Covid-19 changed how many of us work
The pandemic has shaken up traditional workplaces and our idea of what a workplace should be. Unfortunately, this combination of Covid, shrunken budgets and resources, and changing work environments has also taken a toll on our workplace well-being.
The Gallup 2021 State of the Workplace survey saw significant increases in stress (43 per cent), daily worry (41 per cent), daily anger (24 per cent) and sadness (25 per cent). With only 20 per cent of workers engaged globally, organisations are waking up to the need to prioritise employee well-being and resilience.
In a survey from 2020, only 42 per cent of New Zealand’s workforce rated their mental health as positive. Pre Covid, this number was sitting at 63 per cent. More recently, research has found employees in Australia and New Zealand experience higher rates of burnout, with 89 per cent of employees working late in 2021.
In short, employees are stressed, overloaded and struggling to balance work and life demands. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Already we’re seeing positive signs towards a well-being reset; wellness and mental health has fast become a priority for businesses over the globe.
The benefits are tangible too. Economic research in New Zealand has found that small businesses get up to $12 return on every $1 they invest in staff well-being initiatives.
To help businesses come to grips with the increased desire—and now expectation—for better workplace well-being, this guide will outline the key challenges facing organisations today. You’ll also find well-being cost and benefits analysis, and strategies for implement well-being initiatives and building employee resilience in the workplace.
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Well-being is more than health, it’s also tied to happiness, job satisfaction, productivity and performance, and relationships in and out of the office. It’s also more than physical health, encompassing mental well-being, relationship well-being, career well-being and financial well-being. All of these factors can influence the overall wellness of your employees and how they engage and perform at work—which can cost businesses dearly, particularly in terms of customer experience. Poor well-being can lead to poor performing employees, which can in turn result in negative customer interactions, be it slow service or rude encounters.
However, there is also a whole other set of hidden costs that come with low well-being. Presenteeism.
Presenteeism is defined as working while not fully functional because of medical conditions or low employee engagement, such as feeling their job is meaningless. These conditions can include mental illness, back pain, food disorders, allergies, illness, and physical discomfort (e.g. arthritis, mensural pain, muscular pain).
In one study, presenteeism caused over three months (57.5 days) of lost productivity. In New Zealand, presenteeism and absenteeism cost businesses an average of $1,500 per employee—two thirds or $1000 of this is from presenteeism alone.
As for how frequently it is happening, approximately 35 per cent of New Zealanders turn up to work while sick. In Australia, it’s as high as 66 per cent. While these numbers are from 2019 and the rate of people coming into work while physically ill with a cold of flu has likely decreased with the pandemic, the stress, financial and family strain from Covid-19 has likely seen other forms of presenteeism rise.
From a customer service point of view, presenteeism isn’t a good look either and can cost you on customer experience and ultimately customer loyalty. From poor employee-customer exchanges to low quality experiences, it can pay dividends to prevent your staff from falling into a presenteeism mindset.
Read more: How employee well-being drives profits
With the uncertainty, worry and fear caused by the pandemic, it’s not so surprising to see this at the top of the list in 2021. In the 2021 NZ Workplace Diversity Survey, 80.7 per cent of workers rated mental health as the major challenge facing organisations today, up from 74 per cent in 2020. In Perceptive’s May 2021 survey of 1,000 New Zealanders, we found 46 per cent of Kiwis had experienced depression or anxiety in the workplace.
However, mental health has always been a major issue and challenge for Australia and New Zealand, even before Covid-19. It was the number one challenge in the 2019 NZ Workplace Diversity Survey while coming in third in 2018 and 2017. While the impact of Covid-19 on mental health—particularly the mental health of our youth—has yet to be measured, psychologist and Professor Richie Poulton has described it as “pouring gasoline on an already vulnerable group”.
A pre-Covid report from Australia found 91 per cent of employees believe mental health in the workplace is important but only 52 per cent believed their workplace was mentally healthy.
Good mental health in the workplace is particularly challenging for minority groups. Our May 2021 survey found 76 per cent of neurodivergent workers, 75 per cent of disabled and 67 per cent of LGBTQ+ workers had experienced depression or anxiety while at work.
In short, mental illness—be it anxiety, mood disorders, burnout or addiction—is highly prevalent in Australia and New Zealand. The good news is that Covid-19 has done a lot to shine a light on the issue and many workplaces are already implementing solutions to help manage their employees’ mental health. These can include:
As a manager and/or business leader, it is important to understand the risk factors that can lead to poor mental health among your staff. These include:
Coming in at number two and with 78.8 per cent of New Zealand employees rating it as a major well-being challenge is stress. While stress is often included alongside mental health, in our minds it is a big enough issue to warrant its own category in this list. Moreover, in addition to contributing to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and insomnia it can also have and range of cognitive, emotional and physical symptoms that can impact your employees’ ability to fully function.
On the cognitive side, stress can cause problems around focus, memory, confidence and decision making. Emotionally it can lead to moodiness, irritability, agitation and low morale. Physical symptoms can include headaches/migraines, gastrointestinal problems, a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stroke and, as some research suggests, reduce insulin sensitivity.
For businesses with under 50 employees, workload is usually the number one cause for work-related stress, followed by working relationships. Businesses with over 50 employees also had workload as number one and changes at work as second. A post-Covid-19 study found that 11 per cent of New Zealanders are stressed at work.
Ways you can help alleviate stress in the workplace:
As both a cause and effect of high stress and poor mental health, work-life balance is critically important to building a positive and performing workplace. In the 2021 NZ Workplace Diversity Survey, 74 per cent of workers identified work-life balance as a challenge.
The most common cause of poor work-life balance is long hours, and the lack of separation between work and home during Covid-19 has only exacerbated the issue in recent months. In Australia, the average worker’s overtime nearly doubled from 236 hours in 2019 to 426 hours in 2020. Meanwhile in New Zealand, a poll found 46.3 per cent of respondents were working more hours than they had before the pandemic. What’s more, two-thirds of that number were not being paid for those extra hours.
Poor work-life balance can lead to a range of emotional, mental and work performance issues including stress, depression, anxiety, burnout, becoming quickly angered and/or frustrated, low morale, low productivity and problems sleeping. Inadequate work-life balance is also more prevalent for women—who shoulder the bulk of caring and domestic work—along with parents, caregivers of sick, elderly or disabled relatives, women who care for both children and elderly or sick relatives.
In terms of the roles and occupations that experience the least adequate work-life balance, research has found those at greatest risk of burnout in 2021 are:
Australia and New Zealand are above the global average for burnout with 77 per cent (nearly 8 in 10 workers) having suffered burnout in 2020. Moreover, employees who say they often or always experience burnout at work are 63 per cent more likely to take sick days, which adds to your absenteeism costs.
Read more: Employee burnout and how to prevent it
Ways to build better work-life balance in your workplace:
Read more: Taking care of remote employee well-being
Your staff are one of, if not the most, valuable assets of your business and it pays to take care of them. Studies from across the world have consistently found organisations that actively promote well-being are eight times more likely to have engaged employees, which in turn leads to better productivity, financial performance, customer loyalty and innovation.
Wellness programmes can also help you retain your staff. In fact, 78 per cent of employers offer wellness programmes for precisely this reason—to attract and retain their talent. Moreover, staff who are engaged in a wellness programme experience better physical and mental health, which helps reduce absenteeism, presenteeism, and staff turnover.
New Zealand recently made headlines for being one of the least productive countries in the OECD. Australia is also below average compared to the rest of the OECD. Add into the mix that both countries have only 20 per cent engaged employees it becomes clear that employee wellness and well-being initiatives should be part of the solution to getting our workforces back on track.
However, like any new project or workplace initiative, well-being programmes perform best when they are monitored and measured to ensure they are working in the way they were intended. They are not set and forget, but rather a continual process of improvement. What is working? What isn’t? What can be changed, built upon or scaled up to get meet the needs of your employees?
Read more: How to measure employee well-being
Building resilience in your workplace doesn’t happen overnight, but with the right approaches, you can set your business on the right course.
Resilience is our ability to bounce back from challenges or setbacks. It is an attribute you can build both as an individual and as an organisation. Ideally, you should aim to enhance both in your well-being programme.
Communicate to your employees why their work matters and how their efforts are contributing to your organisation. Making purpose clear is often touted as key to business success—and it is. But more overlooked is its role in contributing to employee engagement and resilience. In fact, understanding how their daily work contributes to the greater scheme matters to 83 per cent of employees; it allows them to find personal fulfilment in what they do and bolsters their ability to adapt to change and challenges.
Not only is it great for morale but recognising and celebrating the wins can have a profound impact on our emotional health. In short, gratitude is powerful and frequently practising it in the workplace unifies employees, solidifies purpose, and decreases feelings of imposter syndrome by nipping any feelings of inadequacy in the bud.
As MD Tanmeet Sethi explains in her TEDx talk, “Gratitude promotes the release of dopamine. It makes us happier. When we practice gratitude, we stimulate the same parts of the prefrontal cortex that modulates stress and pain. When we change our brain, we change our experience.”
Whether it’s a work anniversary or hitting sales quotas, a record NPS score from your customers or recognising an employee who’s always there to lend a hand—there are plenty of opportunities big and small worth celebrating.
“Companies are moving away from the traditional command and control practices.”
—Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular, Harvard Business Review
Make coaching part of your leadership mindset. Research shows staff who are coached have better employee satisfaction and performance and contribute more to organisational goals. What’s more, it’s an excellent way to retain your top talent rather than continually shelling out the cost of recruiting and training new staff. Also consider that it can take new employees six to eighteen months to reach the productivity of an existing staff member.
The vital elements of a coaching mindset are:
By adopting a coaching mindset, your staff are given clear goals and timeframes to achieve them (which also contributes to making purpose clear mentioned earlier) as well as opportunities to grow along with the sense that they are valued.
Learn more: The Leader as Coach
Communication is the backbone of modern business, but the importance of communicating effectively is often overlooked. Two-thirds of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees, while miscommunications are costing companies of 100 employees an average of US$420,000 per year.
Communication is more than what we write or say. It is how we say it and how we engage in conversations, from the body language we use to the emotions we project, and poorly managing these various aspects can have a detrimental effect on your business.
What makes effective communication?
Employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work. However, only 15 per cent of employees feel completely heard by their organisation.
Active listening is not listening in the usual sense. It is about fully engaging in a conversation, withholding any judgement, and paraphrasing to show you understand. It is an excellent way to build trust and empathy within your teams, as well as to create a safe space for staff to feel supported, particularly during tough times.
Listening is not just limited to individual manager and employee conversations. It also includes gathering employee feedback and acting upon it. Employee surveys such as Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) and Gallup can provide a useful barometer on your employee experience and engagement. These surveys can be done anonymously so employees feel safe being honest without fear of repercussion.
Well-being is more than physical health, it also includes emotional and mental well-being, financial well-being, social well-being and career well-being. To help cover all aspects, here’s a list of ideas big and small to help improve your workplace well-being.
Last and most important, improving your workplace wellness starts at the top. Without buy-in from your leadership team, it will be difficult (read: impossible) to affect positive change. Part of this involves setting up leaders to lead by example and setting up a dedicated working group to organise and drive well-being initiatives.
Want to save this guide for later? Download a free copy to take offline!
 Southern Cross Health Society, 2010. A New Zealand study into the cost of unhealthy employees. Southern Cross, available at: getcover.co.nz
 World Economic Forum and Right Management, 2010. The Wellness Imperative: Creating More Effective Organizations.
 OECD (2021), GDP per hour worked (indicator). doi: 10.1787/1439e590-en (Accessed on 07 July 2021).
 Solomon, Lou. 2016. ‘Two-thirds of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees’, Harvard Business Review.