Man working at laptop

Keeping employees supported in a changed workplace

With remote work, extra safety protocols and physical distancing transforming the workplace, HR departments are developing new ways to supporting employees’ health and wellbeing.

With remote work, extra safety protocols and physical distancing transforming the workplace, HR departments are developing new ways to supporting employees’ health and wellbeing.

With many corporations embracing either full- or part-time remote work for office staff and adopting additional safety protocols for on-site employees, workplace culture has changed in ways that are likely to remain for the foreseeable future. Human Resources departments are on the front line of helping employees stay engaged and motivated, and they are exploring new ways to make sure workers feel supported

“It’s about making sure you have the right environment, ensuring you have the right attitudes to mental health and wellbeing, the right behaviours and the right competencies (and indeed, confidence in managers in creating ‘mentally healthy’ working environments and knowing how to support their team) – getting the basics right to begin with – the ‘ABCs’ if you like – to help people thrive in what they do,” says Stephen Haynes, Head of Programme at Think, Talk, Together – the international arm of the UK mental health charity, Mates in Mind. 

“You have to start at the beginning to build the right culture.”

Support at all levels 

Building that kind of culture can be a challenge in a major multinational company with thousands of both office- and field-based employees in various locations around the world. Alid Dettke, EVP of Human Resources at Wärtsilä, says that putting people first is key to creating the right environment to promote health, safety and wellbeing.

“We really want to make people feel that we are taking care of them and supporting them. It’s very much connected to our vision that people are at the heart of everything we do,” Dettke says. 

She adds that for global companies, showing leadership on wellbeing at both the corporate level and the local level is critical.

“With the onset of the global pandemic, we have installed a crisis response team at the global level, and then incident management teams at country levels. These teams bring together people from different parts of the business to monitor the situation, work on the right measures, and ensure we have the right systems in place and that we have the right level of communication.”

The local aspect is particularly important for monitoring employee wellbeing, adds Diane Tuinebreijer-ten Hove, Global Head of HR Local Operations at Wärtsilä.  

“Those local teams have worked out really well because the situation in countries is different and they are communicating with their country and their own people,” she says. 

Haynes agrees that leadership plays a critical role in establishing the right workplace environment to support mental wellbeing.

“You need to have the leadership engagement – both in terms of the appreciation between personal, team and business performance, and employee mental health and wellbeing – but also in creating and supporting the right environment,” Haynes says. 

“Management need to see leadership ‘lead by example’ – so in turn, they also create those supportive environments for their teams. Without the leaders engaged, you may end up with pockets of good practice; with some managers looking out for their team, but simply because it’s the right thing to do, rather than adopting a consistent approach throughout the company,” he adds.  

A recent study from McKinsey on leadership and workplace resilience backs this up. The study found that leaders can build employee resilience and social capital with their people  by being readily available and helping employees give meaning to a crisis. Moreover, they can help connect employees to the organisation and to one another and can help enhance social connection and affiliation—not just formally, but also by allowing informal and organic conversations to emerge.

The right communication is key

Supporting employee health and wellbeing can look different for different categories of employees, however.

“We have a very diverse workforce, and we have people that are in offices – or at home, then we have a lot of people that are at facilities or customer sites, and then also in the field. We recently conducted a global engagement survey, and the response was that, broadly, the employees in all segments felt supported, but then when we asked them about their wellbeing, we see a big difference in the groups,” Dettke says.

The survey revealed that many office workers struggled with isolation and work-life balance while field- and site-based employees were more concerned about their personal safety. 

The McKinsey study found similar disparities. While nearly 50 percent of remote workers felt positive about their wellbeing, only 40.6 percent of workers with no workplace flexibility felt the same.

Haynes says that natural communication is key to being aware of particular concerns and addressing them.

“One of the most important things a company can do is help to ensure everyone understands the basic principles of ‘psychological first aid’. This isn’t about training entire workforces in in-depth mental health awareness. Instead, it is about instilling basic levels of awareness of knowing what to look for, how to have a conversation, knowing your boundaries and knowing where to signpost people to – but critically, feeling empowered in your work environment to know that ‘we’ve got each other’s backs’,” Haynes says.

For some teams, this happens quite naturally, while for others, it’s more of a challenge. 

In this case, HR may need to take a more active role in empowering leaders to have these conversations with their team members. The team has already created a list of questions to start conversations.

Wärtsilä is focused on five pillars of wellbeing: mental and intellectual, physical and nutrition, social, emotional, and balance and rest. A wellbeing hub is being created on the company intranet with resources around these pillars, such as guidance on how to have a conversation with a colleague about mental health and how to manage a remote team.

Bridging the digital divide

Working remotely or at a distance from colleagues shouldn’t be a hindrance to effective communication, if the right environment exists. 

“There are stories and pictures shared to help us all see what's going on around the globe, how people are coping,” says Dettke. 

“Because we’re a global company, we have been using a lot of technology in supporting our people cope with working during the pandemic, although we still have a lot of people who can’t be remote, so we need to keep everyone feel safe and cared for.”  

Haynes says that no matter the medium, keeping conversations going is key. 

“Keep as much contact as possible. Have a phone conversation, send a text about something that is non- work-related. Keep the dialogue natural, keep it regular, and use multiple channels,” he says.

According to Haynes, overall, companies need to be more aware of the connection between mental wellbeing and the bottom line. 

“Mental health affects everything that we do: how we think, how we feel, how we act. So, as an individual, my mental health will influence how I perform my day-to-day duties, it will also affect how my team performs and and therefore how we perform as a whole organisation.” 

Written by
Lara McCoy
Senior Editor at Spoon Agency