For a healthy and happy workforce, will leaders have to start looking at infection control, risk management or even health surveillance to ensure they have an effective and motivated team? Corporate wellness expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan investigates.
Over the past 20 months many of us have had to change the way in which we’re working, and this has brought disruption to our routines, uncertainty and mixed emotions; we have also seen the boundaries between work and home blur, leading to a greater need for self-care and healthy practices.
Regardless of what is going on in the outside world, a productive and efficient workforce is needed, especially for the many businesses that saw their sales or customers plummet due to the pandemic.
So, what is the answer to this conundrum? How can companies ensure their valued team members are healthy both in mind and body, whilst also driving them to be productive and enthused with the work they do? Now we are ‘getting back to normal’ what new procedures should be in place to ensure workplaces are safe and employee’s health is prioritised?
I’d argue there are three key ways in which the workplace of the future is going to look and feel different for employees.
1) Mental wellbeing will be key. Our love affair with technology and responding reactively to 24/7 demand has played a crucial role in depleting our mental and physical health – including the immune system. Working patterns have become even more linear (go, go, go and then stop), so the need to be mindful of our own wellbeing is increasingly important.
Future of work
However, there is now a unique opportunity to take charge of our wellbeing and design our own healthy ‘microculture’. Creating a structure in our schedule that maximises the benefit of whatever working pattern we are currently following, boosting mental health and taking back control of our own wellbeing places an internal value on ourselves which is crucial for selfcare.
A good place to start is by looking at the importance of recovery as the counterbalance to our relentlessly linear pattern of working. One of the simplest and most effective ways to alleviate a high-stress company culture is to build rest into our working day.
So, every 60-90 minutes, in line with our body’s natural ultradian rhythm, seek recovery even for just 5-10 minutes. Stretch, take a few conscious deep breaths, drink a glass of water, get some fresh air, go for a short phone-free, meeting-free walk, get away from your desk and screens.
Stand up and move during meetings and even while working. Employers should encourage this and be transparent in creating time and space (if working in the office) for employees to be able to do so.
2) Put on your ‘oxygen mask’ first. Firstly, we must hone our self-awareness. We should take time every morning check in with ourselves before moving out into the day. Doing this first thing in the day, rather than reaching for our phones and getting caught up in the news, social media or our inboxes, enables us to stand in the centre of our life, to take responsibility for ourselves.
This gives us ‘response-ability’, the ability to respond and to make choices based on how we are feeling in the present moment rather than reacting to what’s out there in our inboxes or on the news.
As a result of checking in with ourselves in this way, we may choose to eat something nourishing rather than reaching for a cup of coffee. We might choose to go for a brisk walk to lift our spirits before diving into our inbox. We might choose to listen to a motivational podcast instead of the news.
3) Sleep for success. Sleep before midnight is the most restorative phase of sleep, so set a goal to get to bed before 10pm at least three to four nights a week in order to get really deep, nourishing sleep that sets up our energy levels for a happy and productive day.
Role of corporate social responsibility
As we continue to live with Covid-19 and the ripple effects of this virus, a heightened importance should be placed on risk assessment and infection control within the workplace. We are living through a health scare and now is the time to put in place measure that will protect the worker from future outbreaks and make them feel safe.”
But what about corporate social responsibility, what should the future look like here? There will need to be four key changes.
1) Engagement. Leaders should strive to create cohesion within teams by encouraging authentic and meaningful human to human communication in the workplace. This means building true connections rather than mere interacting.
Leaders need to encourage their team to take the time to slow down and truly relate to each other. Start meetings with a simple check in by asking everyone ‘how are we all feeling?’. Encourage and allow some time for banter and laughter – not only does this build cohesion but humour also creates psychological safety as well as opening up creativity and expansive thinking.
Slow down and take the time to connect – truly connect – with others. We need to be open to sharing in ways we haven’t before and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised by the depth of the ensuing connection.
2) Management. The leader who does the work on herself creates a positive contagion of thriving and safety. The real work lies in choosing to face headlong what needs to be faced without avoiding, medicating or distracting. Leaders who are prepared to be present with themselves and with whatever arises can bring the best of themselves to the workplace.
In the book The Power of Full Engagement Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz describe this as being ‘fully engaged’ and that: “Leaders are the stewards of organisational energy – in companies, organisations and even families. They inspire or demoralise others first by how effectively they manage their own energy and next by how well they mobilise, focus, invest and renew the collective energy of those they lead.”
3) Walk the shop floor. There’s a lot to be said for leader/manager who ‘walks the shop floor’ and allows themself to feel the prevailing climate. Staff attitude surveys are also helpful.
The creme de la creme of measurement has to be something like ‘firstbeat measurement’, in which hard data in the form of physiological measures are made over a period of time. Such tracking measures look at heart rate variability which is a great indicator of stress levels, recovery and sleep quality and energy levels.
The measures highlight what is working and what needs to be done to bolster resilience so that interventions can be targeted appropriately. It is also important that occupational health and HR departments are trained to deal with any arising issues and empowered to do something about what the data indicates.
Companies should regularly ‘take the pulse’ of their organisation, with good pulse checks, the key stress-related issues and ‘hotspots’ of the organisation can be identified, and the right interventions can be put in place. Organisations who choose to bury their head in the sand will suffer.
As we continue to live with Covid-19 and the ripple effects of this virus, a heightened importance should be placed on risk assessment and infection control within the workplace. We are living through a health scare and now is the time to put in place measure that will protect the worker from future outbreaks and make them feel safe.
4) Redefine sick leave. Sick leave is another area that needs to be redefined moving forward, for team members to be at their best, the reassurance that the company will support them during times of illness results in less stress and higher productivity rates.
Long Covid will need to be addressed in this bold new future, with employees who are suffering offered support and leave to get their health back to optimum levels.”
Presenteeism is not good for any company, it encourages team members to bring germs into the office and heightens the risk of others getting sick too. Working from home or taking the time to rest and recuperate are much better solutions for supporting a healthy team.
Long Covid will need to be addressed in this bold new future, with employees who are suffering offered support and leave to get their health back to optimum levels. While there is still much more research to be done to better understand this condition, there are many support groups and information available for the concerned employer to pass to anyone trying to manage a career and this debilitating new illness.
This future will see it become non-negotiable for employers to put health and wellbeing on the corporate agenda. A significant competitive advantage will lie with those organisations whose leaders are genuinely committed to working on their own healthy routines, with good mental health increased resilience helping to create a healthy culture for their staff where it is normal for people to thrive in their work environments.
For this future to become a reality leaders and managers and HR departments will need to do the work on themselves first and model appropriate behaviours – they will need to be the change.
What should managers, leaders and OH be doing?
- Encourage good lifestyle practices. This means respecting team members’ time out of work. This especially means setting a good example – being the change, leaving work at a reasonable time to pursue other interests and see family. It means discouraging people from consistently working long hours and working weekends, not taking lunch breaks, not taking breaks during the day. Consider launching campaigns and wellbeing programmes that encourage employees to step off the treadmill and take care of themselves.
- Carry out regular pulse checks and surveys. Keep your eyes and ears open to the feelings and views of the team. Are they enthusiastic, or do they seem unhappy?
- Put in place a safety net. This should include the provision of services and resources for those who might need therapeutic support, with OH professionals taking a lead but also access to resources such as employee assistance programmes and counselling .
Eight ways to create a safe environment for change
- Plan ahead before changes are made. This will strengthen the foundations.
- Explain the need for change. This will help the team to see how everyone may benefit in the long run.
- Be honest. Recognise that not all news may be good, but withheld information can lead to distrust.
- Encourage discussion. Get people involved in setting goals and listen to what is happening at the ‘ground’ level.
- Recognise effort. Make a point of acknowledging individual and team effort in bringing about the change.
- Delegate responsibilities. Delegating takes on added importance during times of change. It gives one more time to spend on overall planning and managing of the change. It also helps team members feel they have an important role to play in the change process.
- Review constantly. Avoid seeing change as a one-off. Even when things are going well, be alert to ways to make further improvements.
- Be flexible. No plan for change is flawless. Expect to have some problems along the way and be prepared to make the necessary adjustments.