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What health and wellbeing support should employers offer during the festive period?

Tuesday November 10, 2020

Need to know:

  • Government restrictions could impact the number of social gatherings employees can attend over the festive period.
  • The lack of social interaction during the pandemic has increased levels of stress among employees.
  • Employers have a critical role to play in supporting the mental and physical health of staff during the festive period.

The Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic has forced many organisations to adopt a remote-working policy for the majority of the year, and with the festive period fast approaching, employers face challenges around how to approach their usual celebrations and staff reward initiatives, if they feel it is appropriate to do so. With no social gatherings such as office parties or Christmas lunches allowed as yet, it could significantly impact the wellbeing and motivation of employees.

Axa Health’s Report on mental health and wellbeing in Europe, published in October 2020, found that the loss of social interactions is having a detrimental effect on employees’ mental wellbeing: 64% of workers in the UK and Europe said their work-related stress levels had increased compared with pre-pandemic levels, and of these, (81%) described themselves as having a poor or low state of mind at the time of being surveyed. The study also found that 82% of British employees miss physical contact with people outside of their direct household.

Consequently, it is crucial that organisations keep in regular contact with their employees, and ensure they feel supported during this time.

Isolation throughout Covid-19

During the pandemic, stress levels have been significantly affected; the second national lockdown in England and the prospect of employees continuing to work remotely for the foreseeable future may potentially prove even more detrimental to employee mental health. This may be exacerbated if employees work and live in isolation.

Now, more than ever, it is imperative that employers are tuned into how employees are feeling. Dr Zakir Abbas, chief medical officer at Unum, says: “Symptoms of stress can appear physically, behaviourally or cognitively through a noticeable dip in performance and productivity, but it can be hard to identify the signs, particularly from a distance.”

Many employees have had to isolate during the year, which will further limit the celebration of upcoming events. Without the right support from employers, mental health and workplace productivity can be massively impacted, says Brett Hill, distribution director at Towergate Health and Protection. “During this time, isolation is at an all-time high,” he explains. “Engaging a workforce is challenging, and supporting the mental health of employees is becoming increasingly harder.”

Employers also need to be aware of the effect this year may have on physical health: the winter months, with colder, darker days, combined with the temporary closure of gyms and leisure centres, can be hugely demotivating for employees to keep up physical activity.

Communicate wellbeing support

With many traditional celebrations, such as Christmas parties, being cancelled, there is an opportunity for employers to experiment in offering benefits to lift employees’ spirits. “The pandemic provides a chance to ask employees what they would like in exchange of a Christmas party,” says Hill. “Some options can be offered, such as a small bonus, an online shopping voucher, a voucher for an experience day that can be used in 2021, a donation made to charity, or a benefit to support health and wellbeing.”

In the run-up to the festive period, when loneliness could be at an all-time high and employees may turn to over-drinking or over-eating, employers need to ensure they have an accurate measure of how their staff may be feeling. “Stress can be a significant contributor to increased drinking, so reports of increases during the pandemic are not surprising,” says Abbas.  “Organisations need to be aware of these shifts in behaviour and ensure employees know where to turn for support.

“There are a number of steps employers can consider to better support the mental wellbeing of their employees. This can include decreasing stigma around feelings of loneliness, depression and even addiction. Employers can communicate this to their staff through engaging webinars, blog posts, or one-to-one catch-ups.”

Although opening up the right conversation with staff can aid employee mental health, introducing festive-specific initiatives can have a big impact, says Rebekah Tapping, group HR director at Personal Group. “As we approach a second lockdown, as well as head into the festive months, employers have a duty of care to protect their workforce and supply chains during this time,” she explains. “Offering alternative benefits can be an effective way to make life  more comfortable for employees. It is important for staff to understand the difficulties that employees may be going through and offer support to specifically address issues to do with the current climate.”

While organisations may be forgoing the Christmas party this year, employers can play on peoples’ proficiency in video calling to inject some festive cheer. “December is a good time to reintroduce some remote social gathering,” says Hill. “From something as simple as video drinks and nibbles, through to demonstrating festive baking or employing a motivational speaker to provide some comfort and cheer. This year will be different from others, but there are still many opportunities to support the health and wellbeing of employees. It can help employees who may be at risk of overdrinking during the winter months.”

Although opportunities to undertake physical activity may be restricted, employers can offer many alternatives that employees can engage with while at home. The introduction of virtual sessions is one option, says Abbas. “An organisation can offer its employees virtual fitness classes or yoga sessions to support their health during difficult times; creating exciting challenges such as a step competition can not only boost health but also productivity and collaboration,” he explains.

Organisations can offer apps to supply such services, such as that provided by Yulife, or offer their employees free personal training advice to improve their physical health while being restricted to spending more time at home.

Above all, implementing the right wellbeing strategy and exploring innovative ways to support the mental health of employees during this time is pivotal, says Natasha Wallace, founder at Conscious Works: “Employers should be unafraid to experiment and be transparent about their experimentation. Mental health and wellbeing are incredibly personal and emotive topics and employees will almost certainly respond best to an approach that is more human than corporate.

“During the festive period, employers should actively include their employees in these experiments and welcome feedback at all possible points. Innovating in this way will avoid the stagnation of health and wellbeing support and encourage the engagement and buy in of employees.”

This year has been challenging for everyone, and as the tough times continue, employers must recognise their role in safeguarding the health and wellbeing of their staff through difficult times and when employees need it the most.

Article published in Employee Benefits on 10th November 2020

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