Without a doubt, businesses will look back on the year 2020 and the months and years that follow as a time of rapid and transformative change and uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic was indiscriminate of employment status, working practices, roles and hierarchies, upending the way we approach work, as well as employee expectations of their employers.
The changes businesses have had to make have impacted the way colleagues interact, forced managers to relinquish control, empowering their teams and individuals and caused businesses to find new ways of operating more efficiently and improving the employee experience.
One key difference between COVID-19 disruption and other forms of workplace disruption has been the replacement of physical interactions with virtual connectivity which, while useful, can be a breeding ground for miscommunication and isolation. Historically, employers may easily have taken for granted the closeness of their workforces and the ease of forming social bonds between colleagues. Facilitating connections between people is crucial to creating meaningful relationships that deliver both business objectives and employee wellbeing, as Charles Alberts, Head of Health Management at Aon UK explains:
‘The workplace is the ideal setting to increase social wellbeing. People often come to the same place, every day, between defined hours, on the supposition they will work together towards common goals. While this brings people in close proximity to each other — there is the tendency to become too focused on the work — missing the opportunity to connect in a real, and human way.’
Prior to the pandemic, loneliness was already endemic within society — as highlighted in a 2020 Aon loneliness guide, with 5% of adults in England alone reporting that they felt lonely ‘always’ or ‘often’. Even in the busiest of environments, people can feel a sense of isolation and loneliness. A reality that has a commercial impact as a result of increased sick days and lower productivity, as well as an impact on an individuals health, with one study finding loneliness is as bad for physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
As our awareness of social isolation and its risks grow, Charles says that we have an opportunity to ensure that COVID-19 becomes a springboard for more conversations and action on loneliness, not least because life is unlikely to return to normal immediately for many people:
‘Loneliness can cause chronic health issues such as cardiovascular disease, and a host of other issues such as depression. Those who feel connected to others are more resilient to the world around them. They are better able to cope with change and pressure, are better collaborators and perform better. While awareness of social isolation has grown, we must not miss the point that at any one time, nine million people in the UK alone are suffering from loneliness and it isn’t an issue reserved for the elderly.’
For some, loneliness has the potential to offset the positives of home-working and is something employers need to tackle to protect health and wellbeing. To combat increased levels of anxiety and loneliness from physical separation caused by new working practises, employers must seek ways to better identify staff experiencing these feelings and bridge the physical and emotional gaps created by these new practices. The solution to this should be more than a discussion between the employer and employee. Instead, businesses need to build countermeasures into their health and wellbeing strategies that directly address this issue.
In the early days and weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, making sure people had the support they needed after country lockdowns was the priority. While many companies used health and wellbeing apps like Aon’s WellOne to ensure their people had access to information, advice and support, effective communication was also needed to ensure people knew what was available to them. Mike Lie-A-Lien, Health Manager at logistic automation experts, Vanderlande, explains that in a complex, multi-faceted organisation, employers have to grasp a wide range of employee needs:
‘We have a broad and diverse workforce, from logistical on-the-ground airport management to sedentary office workers, so we need an equally diverse wellbeing strategy. I regularly visit various work sites so I can understand the roles at a basic level. That way I can see what programs would work or not. Fundamentally, we always start with the employee, asking them what they need to do their jobs and help them in their lives. By monitoring developments and working closely with employees, we can work together through any problems.’
Openness of communication and different methods of interaction are key to reaching people who do different jobs and like to be approached in different ways. Aon’s Charles Alberts shares why he believes that building a relationship is the most crucial part in ensuring quality conversations: