Why the end of lockdown will be the ultimate test of joined-up wellbeing

The government’s road-map for lifting lockdown restrictions, released on 22nd Feb, really could be the start of a permanent change in the course of the pandemic. A widespread vaccination regime, coupled with better testing and continued social distancing, might actually signal the start of a return to ‘normal’ life.

Covid joined up wellbeing

Over the course of the last year, every one of us has experienced different demands on our wellbeing as a result of Covid and lockdown. Respecting the validity of all of those experiences will be a vital part of our collective recovery, and as Bill Michael, UK chair of KPMG, discovered last week, no-one, whatever their circumstances, should have their experiences lessened or reduced to the status of ‘moaning’.

The way in which employers support staff wellbeing over the next few months and even years will need to be flexible, nuanced and dynamic, to address a wealth of different circumstances and needs. It also demonstrates yet again how closely linked the different pillars of wellbeing – physical, mental, financial and social – really are.

Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said he believes that the pandemic poses “the greatest threat to our mental health since the Second World War”. 

With as many as 10 million people expected to need new or extended mental health treatment as a result of the pandemic, the effect of this on the workplace cannot be overlooked.

For the most severely affected – suffering post traumatic stress disorder from their own Covid experiences, or going through grief as a result of losing loved ones, for example – this could mean medical treatment.  

Those whose health post-lockdown is not the same as it was before will also need additional support, both physical and mental. Diagnosed (and undiagnosed) chronic conditions may mean some employees return to the workplace with very different medical needs than before.

For others, the role of social wellbeing will be more significant. The importance of strong social networks, both inside and outside work, has been one of the defining characteristics of the pandemic. Employees who have collectively suffered the difficulties of balancing work with home schooling or social isolation will need to rebuild work-related networks, find common ground with others and work together to establish (or re-establish) supportive workplace cultures.

A common thread for many employees, particularly younger and lower paid workers, has been the impact on their financial wellbeing and its impact on their mental health. The Financial Conduct Authority’s Financial Lives report, released last week, showed that there are now 27.7 million UK adults who have ‘characteristics of vulnerability’.  Employers are uniquely placed to look after the financial wellbeing of their workers, whether through pay reviews or offering them the opportunity to build financial safety nets for the future.

Employees have experienced many different demands on their mental resilience over the last year, and will need varied support to return to full productivity, wherever their place of work. Those needs are also likely to change over time.

Recognising and responding to those differences will be key to supporting and re-engaging staff in the future. There has never been a clearer justification for joined-up wellbeing strategies than Covid – and some of its strongest tests are still to come.

The author is Maggie Williams, content director at REBA.

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