Covid and work turmoil – what can bosses do to protect staff well-being?

Between companies suddenly going belly-up, mass redundancies, and working from home, the Covid pandemic has been a time of major change and anxiety for most of us. While many would like to keep pushing on, some are overcome by stress, and among that latter group are bosses, who are trying to balance financial prudence with staff well-being.

Trying to offer a helping hand is Sam Dunn, an author, former Senior Leader at GlaxoSmithKline and GW Pharmaceuticals, and now Head of Corporate Wellbeing at professional-focused mental health clinic, The Soke. Mr Dunn offers us some insights into how bosses can support the well-being of their staff, and in the process of doing so, likely offers as much help to bosses as he did to the staff themselves.

The consistency-flexibility duality

Mr Dunn talks about the seemingly contradictory give-and-take between the need for bosses to protect consistency while being flexible and understanding. These requirements, while opposing, are an unfortunate but necessary balancing act of setting standards while being compassionate, in the unprecedented territory of returning to work during a global pandemic.

On consistency, Mr Dunn stated that this involves, “making suitable and effective provisions agreed at a corporate level for the safety of employees”. He says that there ought to be a standardised approach to hygiene, face coverings, work stations and facilities, which enforces not only reciprocity between staff in carrying out these behaviours, but invokes the sense that leaders are conducting themselves with a strong duty of care towards staff.

This duty of care, and exacting standards, need to be understood by all employees. Staff feedback should also be encouraged, to allow for both dialogue with leaders and necessary adaptations to be implemented as and when necessary.

On flexibility, Mr Dunn stated that it is about, “understanding and recognising that each individual employee that a leader manages is unique”. Apropos the dialogue suggestion, it is important that bosses spend time not only initially – but regularly – talking to each staff member, to ascertain how they are feeling, and what about the existing situation is and isn’t working for them.
He adds that the anxieties of each employee can manifest in forms ranging from the ‘gung ho’ to the extremely nervous and cautious. On this, he says that within a consistent organisational framework, there is scope for strict boundaries, but also room to be accommodating and understanding of each employee’s individual needs and situation.

Boss & staff well-being and the work from home phenomena

Mr Dunn identifies the change to home working and being furloughed, as a paradigmatic shift in work culture, which few of us were personally prepared for (even if we have the technical infrastructure to keep working). He says it has impacted confidence, self-esteem, career progression and in some cases we might even say productivity and well-being.

He says that these changes need not change the fundamentals key to good leadership. For instance, he says that spending time with staff, being open to have discussions and offering encouragement, are all essential as staff wrestle with the uncertainty of home working or transitioning back to the office.

Indeed, some might be keen to come back to office life – socialising, being focused behind a desk and escaping the house after months of confinement. Others, however, might be more hesitant – between childcare considerations, transport and food costs, and enjoying controlling their own pace at home without office pressure and long commutes. Regardless of which camp staff find themselves in, Mr Dunn says it is vital that bosses are understanding and ‘don’t expect too much too soon’.

He says part of the process might involve drawing up ‘back to work’ plans, which ought to be realistic and regularly reviewed, with the ultimate goal of guiding both staff and bosses back into a sound working environment.

He adds:

“Also, and this really makes a difference, leaders should collectively meet and share their insights from conversations with their employees looking for themes and patterns that affect groups of employees. HR, wellbeing or L&D folks can be a great help here to help collate and build a picture, identifying where work could be done to support groups of employees and at organisational level. For example, identifying development opportunities, running townhall meetings on specific topics, clarifying career pathways and so on.”

The transition back to the office, and potentially back home again if a second wave transpires, will be stressful for everyone. Maybe things will slowly pass back into the old normal but the bottom line is that all of this is as yet uncertain. With factors such as a potential Covid second wave, and the rise of remote working opportunities, some of the harsher realities of our current situation might be softened by greater understanding and support for both staff and bosses.

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Senior Journalist at the UK Investor Magazine. Also a contributing writer at the Investment Observer, UK Property Journal and UK Startup Magazine. Postgraduate of King's College London with a specialisation in Business Ethics. Interested in Development Economics and David Hume.