The last 20 months have been a pressure cooker for employees the world over.
As almost every country introduced lockdowns and restrictions on movement for its citizens, workers were forced to adapt to a way of working that many had little experience in.
This created a situation where employees struggled with a lack of human contact and ‘office buzz’, leading to many becoming burnt out.
Of course, this had a detrimental effect on the individuals in question, but also led to poor work quality, often causing bad relationships to form between clients and the company.
Many businesses did take steps to address this issue at the time, through designated working hours, protected times or days with no meetings, and the offer of professional support if needed.
However, as we move into the new phase of hybrid working it is incredibly important that these initiatives are not forgotten.
As business leaders see some of their workers in the office, people dialing in from home from meetings could start to feel even more cut off. This makes it imperative that businesses renew their commitment to employee wellness.
To achieve this in a hybrid environment will be even harder than when everyone was working remotely.
Employees will need to be given the confidence and opportunity to speak out about the challenges they are facing, and environments should be created for employees both in the office and remote to feel supported.
Finally, everyone should have access to the professional help they need, no matter where they are based.
Breaking the stigma
As anyone who has been through a mental health problem can tell you, quite often the hardest step is feeling confident enough to reach out for help.
This became even harder when people felt like they were cut off and isolated from their friends and colleagues during lockdowns.
At the same time, it was also the first time many people experienced these problems for themselves.
People who previously led very sociable lives, meeting friends for drinks, or enjoyed traveling suddenly had no outlet and were confronted with a frightening, unknown disease that was sweeping around the globe. All of this combined to create an incredibly challenging environment for mental wellbeing.
To combat this, the first step for businesses should always be breaking the stigma around speaking out. The tone can often be set by business leaders being open about their problems, which can empower more junior staff to contribute as well.
For example, we (Freshworks) ran a campaign called #AndItsOk which sought to help encourage people to talk about the problems they were facing during the pandemic, and show them that they weren’t alone.
Many businesses took the opportunity to provide training for employees that helped them understand the impacts and signs of mental health, and more importantly how managers and co-workers can support those who are struggling.
This is also something we provided for our managers. By reframing the image of mental health during the pandemic it made it easier for people to respond to it like they would if someone had a physical ailment.
The impact of this work can be seen by the fact that recent research found that eight out of ten employers reported an increase in staff disclosing mental health issues.
Don’t backtrack now
While this initial work during the pandemic was vital in supporting employees and changing the narrative, it is now crucial that businesses do not throw away the progress they have made in this area.
There is a risk that with people back in their offices, managers could begin to forget about the past two years as people get caught up in hustle and bustle of work.
Likewise, it can be all too easy for remote workers to start to feel left out as office events begin to happen again.
As a starting point, 83% of HR leaders believe that appointing a head of employee experience whose role is dedicated to ensuring this does not happen will help firms continue to be successful in creating a strong employee experience.
While the professional support offered by firms has been a huge crutch for many employees throughout the pandemic, almost equally important were business initiatives that enabled coworkers to support their colleagues.
Through the provision of workshops, support groups, and dedicated discussion times, companies were able to create environments where employees could engage with others.
Recreating the watercooler conversations that can help people feel more connected to those around them.
But, continuing this in the hybrid world of work will be a challenge.
Balancing the needs of remote workers and in-office workers could lead to remote employees feeling like their voice is not being heard.
Combatting this will require a greater integration of technology into the working day. For example, ensuring meeting rooms are set up to support in-person and video dial-in can help make people feel included in meetings and discussions.
Likewise, continuing to organize virtual coffees or meet-ups can help foster relationships.
Similarly, organizing more formal workshops and support groups will not only help employees feel connected to the business, but also provide a useful environment for managers to learn more about their teams and what they need to be productive.
Mental health isn’t one-size-fits-all
Before the pandemic, mental health, while being recognized by health professionals as a rising problem, was still not on the radar for many politicians or businesses.
If there is a silver lining from COVID-19, it is the fact that it has forced this issue to the front of many people’s minds, causing more action to be taken from firms and governments around the world, such as the European Framework for Action on Mental Health.
However, while this is great progress it is important to remember mental health treatment is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Initiatives need to be constantly evaluated and improved over time.
Certainly, the most important area is ensuring that people who suffer from mental health problems still have access to support in the workplace.
For example, at Freshworks we have been offering therapy and other services since 2017. We have found this has helped many people, but the work is never truly done.
As situations like COVID-19 emerge it is vital that businesses remain flexible and introduce new initiatives to help support employees’ mental health.
We began offering staff duvet days, so that our colleagues could properly relax and switch off. As we transition to a world of hybrid work the importance of these days will not diminish just because some workers are back in the office.
There is no doubt that businesses the world over began making steps towards creating a better employee experience during the pandemic, offering more support and services to help their workforces through an incredibly tough time.
As companies move into the new hybrid way of working it is vital that the lessons learned during the pandemic are not forgotten. It is also crucial that these services are adapted so that they work for workers in the office, and those that are remote.
By putting employee wellness at the center of their offerings it is possible for firms to lay the foundations for a productive and happy workforce, which will give much greater returns in the long run.
Chief Human Resources Officer
Suman Gopalan is the Chief HR Officer at Freshworks and is responsible for translating the motto of “happy employees means happy customers” into action.