What does the future of work look like? How can we protect the health & wellbeing of our workforce whilst ensuring continued business growth? These are the type of questions I am being asked by our clients on a daily basis as HR, Real Estate, Tech & Wellbeing teams come together to tackle a post-COVID landscape full of uncertainty and unknowns.
Following 6-months of working from home for the majority of employees, corporate focus has shifted from how to best support the workforce through an enforced period of home working, to what do future workplaces and ways of working need to look like in order to deliver business growth and support employees? Whilst this is obviously an important process with no quick or easy fix, it will likely mean the majority of employees facing an extended period of working from home over the coming months as organisations evaluate their positions and devise long-term plans.
This then begs the questions of; how has employee health & wellbeing been impacted since COVID and what needs to be prioritised to ensure that employee needs are catered for in the coming months? The ART team spent the past six months gathering objective working from home data for multiple organisations. This has given us a unique perspective on the impact that this period has had on employee health & wellbeing as they have adapted to this new normal and, perhaps more importantly, provides insight that could be used to help ensure employee needs are taken care of during this ongoing period of working from home. We have compiled our data in to one report which includes over 10,328 days of wellbeing data, 4000+ cognitive performance tasks and over 13,000 survey datapoints from 12 different organisations, all collected from mid-March to the end of August 2020.
So what do the results tell us and how can they be utilised in the short-term as well as used effectively to guide future work strategy? We’ll be publishing the full report in the next 2 weeks, but I’ve summarised the key mental and physical wellbeing findings from the report to raise awareness of some of the more immediate concerns.
Let’s start with some positive news. On average, mental wellbeing metrics tracked in a positive direction across all organisations throughout the six month period. Self-reported positive mood scores (happiness, energy and relaxation) increased across the period when compared to working in the office. Alongside this, self-reported negative emotions (stress, worry and anxiety) all decreased when working from home compared to those recorded in an office environment. Great news right? Well, unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as that. If we take the data as a whole, then we would assume that home working positively impacted mental wellbeing across this 6-month period. However, we need to remember that average data doesn’t represent individuals and when digging deeper into the data, that these insights are only true for certain personas or employee types. More specifically, average data taken in isolation artificially masks the fact that 33% of individuals struggled with their mental wellbeing whilst working from home and reported a decline in positive mood scores by as much as 36%, whilst feeling an increase of up to 44% in negative emotions. If these particular individuals face the next 6-months working in the same environment, the fallout could be catastrophic.
This will have serious implications for individual physical wellbeing and employee’s ability to perform to their highest level (see below). On the flipside of this, those individuals who have seen an improvement in their mental wellbeing also need to be supported moving forward to help them maintain and build on these enhancements. The data also shows that mental wellbeing responses fluctuated over the 6-months, with the lifting of restrictions leading to a general improvement in mental wellbeing metrics. With more lockdowns looking increasingly likely, meaning restrictions on movement and increased isolation, individual responses from a mental wellbeing perspective will vary and are likely to fluctuate in response to these external events. Employers must remain vigilant and be proactive in their response to changes in external forces as well as company related news or initiatives.
If working from home results in a very individual reaction from a mental wellbeing perspective, what can employers do to try to mitigate against this in order to protect and support their workforce as a whole? The obvious answers include areas such as; the provision of better communication technology, online mental wellbeing support services and more regular check-in’s with leaders. These can all help and are positive steps, but our data would suggest they don’t necessarily achieve the desired results for a percentage of the workforce when working at home. Another area to consider for employers is how they can create a more desirable home-working environment for each employee. Our data shows how an employee’s home-working environment had a significant impact on their mental wellbeing. Those that reported not having a dedicated workstation, access to good quality lighting or noisy conditions at home, were more likely to report that working from home was less desirable for them than being in the office. No great surprise there, but worryingly there appears to be a correlation between this reduced desirability to work from home and an increase in stress, anxiety and worry, along with a decrease in happiness and energy.
An extended period of working from home creates a unique opportunity for employers to personalise individual workspaces, which could not only have positive implications from a mental wellbeing perspective, but may also enhance performance. Many organisations have provided employees with suitable workstations or chairs during this period of working from home. However, I wonder how many of them have measured the environmental conditions which their employees are faced with at home and then provided solutions such as air purifiers, noise cancelling headphones or lighting solutions to meet the specific needs of each employee. By monitoring employees and understanding their bespoke needs from a workspace perspective, employers could start to make small positive steps towards better supporting mental wellbeing, as well as achieving the added bonus of improving performance.
This leads me on to my final point in relation to mental wellbeing. We are all aware that if employees are facing mental wellbeing challenges that this could have serious implications on their overall health, and is why this should be a priority for organisations, not only in the next few months, but at all times. These significant health implications could not only cause increased absenteeism, risk of burnout, and many other serious repercussions, but will also likely lead to a significant dip in employee performance. Our data provides clear evidence that this has been the case during the last 6-months, with employees who reported feeling anxious performing worse from a cognitive perspective compared to those reporting feeling happy. Decision-making ability was reduced by 8% and distractibility was 7% poorer in the group of anxious employees compared to happy employees (see Figure 1). Added to this, those employees reporting working from home as undesirable (which we also know impacts mental wellbeing) performed worse on short term memory and distractibility tasks by 25% and 10% respectively. Supporting this objective evidence, employees who found working from home undesirable, also reported feeling less productive and less able to concentrate than those who found working from home desirable. Fast forward 6 months to the likely scenario of most employees still working from home and it’s very easy to see how individuals who are struggling from a mental wellbeing perspective (potentially at least a third of the workforce based on our data) will be finding it more and more difficult to maintain their performance levels. Aside from the financial cost this could cause employers, it is likely to lead to a worsening of employee mental wellbeing as part of a vicious cycle that could prove difficult to stop, with the human cost in health and quality of life far outweighing the impact on organisational bottom lines.
Unfortunately the findings for physical wellbeing whilst working from home don’t make encouraging reading. General activity levels trended in a negative direction across the six month period, with daily average steps declining by 16% and daily active minutes reducing by 28 minutes when working from home compared to the office. Even more worryingly, sedentary time (any seated, awake time with low energy expenditure) increased by an average of 47 minutes per day whilst people worked from home. This essentially meant that individuals spent nearly a whole extra day sedentary per month whilst working from home which, as outlined by our Science Consultant (Lauren Gourlay) in her recent article, leaves individuals at an increased risk of numerous diseases, impacts their mental wellbeing and can also effect work performance (see below). Whilst structured exercise minutes (jogging, gym sessions, swimming etc) remained fairly constant during the period, there actually needs to be an increase in the frequency and duration of this type of activity in order to offset the negative impact of excessive sedentary time and help avoid it becoming a significant risk for employers over the coming months.
Much like mental wellbeing, this overall negative trend was not apparent for all, with 37% of individuals either maintaining or increasing their daily step count and 30% maintaining or reducing their daily sedentary time across the six months. These behaviour changes are really positive, particularly given some of the restrictions that were in place during the early stages of the home working period. They now provide organisations with an opportunity to proactively work with these employees to help them develop long term habits around their physical wellbeing, facilitated by a new flexible approach to work, which could positively impact their mental wellbeing, reduce health risks and help to improve overall performance at work. In addition, there is a need to focus a lot of stakeholder time and energy on supporting the majority of employees who have become less active (67%) and more sedentary (70%) since working from home, to ensure these trends do not become life forming habits. Faced with an extended period of working from home, individuals who have developed these negative habits, will need more than the often used approach of online education around the benefits of exercise, movement and daily activity. The data shows this has been ineffective for the majority of employees over the last 6-months, so organisations need to be more innovative in their approach. This should start with comprehensive measurement activities, which ultimately become part of the wellbeing support packages available to employees on a daily basis, to track changes over time and provide evidence to support an individualised programme of support that can be sustained in a remote manner.
Physical wellbeing also fluctuated over time, with external factors playing a role in individuals activity levels during the period (see Figure 2). Predictably, step counts decreased and sedentary time increased significantly during the early stages of lockdown, with restrictions severely limiting people’s movement. Daily step counts averaged 7,737 during lockdown (compared to 10,481 in an office environment pre-lockdown), whilst average daily sedentary time over the same period was 13hrs 16min (compared to 12hrs 25min in an office environment pre-lockdown). With lockdown ending and restrictions easing, it would be expected that step counts would rise and sedentary time reduce, as people got into a routine and returned to some form of normality. However, whilst both metrics did trend in the right direction, both fluctuated on a week-by-week basis and neither have returned to pre-COVID levels. Average daily step counts averaged 8,830 since the easing of restrictions, whilst sedentary time has reduced slightly to 13hrs 6min per day. These findings highlight how external factors can heavily influence behaviour and despite their removal, individual behaviours do not automatically return to normal, hence forming new habits and permanent changes to lifestyles. In this instance, many of these new habits are negative and the concern for employers is how much worse these may get with the extended period of home working that we all face, particularly with further lockdowns now being enforced across many countries.
In addition to the obvious health implications that this reduced movement and activity could have for employees, there appears to be a link between physical activity whilst working from home and individual cognitive performance. Our data shows that employees in the top 20% of performers on our cognitive function tasks, took 3% more steps, had 8% less sedentary time, were 2% more active and had 5% more structured exercise time than those in the bottom 20% of performers on the same tasks. This potential correlation between physical activity levels and performance whilst working from home could have far reaching consequences, particularly when coupled with the link between mental wellbeing parameters and performance discussed earlier in this article. A further extended period of home working will likely see the majority of employees being less active and having more sedentary time, which for some will lead to a reduction in performance levels. If traditional wellbeing services offered by corporates which are designed to enhance movement and physical activity are not effective for home working, employers will need to rethink their approach to avoid being faced with a serious wellbeing crisis by the middle of next year.
In conclusion, the data from multiple organisations throughout the 6-month period of working from home, shows that the physical and mental wellbeing of many employees has been negatively affected. Whilst many organisations have increased the level of remote services and support to try to counteract such a negative response, it appears that these have only been successful for certain employee groups. As we move into 2021 and an extended period of home working, employers will need to think outside the box to ensure they are effectively supporting the needs of their employees in order to avoid facing a wellbeing crisis that could have a significant impact on their overall business success. Whilst many organisations are spending significant time and resource on their future work strategy to take them beyond 2021, they must also recognise the immediate needs of their workforce and take action now in order to ensure the next 6 to 12 months do not lead to an irreversible trend of reduced employee wellbeing.
1. Use data to drive decision making
Organisations that are serious about supporting their employees wellbeing are constantly collecting data that provides them with key insights and evidence against which to make better informed decisions. Whether this is via objective methods or simply through the use of regular surveys, understanding what your employees need is the starting point to building a solid and effective strategy to support wellbeing and build positive workplace experiences.
2. Treat employees as individuals
Assuming that everyone in your organisation or team responds to a specific situation or event in the same way is not something any good manager would normally do. Employees are human beings, each with their own needs, personalities and expectations. Treating them all in the same way when it comes to wellbeing is a recipe for disaster and also means missing out on a unique opportunity to personalise the home working experience for your workforce. Understand individual nuances and act upon them where possible. At times that may be difficult, but the advent of home and flexible working opens up a plethora of possibilities which could lead to significant wellbeing and business benefits, and avoiding a one-sized-fits-all approach is key.
3. Be proactive
Many wellbeing programmes implemented over the past 6-months, although well intentioned, are designed to provide support or education for individuals that may have already identified as having an issue from a wellbeing perspective. Employers that have had the most success in this area have adopted a more proactive approach that helps employees form long term, positive habits that lead to good physical and mental wellbeing outcomes.
Dr Paul Smith
Chief Strategy Officer, ART Health Solutions