What should employers consider when implementing initiatives to support and enhance the wellbeing of their employees? Katherine Maxwell, partner and head of employment at law firm Moore Barlow, explores the issues
The pandemic has had a significant impact on people’s lives and for many this includes their career and current job position. For some, multiple lockdowns and the associated restrictions affected an individual’s health and wellbeing and as a result there are large numbers of people who have decided to embark on a career change – leading to what has been coined the Great Resignation.
We recently commissioned a study of 250 UK SMEs and found that almost all (99%) believe Covid-19 restrictions impacted the mental health of their employees. Not only has this led to some employees taking a step back to assess their career options, it also led to an increase in workplace issues such as performance management, workplace disputes and absences.
Our study highlighted that whilst these issues exist, businesses do want to proactively address them. The majority (65%) surveyed are choosing to beef up their perks and benefits package so they can continue to attract and retain talent. For many, this is taking the form of implementing new wellbeing programmes and whilst it’s important to maximise the potential of any new initiatives, it’s also vital to get the foundations right in the first place.
For me, the most important place to start is positive workplace culture and this should be built on values that represent your employee base. To build a strong culture, businesses must engage their people in the development of their values and create a workplace where people feel their contribution is valued, and they can learn and succeed.
At Moore Barlow, we held a values and behaviours survey to ensure our people had an opportunity to contribute to the debate and had input on the subsequent decisions that were made. All employees were able to have their voice heard on the issues that matter most to them when creating our culture, and our leadership team used this intel to shape and define the firm’s values and behaviours.
Establishing values that your employees believe in will help to create true advocates for the business, as your people will feel listened to, and their opinions valued. This will also help to offset any future issues that arise, as employees with a strong relationship with their employer and colleagues will likely enter any discussions re workplace issues more positively.
To support an organisation’s culture, it’s also crucial to have the right policies in place. For example, a sickness policy is key to help manage instances of increased absence and to support employee retention. Throughout the pandemic this was essential and now, as rules have been relaxed, it’s more important than ever to review your policies and consider if they reflect the post pandemic working environment and are still meeting the goals, they set out to achieve.
A 2019 report on health in the workplace by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Health and Social Care suggests that the longer employees are off sick, the less likely they are to return to work. This demonstrates why it’s important to maintain communication with an employee while they are off work, as it will help employers and employees better understand how they can support the return to work.
Stress policies are another method which can be used to help manage absence and ensure employees have the support they need. In 2021, mental health was one of the biggest causes of people taking time off work and a survey by GoodShape, an absence management company, found that mental health related absences cost UK businesses an estimated £43bn pounds last year.
Businesses must recognise that one size does not fit all and implementing a range of resources to help those who are struggling is vital. For example, an anonymous and confidential helpline may be beneficial to one, whereas a buddy system within the office may be more impactful for another, particularly in cases where an individual may want to speak to someone who has had a similar experience.
It is also important to invest in mental health first aid training for your workforce – just as you would have a traditional first aider. This can send a strong statement as it helps to create an environment where people know their wellbeing is being taken seriously. This can help employees feel more comfortable to speak up when they need help or can see that a colleague may need support and assist.
Procedures backing policies
No matter whether it’s a health-related issue or a workplace dispute, it is crucial your employees know what structures are in place to protect them.
For example, there have been many high-profile reports of sexual harassment or misconduct in the workplace. It’s important to have clear policies which explicitly state what sexual harassment is and that such behaviour will not be tolerated, and the procedures in place to deal with such instances should they occur.
A culture where people feel comfortable to make their voice heard is vital to ensuring people are treated fairly”
Employers must follow a full and fair procedure in line with the Acas Code for any discipline or grievance case. Acas codes of practice set the minimum standard of fairness that workplaces should follow. A company can be liable if they do not follow this procedure.
There are many levels to behaviour that could be deemed as sexual harassment, from making a joke to writing offensive emails. It’s essential to define plainly what these terms mean and what is deemed as unacceptable within your business.
In many cases of harassment, people can be left feeling that they are not respected and are working within a hostile environment. However, people may not want to go straight to a formal grievance process. Instead, they may want someone to talk to, to help alleviate the situation. Having procedures with different stages clearly outlined is necessary to ensure people feel there is support in place to help their individual situation and that they can take the path which best suits them.
A culture where people feel comfortable to make their voice heard is vital to ensuring people are treated fairly and problems are resolved quickly and justly, and even help to prevent such occurrences from happening.
While clarity within any policy is key – from the definition of terms right through to the different stages and options open to people – culture can be the most powerful tool within a company’s toolbox. When employees feel represented within a business’s values, respected and that their voice will be heard, they can become allies, embodying the values and helping to create a positive dynamic where people want to come to work.