Covid-19 and the ensuing lockdown tested each of us in ways that we could never have imagined.
Remote working, furlough, juggling additional caring responsibilities whilst holding down a job, nurturing our personal and professional relationships, staying fit and emotionally healthy, all became inescapable challenges that dominated our daily lives and no doubt pushed each of us to the very brink of our resilience.
But as an organisation, we too were forced to rapidly rethink not only the way in which we delivered our business objectives, but also how we could best support and protect the wellbeing of our greatest asset – our staff.
Over the last three years, following a decision to focus on and develop our organisational culture, staff wellbeing has assumed a much higher profile. As well as actively encouraging remote working and time out for physical activity during the day, we set up access to an employee assistance programme, scheduled team lunches, gifted staff their birthdays off, offered staff employer-supported volunteering days and tried to fund enjoyable, relaxing and engaging health and wellbeing sessions for the team.
However lockdown threw up new challenges and required us to adapt both our offer and the way in which we delivered it.
There were undoubtedly some quick ‘wins’. We were able to run homeworking and wellbeing surveys that helped us assess the needs and priorities of our staff as well as source or advise on suitable homeworking equipment, which would help staff work comfortably from home.
What proved more difficult was maintaining and at some points, rebuilding staff morale. Generating enthusiasm and engaging in impromptu banter felt tougher to do. With no opportunity for face to face discussion, we had to work harder to resolve grievances and iron out tensions. Difficulties that we could ordinarily pick up on during time spent together in the office and address straight away, were harder to detect and this undoubtedly impacted on team cohesion.
In response to this challenge, different forms of virtual communication were encouraged. Team lunches were trialled, a buddying system was established, providing staff with a colleague that they could discuss challenges and issues with. Impromptu and informal Zoom or Teams catch up meetings soon started to spring up and at Christmas, we organised a virtual team social.
However, it rapidly became apparent that there was never going to be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to looking after our staff. All of us were facing unique pressures and each of us, were dealing with them differently. Some enjoyed working from home, others struggled. Virtual catch ups worked for some, but not others. Some colleagues were struggling to get into a routine due to home schooling or caring responsibilities and were unable to make sessions, whilst others were concerned about the impact of Covid on their loved ones and were just not in the right mindset to fully participate and engage in the sessions provided. And many of us struggled to simply stay motivated.
To compound this, switching the roll out of our packed and ambitious training programme to virtual delivery was understandably met with Zoom fatigue and therefore at times, the impact and benefit of some of the sessions were lost. In hindsight, it could be argued that we were naive in underestimating the effects of lockdown on staff and the challenges involved in supporting our them effectively. However, whilst this past year has been littered with challenges, it has subsequently been rich with learning curves too. Looking ahead, we, as an organisation, have been provided with a valuable opportunity to properly appraise what has worked this year and what has not, and significantly where our gaps in wellbeing provision exist and how we can fill them.
Feedback from staff has prompted us to look, next year, at delivering a training programme that is wider in its scope and more responsive to the needs of our team and to look at a mix of online, face to face and self-paced delivery modes. There will be a focus, over the next financial year on re-building team cohesion through a mixture of informal, fun socials and more structured external training sessions. We will focus on opening up new channels of dialogue, whether this be through lunch and learns, training follow up sessions, or just by getting back to grabbing a coffee with a colleague and holding a ‘conversation’, rather than a meeting. We will also focus on ensuring the mental health of our staff is adequately supported, by appointing and training up mental health first aiders and providing senior managers with tailored mental health training. Finally, by building wellbeing checks into staff 1:1s and appraisals, and thereby encouraging meaningful conversations with staff on a human level, we will be better able to identify and offer support to staff who are struggling either personally or professionally.
There is much, in terms of what we have provided staff, that as an employer we can be proud of, but what will be a greater source of pride moving forward, will be how well we can genuinely encourage and embed a culture of support and collaboration within our team. For whilst as an organisation, we can provide the sessions and spaces for staff to feel supported and heard, creating an effective wellbeing programme - one that builds team cohesion, boosts productivity and properly supports the emotional health of all our employees, needs to form part of a wider cultural shift, one in which every member of our team plays a role. The provision of a wellbeing programme can certainly nurture the health of our team, but staff wellbeing, is ultimately a team effort, one which requires each of us not just to hear one another but to listen and act upon the lessons we have learnt and the sentiments that have been shared.