Occupational wellbeing amidst a global health pandemic

Sarah Pickup with reflections on past, present and future.

Throughout the UK, people are facing change, uncertainty, anxiety and fear. The health, safety and wellbeing of those operating as frontline essential key workers has rightly been the focus of media attention. There are, however, wider impacts of ‘lockdown’ protocols. Those ‘fortunate’ enough to continue working remotely now face an evolution of wellbeing risks that were present in the workplace pre Covid-19, alongside dealing with emergent methods introduced by employers to address these unprecedented challenges. This current climate provides opportunity to reflect on the degree to which organisations have been committed to the identification and mitigation of wellbeing risks pre- and during Covid-19. Can this help us to consider the trajectory for the future of workplace wellbeing?

Past trends 

Organisational discourse and action to address employee wellbeing is seemingly more omnipresent than ever. For example, the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD) (2019) report that more organisations are training employees to build personal resilience, to become mental health first aiders and to increase mental health awareness. Health promotion campaigns that focus on healthy eating, smoking cessation and how to live more active and healthy lives have also increased. 

These are undoubtedly positive changes. However, such initiatives do not appear to be addressing primary wellbeing issues. Over half a million workers in the UK are reporting new or long-standing cases of work-related stress, anxiety and depression (ASD), now the leading cause of employee absence (2018/19). There are rising levels of presenteeism. Both CIPD (2019) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (2019a) identify work demands and workload as the leading causes of poor wellbeing at work, attributed to unrealistic work demands, high workloads, time pressures and interruptions. 

Within the top four causes of poor workplace wellbeing is work-family conflict (WFC) (CIPD, 2019). This is a broad area that has received significant interest within the academic literature, though ultimately, the conflict between work and home requires more flexible working arrangements (FWA) to address not only when work is conducted but also where (Lewis, 2003) and strong organisational support is needed to facilitate this (French et al., 2018). However, since employees are reporting lack of trust to work without supervision and an increased mistrust of management intentions (CIPD, 2019), organisations are unlikely to support a wider range of FWAs (Lapierre et al., 2018).

The evidence therefore suggests a disparity between workplace wellbeing provisions and the ability of these to fulfil the psychological needs of employees, potentially signifying breaches of psychological contract (Rousseau & Tijoriwala, 1998) which itself creates further concerns for wellbeing (Zhao et al., 2007).  

A new norm?

A broad range of wellbeing factors are now associated with working in isolation, not least the impact on work demands as employees work more online and maintain communications. This reliance on technology becomes a further burden on what are already strained resources, leading to technostrain (Salanova et al., 2013). Furthermore, dependence on technology has the potential to unveil hidden vulnerabilities of workers around the efficacy with which they can use and adapt to technology.

Technology and workload aside, for many the ability to work remotely has now been realised. But with work, schooling and caring responsibilities now synonymous with being at home, it does not seem to be the desired outcome many had hoped for. Working remotely has led organisations to implement methods to tackle what they perceive as current wellbeing risks, which generally focus on maintaining social contact, boosting morale and providing advice on wellbeing during isolation. The internet, social media and television are awash with ‘novel’ and hasty ways in which organisations are seeking to demonstrate their commitment to employee wellbeing during this difficult time. 

A common theme across all these mediums is the need to stay connected. Some organisations have gone as far as including Zoom dance parties, compulsory virtual quizzes and a requirement to send in photos of petsFor many such requirements are likely to be anxiety-inducing. Other themes focus on addressing financial challenges and others recognise the impact of workload and the spill-over effects between work and home by relaxing workload expectations, encouraging regular breaks, better work-life balance. There’s one report of an organisation actually ‘inventing the lunchbreak’! 

Of course, intervention that addresses employee wellbeing during these difficult times are to be encouraged – as long as consideration is given to identifying and mitigating any secondary effects that these bring. Having said that, in light of evidence surrounding the national picture of occupational wellbeing pre Covid-19, it is unclear how employees will assess the meaningfulness of organisational efforts through the pandemic, and this has some implications for the future. 

The future

The longer national restrictions remain in place, these new norms are likely to become more embedded and new expectations when employees eventually return to work. When this pandemic ends, organisations will need to evaluate how these new working arrangements and commitments that were implemented during Covid-19 have (a) changed their understanding of what could be achieved, and (b) commit to longer-term comprehensive and strategic approaches to workplace wellbeing. These can be summarised into three broad actions. 

1.    A preventative focus

What is particularly needed is a focus on preventative methods through the identification and control of primary wellbeing risks. A practical tool is available from the HSE through their six managements standards that outlines best practice across six domains:

(1) work demands, such as workload, work patterns and the work environment and 

(2) control, the degree to which employees have some autonomy, control and flexibility in how, when and where work tasks are completed. 

(3) Support refers to the resources provided by employers to achieve performance goals along with the degree of encouragement and nature of line management, while

(4) role refers to the how much individuals are clear about their roles, expectations and conflicts. 

(5) Change, which is ever present in organisations to varying degrees, requires organisations to consider how change is managed and communicated. Finally, 

(6) relationships, which refers to how positive relationships are encouraged, horizontally and vertically, how conflicts are avoided and unacceptable behaviour addressed. 

For each standard, there is advice and guidance along with case studies from organisations who have gone through the process. While these are likely to be minimum standards from a broader spectrum of risk, they are a useful starting position for organisations who are seeking to make a new commitment to wellbeing in a meaningful way. These can be used to implement immediate small changes while simultaneously planning more longer-term strategic plans and will help to foster new relationships with employees.

2.    A visible, measurable and accountable strategy

A commitment to a new wellbeing culture can be driven by a wellbeing policy that sets out immediate and longer-term objectives that includes a commitment to employees to identify and mitigate primary wellbeing risks, which can be shaped around the management standards. Again, the HSE do provide policy templates, though these should be seen as minimum standards. 

A commitment to implement more targeted secondary interventions should complement rather than replace primary initiatives. These should address those residual wellbeing risks that could not be eliminated at source. Additional health promotion activities that represent the specific health needs of the workplace demographic can also be developed. More tertiary level initiatives, including employee assistance programmes (EAPs), access to physiotherapists or counselling, should be explored as appropriate.

3.     Build strong foundations for sustainable wellbeing

Changes of this magnitude must be built on strong foundations to be effective and sustainable. It is important that organisations seek to identify any potential barriers to the implementation of a change programme this significant. These could include resistance to change, management commitment, leadership, communication and trust followed by precautional steps that are taken to ensure future resource invested in a change programme are given every chance of success.

A sustainable approach

The evidence suggests that nationally, organisations are talking about wellbeing and attempting to implement initiatives, though these seem to be hastily developed and implemented in many cases in the absence of a strong evidence base and rationale. Assessing the wellbeing and health needs and developing a more sustainable strategic approach has a greater likelihood of making impactful changes to employees that are likely to be reciprocated in the form of a healthier, motivated and committed workforce. Continuing to implement artificial wellbeing strategies that are failing to address the underlying systemic causes and ultimately fail to fulfil the needs and expectations of employees, will mean that the wellbeing pandemic will outlive any virus. 

Dr Sarah Pickup

University of Sunderland, School of Psychology


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Health and Safety Executive. (2019a). Health and Safety at Work. Summary Statistics for Great Britain 2019. Retrieved from https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/overall/hssh1819.pdf

Health and Safety Executive (2019b). Tackling work-related stress using the Management Standards approach. A step-by-step workbook: A guide for employers. WBK01 (rev1). Retrieved from https://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/wbk01.htm

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