For a Future of Work truly worth looking forward to, companies need to consider more practical and effective initiatives to improve the well-being of their employees. By Ryan Lim.
THE BUSINESS TIMES | 13 November 2021 | RYAN LIM
Since the pandemic normalised working from home, mental health and wellbeing (including the darker effects such as burnout) have evolved from work topic taboo to become an openly and widely discussed concern by corporate leaders. This significant shift in corporate mindsets and attitude resulted in the inclusion of employee wellbeing as a key focal discussion about the Future of Work.
The blurred lines between work and rest, consecutive online meetings often without any breaks, and sustained multitasking – of household chores and helping kids with their home-based learning whilst scrambling to prepare for the next online conference – plagues all rungs of the corporate ladder including senior management teams and leaders too.
Addressing burnout and wellness especially during this period, requires us to rethink the usual panacea of wellness packages and corporate incentives. For example, taking time off while everyone else is at work means you still face a very high probability (and pressure) of being involved in a flurry of digital work-related chatter. While more leave can be given, leisure travel is still very restricted and are no longer outlets to ease the tension from work. Our situation is further aggravated as our homes are invaded with work, and no longer places of rest and refuge. So, what are more practical (and effective) wellness initiatives that should be considered instead?
Earlier this May, 120 C-Suite executives from both private and public sectors gathered at the bi-annual QED Changemaker Series leadership forum to discuss the issue of wellness and its impact on the Future of Work. The senior leaders in attendance discussed and shared their experiences with shifts across the Workforce, Workplace and Workday. As a result of this collaborative session, some key takeaways from their rich discussions arose that can potentially support organisations as they tackle the mounting challenges to improving corporate wellness:
A) Incorporate mandatory mental breaks
Just as no car can travel long distances by driving at maximum speeds without allowing the engine to cool down occasionally, wellness measures such as mandated breaks should be built in to prevent mental fatigue and exhaustion. Work is a marathon and not a sprint. Mental breaks can be as simple as setting a 15-minute breather interval between consecutive meetings; designated “no meetings allowed” days or time belts for teams to catch up on work or have the mental bandwidth for strategic planning. Some leaders have implemented a ‘sacred lunch hour’ where all work-related meetings (including emails and work chats) should cease so that everyone can have an undisturbed lunch to recharge. Within certain employee experience platforms such as Microsoft Viva, are capabilities like Viva Insights that can trigger actionable reminders to take regular breaks and reserve time for focused work. It even integrates the popular meditation app Headspace so that nudges to meditate are received as subtle alerts in your work account throughout the day. Joanna Lim, Microsoft Singapore’s Modern Work & Security Business Group Lead, shared how such tools were especially helpful in boosting her own productivity and well-being at work as it allowed her to decompress after long hours of consecutive meetings.
B) Compensate for what matters
Until borders reopen and global travel resumes, the concept and appeal of leave has diminished, whilst the home is now the new office. This means that the burden of mounting home utilities, mobile and Internet costs are also increasing the stresses of the employees. Support where it matters by helping employees transform their homes to be a better alternative workplace. Wellness can also be addressed through updated compensation policies formulated with the real input from employees. Some organizations have provided their employees with an additional monthly utility credit of $50-$100. Betul Genc, Country Manager at The Adecco Group, shared that they removed the caps on flexible benefits earlier this year to support staff with suitable work-from-home equipment such as devices, ergonomic chairs and tables, and printers. And in support of the national vaccination programme in Singapore they had even provided vaccination leave and covered the private transportation costs of staff to and from vaccination centres.
C) Cultivate connections in the company
This is about being very intentional in building connections among employees in this season of social distancing and flux between remote and on-site work modes, as improved relationships at work can aid in reducing stress. Carefully designed shared virtual experiences like an online game session, playing jigsaws or charades once a month as a team can help co-workers get to know each other better and support new employees as they slowly build team dynamics and rapport with their ‘virtual’ colleagues. For my team, we have arranged for lunch to be delivered to our doorsteps whilst we all dine together and chat over Zoom with a strict no-work agenda. Other organizations have gone even further to build these connections right at the interview process. There has been cases where interviewees underwent multiple interviews, where about half are with future peers before joining the organization. The intended rigour and spread of the interviews helped new employees prepare and dive straight into working with those whom had been made familiar via previous online interactions.
D) Create a culture of trust
Shifting away from a controlling leadership culture to one of trusting and empowering teams can have a positive impact on both leaders, employees and ultimately company productivity. Some ways to do this could be to rejig appraisal indicators to drive task-orientation - like the successful completion of deliverables and achieving set outcomes, as opposed to just fulfilling a pre-set number of hours at work. Another creative approach, instead of a 9 to 5 workday, is to have teams collaborate on a pre-determined two-hour window, after which they continue to work at a time which suits them.
E) Become an empathetic leader
As leaders, we set the tone and culture for our organizations. By acknowledging that “its ok to not be ok” and admitting to being vulnerable, we give our teams room to open and share more about their problems, which is a step toward mental wellness in the workplace. This certainly does not come easy, but some practical ways discussed were – Leaders sharing at townhall meetings about their personal experiences of going through the stresses and strains of the pandemic, as well as scheduling fortnightly or monthly 30-minute no-agenda sessions with their teams to find out how they are doing especially in their personal lives.
Human capital is our biggest asset, and more needs to be done to help them adapt to the ever-evolving climate. Losing anyone to burnout is bad for both employee and employer as any good business and organisation needs to be sustainable to grow into the future. While it is very encouraging to know senior leaders are focusing on our collective corporate wellness, there still needs to be a pivot in management thinking about employee mental wellbeing. It's a sin of omission if we don't take decisive and strategic action while there's still time. So instead of talking about wellness, let’s do something about it. Only then can there truly be a Future of Work worth looking forward to.