Research from health insurer Bupa UK shows that changes to working practices have seen a record number of employees report good mental health at work this year, as a significant proportion of the nation’s workforce exceed more than a year of home working brought about by the global pandemic.
Surveying over 4,000 UK employees across a range of industries, Bupa UK’s Workplace Wellbeing Census shows employees have reported a number of wellbeing gains over the last year; changes to the commute, home working and availability of flexible working are the most likely to have positively impacted on employee wellbeing.
The increase in working from home has been particularly beneficial to working parents, where the vast majority (78%) report that it has given them more flexibility, which has been particularly important given the added responsibilities of childcare and home-schooling for much of the last 12 months.
Women have also responded well to new ways of working, a third (33%) of women report that home working has been positive for their wellbeing, while 22 per cent have enjoyed flexible working, compared to just 16 per cent of men.
The pandemic has tackled accessibility issues for employees with disabilities too. 68 per cent of those with a disability report that working from home has removed accessibility issues previously faced when going to a physical workplace every day.
The findings come from Bupa UK’s Workplace Wellbeing Census 2021, a study of more than 4,000 employees across 13 key sectors, conducted by YouGov. In its second year, the study identifies the impact of COVID-19 on workplace wellbeing, as well as providing a roadmap for employers on how to rebuild their organisations and retain the benefits that employees have taken from the last year of working, as they navigate their way out of the pandemic.
Businesses stepping up
But these gains aren’t purely circumstantial. UK organisations have made marked efforts to safeguard the wellbeing of their workforces over the past 12 months, including nearly half (46%) strengthening their wellbeing services and one in seven (14%) introducing policies to ensure diversity and inclusion.
Businesses have also demonstrated a greater understanding of mental health – though this differs significantly by industry, with more than half (54%) of employees in the Financial Services sector finding their employers now show more empathy, compared to 26 per cent in Manufacturing.
Mark Allan, Commercial Director at Bupa UK Insurance said: “It’s impossible to overstate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on business over the last year. Organisations in all industries have had to adapt and evolve in the face of the crisis, while working against a backdrop of major economic uncertainty, but now they face the opportunity to build back to create workplaces that are happier, healthier and more productive than they were pre-pandemic.
“For many businesses, there is now not just an opportunity for recovery, but for renewal. Success in a post-pandemic working world lies with the businesses who take forward the positive wellbeing steps that they have made over the last year, from greater flexibility to better inclusivity, whilst continuing to strive for a workplace that gets the best from all of their people.
For example, in Bupa Global & UK, we’ve made the commitment to move to hybrid working in our office-based environments, giving our people the flexibility to manage their working day.”
However, after such a challenging year, issues for employers remain. The number of employees who reported that they had experienced bullying has increased over the past three years across different industries, with rates almost doubling since 2019.5
It is the under-pressure sectors including education and transportation that have been hardest-hit, which may have been brought about by the strain of increased workloads due to the virus.
Equally affected is the retail industry, which has suffered more than a year of uncertainty, job losses and furlough schemes negatively impacting morale and employee happiness, as a third (33%) report being bullied at work.
Workers over the age of 45 are also more likely to report cases of bullying, as working practices are taken online for many throughout the pandemic.7
Allan added: “The global pandemic has changed the way most of us work beyond all recognition. Whilst moving employees out of the traditional office has accelerated digital innovation, this ‘new normal’ has created increasingly complex social dynamics – which can prompt miscommunication, misinterpretation, and isolation amongst employees.
“There is no place for bullying or discrimination in any organisation, whether that’s hiding behind a screen or face to face. Employers have the same duty of care for their workers whether they’re in the office or at home. Therefore creating a culture where employees feel able to speak up if they experience any problems, is absolutely key.
“At Bupa Global & UK we strongly believe that allowing employees to be themselves without fear of bullying or discrimination is crucial in enabling people to thrive at work. This is why we launched our ‘Everyone’s Welcome’ pledge, a business commitment to embrace diversity across our workforce within a fully inclusive environment – supporting our colleagues to be their true selves at work.”
Roadmap to recovery and inclusion
The pandemic has seen the workforce demand more in terms of workplace wellbeing provision. Nearly three quarters (73%) would like to see more wellbeing services from their employer over the next year, with flexible working and greater mental health provision among the most highly sought after.
As declining lockdown restrictions create further uncertainty for employees and many start to return to the physical workplace, employers must prioritise comprehensive mental health provision for their people.
According to Alison Unsted, Deputy CEO at the City Mental Health Alliance: “It’s crucial that organisations demonstrate commitment to action from senior leadership by nominating a mental health and wellbeing lead at Board or senior leadership level to drive sustainable change and influence healthy business culture.
“And a big part of leading this change is by encouraging an open dialogue. This can start with leaders being more open about how they are feeling and how they look after their own wellbeing, which we have increasingly seen during the pandemic. This signals that this business has an open culture and signals that this business cares about mental health.”
Bupa UK’s five roads to workplace recovery and inclusion post-pandemic
Flexibility – Taking advantage of different ways of working will create a working culture that’s inclusive to all. Continuing to offer remote working, or flexible hours, where employees have the ability to work from home can allow them to work in a way that’s most effective, and conducive to their wellbeing.
Diversity – boasts a range of benefits for businesses, from employee happiness, to its impact on the bottom line. But it needs to be implemented from the top down. C-suites that embrace diversity and integrate it into their business plans moving out of the pandemic will see the effects on the entire workforce. Creating a workforce that is inclusive starts with making sure employees feel represented and respected by their employer.
Creating a positive culture – Ensuring tolerance and acceptance are top of the agenda over the coming months will allow employers to begin to mend some of the cultural issues they may have experienced before the pandemic and find ways to generate team spirit that are inclusive to everyone.
Happy, healthy workforces – Communicating regularly with colleagues and making sure they feel comfortable discussing both their physical and mental wellbeing, or any other issues, will help ensure nobody’s suffering in silence and they can confidently put their health first when they need to.
Supporting everyone – Communicating with colleagues the wellbeing incentives on offer to them and offering flexibility when it comes to accessing help is essential, whether it’s through facilitating time off to go to medical appointments or providing virtual health services. Making sure every employee feels supported through the next stage into the new normal will be vital for creating an inclusive workplace.