Covid-19 Part VII: Protecting Employee Wellbeing

Until a few months ago, I thought one of the biggest skills challenge facing our sector would be related to doing business in a digital age, but then I read my colleague’s (Richard Clarke) excellent recent blog and I realised that we, and all businesses, have a far more profound and more immediate challenge.

He quoted a fact which set me thinking - after the 2003 SARS pandemic, 40% of people developed PTSD symptoms.

If history repeats itself, then we will face a similar challenge as we all return to (hopefully) more normal work patterns. True, our ‘return-to-the office’ strategies are now predicated on a ‘People First’ philosophy. Workplaces are being redesigned to address health and wellbeing concerns and for many, our pre-pandemic pods/banks of (personal) desks are being re-purposed with a greater focus on:

  • H&S, physical distancing at work, disinfectant dispensers freely available in offices, etc
  • Workplaces which accommodate fewer fixed and allocated desks and more meeting rooms, collaboration zones and quiet contemplation/thinking zones
  • Creating more dynamic, purposeful spaces – a recent McKinsey report suggested that the age of 70% of space dedicated to desks is over
  • Introducing more biophilic office designs to create more wellbeing-friendly space.

As positive as these developments are, all are focused on the physical environments we are returning to rather than the psychological and emotional environment which will tax our management skills the most.

Lockdowns have had a profound impact on a significant percentage of the population. Multiple UK and US studies tell a frightening tale of the emotional and psychological scarring many of us have suffered – to a greater or lesser extent. Headline conclusions include:

  • Almost 40% of people have suffered sleeping disturbances
  • There is a global ‘surge’ in depression with almost 45% of people surveyed said they have experienced some form of anxiety or depression
  • Almost 40% of respondents have reported that they cannot stop worrying
  • In the UK over 25% have felt down, depressed or hopeless

More germane to the work environment, almost 25% of people are having difficulty concentrating and 35% of respondents said that they were finding it hard to relax.

Reading these stats made me realise was that the greatest post-pandemic challenge we all face, is not revenue generation, maximising profitability, or business diversification, but the protection (and hopefully the enhancement) of our individual and collective mental wellbeing.

I know I am a property specialist and I know that our sector can, as Richard Clarke suggested in his blog, create workplaces designed to optimise employees’ mental and physical wellbeing. However, we are also managers, employees and colleagues and the pandemic has changed the world we live and work in, as well as the people around us. Therefore, perhaps we need to consider the ‘people skills’ we need to develop, or enhance, as we all start to return to the workplace.

What should we do when (perhaps) almost half the workforce has the real potential to be impacted by PTSD.

It has been well documented that WFH split the nation:

  • Those living in comfortable homes, with a clearly delineated workspace, good IT, robust broadband and leafy lanes for morning/evening walks enjoyed a better life/work balance and saved time and money from not commuting. They still kept in touch with colleagues via Zoom and Team calls
  • However, stress was a ‘black dog’ (to quote Churchill) which stalked:
    • Those who lived in shared accommodation, worked from their bed/bedroom, battled with fellow WFH-ers for broadband and had only crowded, urban, green-less streets to exercise on, life was very different
    • Parents had to balance work responsibilities, with childcare duties/home tutoring and also faced broadband battles and the lack of a quiet space for Zoom and Team calls.
  • Senior executives inevitably enjoyed newly discovered thinking time, as well as the not impossible task distance-line-management
    • But WFH denied some junior colleagues the opportunity to learn by osmosis (listening to and watching their more senior colleagues in action), as well as easy access to counsel from more senior colleagues, informal networking with peers and decision makers and all the incidental benefits of social/work engagement.

The truth is a lot of people derive a profound sense of self-value and self-worth from participating in the work environment. Isolate them and even the occasional digital contact cannot fulfil this need in them.

In addition, virtual meetings cannot match those hot houses of learning – pitches and meetings – for rapport building and the constructive informal feedback these generate.

We have to acknowledge that for most of us, the post-pandemic workplace will not resemble life before March 2020. Therefore, I feel strongly that we have to be alert to the symptoms of alienation, as well as PTSD and be willing to develop/refine our people skills.

We have to take responsibility for and focus on our people skills – not just redesigning our workplaces. We have to look beyond collaboration and mentoring and constantly consider our empathetic skills, as well as how we revive our vibrant company cultures – which we had started to take for granted. 

The symptoms to look for are many and varied: from withdrawal behaviour, unprecedented volatility, tension and anxiety, to a heightened state of alarm, avoidance and even absenteeism.

So what can we do?

I will resist the temptation to be prescriptive, but the most obvious things which I, as a manager, am going to do is:

  • Be aware that the post-pandemic workplace could be stressful for some - after months of isolation and perhaps even experiencing a sense of alienation
  • Empathetic listening to what is said and sometimes even use the silence in a conversation to allow vulnerable colleagues to speak
  • If they are experiencing difficulties concentrating in the office, perhaps noise cancelling headphones and/or working in a quiet corner might help
  • If stress is evident, try to ascertain what the triggers are and, if possible, remove or reduce them.

COVID is probably the most powerful, most extensive (in terms of global reach) and fastest moving disruptor mankind has ever had to contend with.

When we (fully) return to an office centric culture, we will not be ‘going back’, because our world has changed irrevocably. We will be faced by a new paradigm – in terms of how we work, how we interact and how we do business.

We all accept that our operational models have evolved, that is why I believe that we have to consider how our own personal ‘people management models’ will have to evolve if we are to succeed in a post-COVID world.

How do workers feel about their workplace in 2021? See the results of our survey here.


Tom Norfolk
Tom Norfolk 21 June 2021
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