I'll tell you something: Collaborating to improve wellbeing will be a priority once Covid is over

HR needs to sustain the momentum the pandemic brought to workplace health, says Matt Elliott

Now the second year of the Covid crisis has drawn to a close, we’re still trying to adjust to hybrid working as well as navigate further twists and turns on the road to recovery – as the current wave and new variant remind us – but the peak intensity is hopefully behind us.

For HR teams, the pandemic has been a defining moment in terms of how we stepped up and provided support and leadership to our organisations. Before Covid, wellbeing was arguably a relatively niche area which some colleagues may even have felt was intruding on their non-work lives. Fast-forward 18 months, and it’s become a core part of how our organisations navigated the pandemic. 

Covid has changed us. We’re not going to revert to life as it was in March 2020; we take the best learnings from the pandemic and apply them to our future plans. And in that context, wellbeing will remain core to what we do as people leaders. 

Wellbeing has become mainstream. It shouldn’t be seen as a standalone topic because it influences the whole spectrum of HR priorities, not least the organisational culture we are creating. In that sense, wellbeing is part of the overall evolution of HR itself. Having challenged ourselves to become more analytical, business-focused and commercial, it seemed at times caring for our colleagues was a strategically questionable priority. It’s right and welcome that we are more overtly responsible for their wellbeing.

The scope of wellbeing has necessarily evolved too. At Bank of Ireland we focus on the ‘four W’s’: wellbeing, workspace, workload, and working day. It provides the lens through which we view the day-to-day experience of working in the bank. During Covid, this meant becoming a point of connection for our colleagues and helping to mitigate the gap in their social lives. A third of staff now use our private Instagram wellbeing account, sharing good practice and cheering each other on.

This isn’t a passing fad. As some normality returns, our employees will need us to stay focused on their wellbeing in the years to come. Recognising this is crucial. The mental health impact of the pandemic is largely ahead of us, and now colleagues have seen HR play a different role, there is no going back. So, how do we progress from here? 

The first thing we must do is provide the essentials required to support colleagues, from the basics of Employee Assistance Programmes to providing a connection through communication that is personal and meaningful.  

Secondly, addressing the challenges that come with new ways of working, whether it’s a return to the office for those used to being at home, or the uncertainties of getting hybrid right. 

Thirdly, line managers will need help to understand their expanded role and develop their skill sets so that they are more ready, and able, to care for their teams.

Fourth, our organisations must address mental health directly and persistently. We should stand ready to support colleagues when they need it, whether the reason is work-related or not.

Finally, if we are to create truly inclusive cultures, leaders need to model being caring in their day-to-day actions.   

The pandemic has been a defining moment for HR, and we’ve responded in a way that we can be proud of. Looking ahead, it’s evidently possible (and necessary) to be both caring and commercial. 

Our duty of care has evolved, and in recognising our greater responsibility for people, the HR community should collaborate to accelerate learning across our organisations.

Matt Elliott is chief people officer at Bank of Ireland