Originally published on BRINK news on May 20, 2020.
As employers seek to ease the lockdown, many ethical dilemmas will need to be resolved. As the compassionate approach demonstrated by the leaders of countries such as New Zealand, Germany, Taiwan and Finland showed, there’s much to be said for moral decision-making based on the principles of care and benevolence.
Instead of attempting to defy the virus on the grounds that most people would be okay, these leaders locked down hard and early to protect as many people within their communities as possible. The result was a masterclass in the value of kindness, which is, if nothing else, putting other people’s needs above your own.
In the past, solutions would typically be based on moral frameworks that focus on the just application of rules and principles, even if they put some people at a disadvantage. But far from hindering progress, this type of decision-making known as “ethics of care” brings huge social, business and economic benefits because when the group thrives, the individuals within it thrive.
Kindness was the theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which took place in May, and it’s worth bearing in mind that kindness brings huge business benefits, too.
We all know how much more likely we are to go the extra mile for an employer or colleague who shows us kindness. A major study into the link between well-being and productivity shows that employers who treat people well, by prioritizing employee well-being, are up to 10.6 days more productive, per person, than those that have just average physical and mental well-being.
This is something worth bearing in mind at a time when industries, already impacted by poor productivity before the epidemic, are now looking to recover outputs that have fallen by 60%-80%.
Unfortunately, instead of demonstrating kindness to employees, research into the causes of mental health issues at work shows that nearly two-thirds of managers (62%) have put the interests of their organization above staff well-being. Although this might seem to make good business sense at the time, it hurts businesses and individuals in the long run.
Employers who acted swiftly to allow people to work from home, to keep them safe, before they were ordered to do so by the government, will have enhanced the culture of the organization, by making people feel like they mattered.
Similarly, employers who perhaps weren’t prioritizing well-being as much as they could have in the past, now have a unique opportunity to shift the culture of their organization, by relaunching their well-being strategies and putting the welfare of their people at the heart of their business strategies.
Ordinarily, such a focus on people would have been met with mistrust, unless accompanied by another shift in culture, such as the appointment of a new CEO. But the disruption caused by the virus and emotional impact of the lockdown means we are ready to re-evaluate the importance of health and well-being, the meaning of work, and the value of work-life balance for boosting mental well-being.
Employers that want to harness this must start by showing the caring face of the organization and re-engineering their workplaces around human needs, instead of continuing to ask people to fit their lives around work.
Some things may never return to “normal,” with elements of flexible working here to stay. Perhaps more importantly, questions around the purpose and meaning of work will be posed, and creative and effective answers provided.
The impact of the coronavirus on the mental health of the workforce is not to be underestimated.
People have been emotionally bruised by the prolonged period of isolation, pressures of home-schooling and reduced opportunities to do things that gave them joy. People who were already suffering from existing mental health issues and problems, such as domestic violence, have had their problems made worse.
Going forward, showing the caring face of the organization isn’t about giving people free fruit, the odd day off, or the opportunity to take part in one-off mindfulness workshops.
It’s about recognizing the need to design work around human needs, and not the other way round. It also requires introducing and thoroughly embedding the concepts of “good work” into health and well-being strategies and the culture of the organization itself.
Not least by asking: Can we keep our people safe once they return to work? Do people have realistic targets? Are they allowed to control their workflow and deadlines to reduce stress levels? Do they have the opportunity to take breaks, exercise and eat well? Are they able to enjoy positive interactions with others?
Do they have the opportunity to use their key strengths at work every day? Do they have a chance to reach their full potential or at least get close to it? Do they have the flexibility to meet their needs outside of work?
Most employers have now reached a crossroads of maturity where health and well-being at work is about to move on from haphazard and uncoordinated programs based on anecdotal evidence. The future requires a strategic and evidence-based approach, based on data-driven assessment, sector insights and benchmarks.
Just as you would want the easing of lockdown to be based on factual data and reasonable assumptions, so you should want your well-being strategy to be based on reliable business data that you can see rationally will make a positive impact.
For example, research carried out by Google found that psychologically safe teams, where people could be themselves free from ridicule or recrimination, exceeded targets by 17%, while those in teams that were not psychologically safe missed their targets by 19%.
This requires an integrated understanding of peoples’ needs, ranging from their financial wellbeing and sense of belonging, to their ability to balance work and life and derive a sense of purpose from work.
For too long, working practices have evolved with little or no thought being given to the underlying people’s objectives needed to support the organization’s goals on things like facilitating team working or reducing mental health issues.
Example: putting people’s working environments into the cloud so teams can work remotely, without also considering how best to facilitate knowledge-sharing, teamworking, social interaction and the other human elements needed to unlock the value of transformation.
Now that the recent crisis has helped to focus our minds on what really matters, employers have a unique opportunity to transform their workplaces in ways that genuinely allow people to thrive at work, in a way that will allow business and society to thrive also.