served for three years (2001-2003) as president of the Chicago chapter of the Association for Women Journalists (AWJ) and has won several awards for coverage of issues involving African-American women technology professionals and their unique struggles and achievements.

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