Today, workers and employers alike find themselves in uncharted territory. The impact of COVID-19 has left us all considering many factors, from how long the pandemic will last to its impact on the economy. But what about wellbeing? How does it factor into the situation?

According to Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve of the University of Oxford (also co-editor of the United Nations’ World Happiness Report), wellbeing — and the factors that contribute to it — is perhaps more important than ever. “The only thing that can mitigate the negative economic and health shocks that we’re seeing will be the strength of our social ties and social capital being activated throughout this crisis,” he explains.

We spoke with De Neve to learn more. Here, he shares his insights into why wellbeing is so important in times of crisis, what employers can do to support it and how the current pandemic will transform the future of work.

Social ties are crucial for wellbeing

First, let’s take a look at what we mean by “wellbeing.” At the highest level, De Neve defines it as “how you are doing — both you and your community — and how that makes you feel.” 

Image of Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Oxford and Director of the Wellbeing Research Centre.
Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Oxford and Director of the Wellbeing Research Centre

Simple enough, perhaps — but when you look more closely at the work context, many different factors come into play, says De Neve. In fact, employee wellbeing is shaped by multiple intersecting forces, or “drivers”: Typically these include fair pay or a sense of feeling energized about work. But while these remain important, priorities shift during crises. So what should employers be focusing on right now? 

De Neve believes that the most important drivers of worker wellbeing during COVID-19 are belonging, appreciation and inclusion, which are all fundamentally social. Together, these factors help workers feel more confident about their future with a company and can also reduce fear and speculation during uncertain times. 

“There is some evidence from past traumatic events like Fukushima or tsunamis where you find that communities with strong ties and strong social capital to begin with are the ones that cope better,” says De Neve.

Workplaces are communities, too, and part of the larger community. But what does this mean in practice? Employers can support wellbeing and productivity during COVID-19 by nurturing belonging and inclusion, explains De Neve, and showing their appreciation for workers. 

For instance, De Neve advises letting workers know that everyone is in this together and reassuring them that the company recognizes this is an extremely stressful situation. Showing support and recognizing the constraints and challenges facing different workers will help build cohesion and morale during these tough times, and is important for coming out of the pandemic stronger than before. 

And remember: wellbeing isn’t just good for the soul — it also makes people better workers. 

Focus on openness, transparency and belonging to support workers now

With nearly 300 million Americans sheltering in place, millions are now working from home for the first time, while also juggling personal responsibilities. For many of us, this brings added stress to our lives, so another factor identified by De Neve — flexibility — is a crucial driver of workplace wellbeing right now. 

For example, workers with young children might need to shift their schedules to complete more work before or after typical business hours. Being sensitive to these needs can go a long way to maintain wellbeing among employees. Companies that already had flexibility for employees will experience “less displacement of work routines,” says De Neve, giving them a leg up during the COVID-19 crisis — but there’s still time for skeptics to embrace more flexibility than usual.

Something else De Neve says that employers should bear in mind is that the COVID-19 pandemic is very difficult for people because they feel “they have no sense of agency.” Leadership needs to communicate “transparently and openly” about the company’s future, suggests De Neve. This helps reduce uncertainty and gives workers a sense of control. 

One way to boost communication and belonging simultaneously is through regular team meetings or even company-wide Q&A sessions. These help keep everyone on the same page while also bringing people together, helping workers feel both connected and informed during changing times. 

The impact of unemployment on wellbeing

“When people lose their job, they lose about 20% in terms of life satisfaction but only about half of that effect comes through the loss of income,” says De Neve.

His research shows that the other negative effects are from the social experiences that result from layoffs: loss of identity, self-esteem, social connections and daily routine. As a result, the negative effects of unemployment persist even after a worker restarts their career, because getting laid off isn’t just bad economically — it can cause psychological and emotional turmoil. 

It’s also why wellbeing is particularly vulnerable during economic downturns. “Overall we find that people are twice as sensitive to economic losses as they are to economic equivalent gains,” De Neve explains.

So what can companies do about this? De Neve thinks that the COVID-19 crisis is different from a typical recession: “This is really hitting the economic pause button and hopefully restarting in a month or two,” he says. He hopes companies and employees can weather the storm together. 

Some industries will face bigger challenges than others while the situation is changing. However, for employers who can persevere, De Neve advocates finding creative solutions to avoid layoffs. 

Possibilities include having employees work reduced schedules for reduced pay, or giving them the option of unpaid sabbaticals. According to De Neve, companies that took similar approaches during the Great Recession subsequently “came back roaring” and “had a competitive advantage over other companies because they had much higher employee morale, engagement, and wellbeing.” 

Unfortunately, this won’t be an option for every employer, of course. But De Neve argues that insofar as it is possible, everyone should “hold on tight and stick together.”

Prepare for future conversations 

Of course, there are many conversations going on right now about the future. Where will we be at the end of this?

Nobody knows, of course, but De Neve says that it is important to start having those conversations now. “One thing I would advise to senior leaders is to have a transparent and reasoned argument for … when they think people will be expected to come back to work and change from this ‘new normal’ back into the ‘old normal’,” suggests De Neve. 

Until now, some more traditional employers and managers refused to consider remote or flexible schedules. De Neve believes workers will push back if employers try to revert to their old ways once the pandemic passes. 

“People have gotten used to it now and they know it works,” he says. “It will be difficult now for a manager to say ‘No, I need everybody in the office from 9-5’ because we’ve shown that it is possible to some extent.” 

He notes, however, that remote arrangements often work best for teams with an established history of working together — and that’s exactly what’s happening right now.

“To have one or two meetings a week like this is completely fine, because we know how people are, what they look like [and] how their body language is,” De Neve explains. 

For these teams, technology can more fully replicate a face-to-face meeting, providing the flexibility workers need while preserving their sense of community and belonging.

Now is the time to nurture wellbeing and weather the storm

Supporting employee wellbeing isn’t just the right thing to do — it also helps support productivity. In fact, De Neve’s research shows that workers are up to 20% more productive when they feel happier — and this is even more critical during times of crisis.

Belonging and flexibility are especially important for workers right now, and companies that prioritize these will see long-term advantages. Employers should use clear, open communication to keep workers informed and give them a sense of control and — whenever possible — they should find creative solutions to keep people in jobs. Finally, De Neve believes that remote and flexible options are here to stay for many workers, and will shape a new future of work. 

These are unprecedented times for work and society, but if, as Dr. De Neve advises, we can work together and weather the storm — then we may very well come out stronger on the other side.

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