Coronavirus: How HR is promoting health and wellbeing

Author: Sheila Attwood

As the lockdown in the UK continues, employees are coming to terms with several more weeks of being confined to their homes, or facing the risk of going to work. Sheila Attwood looks at what HR is doing to help employees maintain good mental health and wellbeing.

XpertHR's second pulse survey of how HR is navigating the workforce challenges thrown up by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic asked what employers were doing to "promote wellbeing and/or good mental health specifically during the coronavirus pandemic". From hints and tips to virtual social events, we share six ways that HR is supporting employees.

1. Regular business updates

A key fear is that the length of time that coronavirus will continue to pose a threat is unknown. It follows that the impact on organisations is also uncertain - businesses themselves don't know how long they will need to stay closed, or the long-term impact on their business levels or viability.

This can develop into a deep worry for employees, so many organisations are ensuring that regular communications are sent out on the current status of the business. A professional services firm is holding "regular updates to provide information and assurance about the business and job security", while another is providing "regular firm-wide communications from leadership, and being transparent and open". Several respondents noted that communications from directors and leaders in the business are being used to deliver regular messages around the business strategy.

2. Practical hints and tips on working from home

For many organisations, the work continues, but is delivered by employees largely from home. The adjustment to homeworking will be easier for some than others, and there may be technical hurdles to overcome. Any anxiety about being able to continue to deliver a professional service can be alleviated by being provided with "all the tools setup to work safely and effectively" and advice from HR on areas such as how to run a meeting remotely. There may also be a need for a focus on physical health at home, ensuring that employees think about posture, or take regular breaks, which can happen more naturally in an office environment.

Many organisations have put out communications on creating a safe working environment at home, via email or content on a company intranet. A financial services company has "provided a 'top tips' sheet on good practices - keep to routine, take regular breaks, limit screen time", while another has "developed a charter for remote working in the pandemic and the tolerance, flexibility, consideration for others and the concept of not being 'at work' all the time is promoted." An outsourcing company has gone a step further by providing a "clear message to staff that we are aware that productivity may be affected - and that this is ok".

Ensuring that line managers are equipped with the skills to effectively manage a remote team can also help those suddenly working from home to settle into the new routine more easily. A financial services company has provided "extra support/training for line managers who are managing remotely and acknowledging that this means additional/new challenges", while at a manufacturer: "Line management [is] encouraged to support staff and be available. Given advice on how to spot issues, etc and what questions to ask if they feel an employee is struggling".

A services company is encouraging its employees to help each other: "[We] created a digital site to bring the workforce together during this time of separation, encouraging people to create and share content, reach out and talk to each other, share ideas that work for keeping sane at home." Another has "set up page on the company intranet for staff to share their best tips to look after their wellbeing".

3. Mental health guidance

Ensuring that employees are aware of an existing, or new, employee assistance programme (EAP) is key to many organisations' wellbeing offerings, with emails and noticeboards being used to make employees aware of the service available to them. HR professionals shared a host of different ways in which they are providing guidance to employees on looking after their mental health, including the following:

  • "Rolled out online health & safety training including managing stress and anxiety."
  • "[Shared] 'hints and tips' guides to stave off boredom."
  • "Screensavers on laptop with handy hints/tips giving employees ideas on how to keep mentally/physically well during this time."
  • "Weekly 'Keeping in Touch' communications with advice on health, exercise, food/diet, wellbeing, mental health, contact numbers and websites."
  • "All-company sessions with health experts who focus on mental health, nutrition and coping mechanisms."
  • "Wellbeing pack with financial, mental health support solutions included."
  • "Created a digital learning/support site hosting helpful content on working from home, supporting children to do schooling, maintaining good wellbeing during lock down, etc."

Several organisations have made the connection between financial wellbeing and the general wellbeing of their employees, with financial guidance sessions and a financial advice line introduced, bonus payments brought forward and at an increased level, and expanded credit union facilities provided.

4. Virtual social activities

Virtual social events have become something of a symbol of the coronavirus pandemic, with platforms that allow many people to gather at once becoming commonplace. While the technology has facilitated a smooth transition to homeworking for many, the range of social activities that they are being used for varies widely, including:

  • staff quizzes;
  • lunchtime bingo;
  • Friday virtual drinks;
  • yoga sessions;
  • cooking classes;
  • coffee mornings;
  • meditation;
  • a knitting group; and
  • a colouring group.

5. Not forgetting furloughed staff

Workers that have been furloughed are not allowed to carry out work for their employer, but organisations must remember to keep them up-to-date on what is happening in the business, in order to maintain their engagement and wellbeing whilst not working. Several respondents talked about how they were ensuring this happened:

  • "Writing to colleagues on furlough leave re: support available."
  • "Implemented communication strategy for staff on furlough, staff remote working, and staff still in warehouse, recognising different needs from the groups."
  • "Regular communication surrounding health and wellbeing of staff on furlough and staff working from home."
  • "Reminding staff of the employee assistance programme and weekly calls to all staff, whether furloughed or not, to check in on their wellbeing rather than talk about work."
  • "We are staying in contact with furloughed workers to check they are OK and continue to circulate the latest government advice as it is published."
  • "For furloughed staff we have a weekly contact schedule available so that we can keep engagement levels up. We are also offering internal training, part-funded external qualifications (and training agreements to retain staff) and also connecting our furloughed employees with volunteering opportunities. Our employees' feedback told us that their biggest worry was what they were going to do with their spare time (as they were not worried about money as they were topped up to basic)."
  • "Wellbeing tips posted on the employee section of the company's website and posted to staff without computer access."
  • "Separate WhatsApp group for all furloughed and non-furloughed staff to interact socially and keep in touch together."

6. Planning ahead for a return to work

It may still seem some way off, but employees who have settled into working from home will at some point need to readjust when workplaces reopen. Some organisations are already planning ahead, with a professional services organisation looking at "support [for] when we return to the office".