Opinion  

Employee wellbeing must be part of work culture

Paula Allen

Undoubtedly, the pandemic has transformed the way we work. 

From remote working to increased awareness around employee wellbeing, many of these changes are here to stay and are taking shape across Europe.

Recently, Belgium and Portugal amended their laws to reflect the ‘right to disconnect’ meaning employers cannot contact employees outside of contracted hours and in the UK, 30 companies will take part in a trial of a four-day working week.

While the reasons for adopting a four-day working week include improved efficiency, productivity, and employee retention, others harbour concerns squeezing five days of work into four days can have a detrimental impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

By reducing hours, this can effectively mean working harder and longer on the days you are logged in, giving employees less choice, which in turn can lead to added pressure to meet deadlines and increased burnout.

The right to disconnect rules sweeping across Europe are also hoping to battle some of the unwanted consequences of remote working. For many employees this includes feelings of stress and being overwhelmed as key support networks are pulled away, while the same demands continue.

For younger colleagues, the opportunities for managerial input and reassurance may be reduced. As well, both the physical and metaphorical boundaries between work and leisure may feel more blurred. If employees are working at home over time, they may start to associate these spaces with work, which will make it less conducive to rest and more difficult to 'switch off'. Many are also working more hours, with work replacing the time once used for commuting or socialising during breaks.

Employees may believe they’re being extra productive, but we have found is that with all the extra strains, people are actually less productive overall when one looks at quality of work, not just hours worked.

We hope that people will switch off at 5pm, but that does not address what employees do and how they feel between 9am and 5pm. In fact, the focus on legislation with rules such as the right to disconnect could be a missed opportunity to redesign the way we work and build a culture of wellbeing and tangible supports.

A new focus on flexible working hours can also go a long way in helping groups such as working parents, who are tasked with balancing their work duties alongside their family responsibilities. It is not enough for workplaces to offer flexible working hours, it’s a policy that needs to be encouraged by management.

If managers are not seen to be embracing flexibility, then it is unlikely those who would benefit from flexible hours will feel they are able to take them. A focus on culture while employees are at work is equally as important as time away from it.