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Beyond thank yous and massages: what a pandemic tells us about box-ticking employee wellbeing

It took a pandemic to truly bring employee wellbeing to the fore in the PR industry. Whilst it has bolstered an improvement in openness and attitudes to mental health, for example, the PRCA reported a decline in 2020 of employees who believe their employer is doing enough to help them with their wellbeing; we’re not out of the woods yet.

Employees are a lot more complex than line management, thank yous and a few massages- they’re your most valuable customers. With boundaries between people’s work and personal life now blurred, they’re bringing more of themselves to work.

The teething issues around offering employees the right support, as well as translating in-person engagement online, have not been managed away, but have instead changed shape. Whilst a partial office return might change the dynamic, the challenges remain.

Without accountability, it’s just lip service

Box-ticking commitments without meaningful change are hugely disengaging for any workforce. A system for accountability against pledges is fundamental - start with a mental health policy and wellbeing commitment, with clearly delegated actions and deadlines.

Accountability only works with feedback, so engagement and wellbeing should form a sizeable chunk of a regular employee engagement survey (biannual at the very least). Understand what initiatives and support they don’t engage with so that you are developing support in real-time and make sure you’re reviewing feedback across different demographics to map what good looks like (and how you might be falling short) via micro-trends. Employers need to recognise their own privilege - not everyone has an ideal WFH environment, and Covid means people are navigating an entirely new set of stresses.

Anonymity will empower people to be a little more honest than they might be otherwise; employers need to swallow these truths and fill in the gaps.

Whilst people-focused initiatives should be built into responsibilities across all roles in the workplace, senior ownership is paramount; C-suite and senior staff should be actively cheerleading (or better, spearheading) them.

Empowering colleagues to set boundaries and investing in your line managers

A rule employers (and managers, too) should live by: whilst we don’t have a direct responsibility for the mental health of employees, we absolutely have the responsibility to ensure that work doesn’t define it. And work-life balance is complex right now.

Flexible working is the industry’s most sought-after employee benefit, but that also includes working hours - allowing a team flexibility on their hours caters to new responsibilities born from the pandemic, but also simply allows people to get some fresh air and a break in the sunlight.

Video meetings are performative and exude more energy than you’d think, so designated Zoom-free periods help establish clear boundaries to protect mental health. But it’s surprising how little people are inclined to pick up the phone - an outside walk-and-talk is liberating and can be particularly powerful for line management sessions as it removes the performative pressure of video calls managers can pick to create a more comfortable environment for people to open up about how they’re really feeling. Even though many will be returning to the office part-time, some people just feel more comfortable opening up on the phone rather than in-person.

Line managers are at the front line of employee feedback and should be invested in, with enough training and support to feel empowered to talk about more sensitive issues and directing their line managees to the right support and mentorship. The right investment into empathy and understanding doesn’t need to be financial - MIND’s Wellbeing Action Plans and online eLearning for agency-wide training on mental health, stress management and language around mental health, are all free.

Retaining your magic

Do not negate the fundamental importance of socialisation, fun and empathy - the nuances that make up workplace culture are the hardest to replicate online. But with socialisation outside of work reduced, workplace culture is brought into sharp focus.

Socially-distanced or virtual socials take a lot of planning, so giving each employee a responsibility for implementing team events that align to their own passions (under the guidance of a designated socials team or individual) means everyone feels invested in the importance of quality time away from ‘work’. Inclusivity means knowing that not everyone likes drinking, or even organised fun.

What has the pandemic shown us about effective people management?

As many return to the office, it might make things a little easier, but the same rules apply: an always-on approach to employee engagement and wellbeing has proved the effectiveness of developing initiatives in real-time based on insight and feedback:

  • Accountability should extend from the very top down, and weak links can derail meaningful participation
  • Feedback is the north star in determining your next move in engaging employees and allows you to be agile
  • Line management is your most powerful tool in for an individual approach that spans engagement, recognition and wellbeing
  • Giving employees responsibility in feeding your culture strengthens their buy-in and promotes inclusivity.

Written by Emily Barnes, account director at agency Fanclub PR

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