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Leadership lessons on…wellbeing

With research already indicating the harm long-term employee sick leave can cause a company, the time to prioritise employee wellbeing is now

Meditating at the Office
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Wellbeing at work has been rising up the corporate agenda in recent years as senior leaders have begun to recognise the long-term impact on their business of extended sick leave brought on by stress and burnout.

But the importance of wellbeing has been brought into even sharper focus since the outbreak of Covid-19. The nationwide lockdown meant that instead of many thousands of people heading to EC3, employees were working from home for an extended period of time, placing a mental strain on workers at every level of an organisation.

As with most corporate messaging, a (re)insurance business’s approach and attitude to wellness tends to come from the top. While the pandemic presented leaders with communication challenges, it also heralded the use of new tools and technologies to implement wellbeing procedures throughout an organisation.

Taking the lead

The World Health Organization defines wellbeing as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

James Willison, managing director of WCL, which provides software that brings together brokers, insurers and reinsurers, says that while it may seem obvious, looking after your own wellbeing as a leader is more important now than ever before.

“Employees will be looking for support and guidance during what are uncertain, worrying and challenging times, and it is vital that you have the energy to respond,” he explains. “Fortunately, there are some tangible actions you can take, including regular breaks, keeping active and eating well.”

Many leaders within the industry will have spent far more time than usual on video calls and interacting digitally with their colleagues. But Willison acknowledges that there is a time to step away from digital devices.

“In the current environment of remote working and being connected 24/7, unplugging yourself from electronic items and leaving the desk – even for a small amount of time every day – is really important,” he says.

Jason Ford, CEO of connected services, and diversity and inclusion executive sponsor for mental health at law firm DWF, calls the ease and efficiency of communication “both a blessing and a curse” for leaders.

“It allows us to work more flexibly and provide faster and better services to our clients, but it also imposes huge stresses and strains on us as individuals,” he says.

While it is easy to maintain an “always available” presence, it takes discipline to switch off and have down time.

“I have definitely interacted ‘face to face’ with my team much more than before, which has helped strengthen relationships. That said, a day of video calls can be extremely draining so it's all about trying to find the right balance,” Ford explains.

He agrees with Willison that eating well, getting enough sleep and staying fit are all vital to maintain a sense of wellbeing.

Being proactive

Leaders who demonstrate an honesty about their own wellbeing at work may well find their employees feel more able to open up to them. Certainly, there is not as much stigma attached to mental health issues now as there has been in the past.

But there is no doubt that organisations need to do more to ensure there are initiatives in place to support employee wellbeing – and these must be constantly reviewed.

A recent white paper published by i-wellbeing, in partnership with The Sussex Innovation Centre, states that “very few businesses are actually addressing this issue in a meaningful sense”.

It refers to a 2019 Microsoft report that found that only 23% of UK-based organisations regularly launched initiatives to improve employee wellbeing, and 53% of employees don’t believe their organisation has training in place to “help them embrace a healthy, balanced lifestyle”.

It seems that being proactive is the key to rolling out an effective wellbeing policy for employees and, at times, companies may need to draw on external expertise to provide the level of support that is required across the company.

“We’ve been proactive in supporting a positive mental wellness culture – a component of our corporate private healthcare supports mental wellbeing,” says Willison. “It’s important to recognise that there is a limit to the support business leaders like myself can offer when it comes to managing employee mental health and wellbeing.”

For this reason, Willison and team decided to bring in outside experts. WCL has hosted a number of webinars, with mental health specialist Stephanie Unthank from the Infinity Wellness Project.

Another practical step that insurers can take is conducting a regular survey of how employees are feeling.

“We regularly undertake Pulse Engagement Surveys and in the latest one we specifically asked whether staff felt supported to work remotely and if they believed we supported their personal wellbeing,” says Ford. “The key here is to ensure that the output from these surveys is followed up and we do this by building it into our business plans and personal objectives.”

The time is now

It seems that if ever there were a time to prioritise employee wellbeing, it is now. But for any leaders who are doubtful about the impact that it can have, there is plenty of research that shows just how harmful long-term sickness absence can be for a company.

The same i-wellbeing and Sussex Innovation Centre report, ‘Fit for work in the era of Covid-19’, cites research by the Harvard Business Review, which found that in the US alone, one in five adults suffers from mental health challenges each year, costing companies 200 million lost work days, equating to around $200bn.

“Markets are becoming more complex and competitive and those that thrive will be the businesses who can successfully improve and sustain colleague engagement, manage absence effectively and increase productivity,” says Ford.