Employees perceive Covid’s impact on wellbeing ‘far more negatively’ than HR, study suggests

New research reveals ‘worrying disconnect’ between how workers and business leaders judge the effect of lockdown restrictions on mental and physical health

HR has underestimated the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on their workforce, a study has suggested, with employees reporting much lower levels of wellbeing than business leaders.

A survey of 1,600 employees and HR leaders across England by Westfield Heath found a third of employees (35 per cent) reported that mental and physical wellbeing across their team was ‘not good’ or ‘not good at all’, compared to just 7 per cent of HR leaders stating the same.

The poll also found HR was more optimistic about productivity: 40 per cent of HR professionals said productivity was ‘very good’ compared to only 20 per cent of employees. Similarly, while 41 per cent of HR leaders said morale was ‘very good’, this sentiment was only shared by 17 per cent of workers.

The report states: “Our research shows a worrying disconnect between employees and HR leaders. When asked about the state of morale, wellbeing and productivity in the organisation, employees perceive the current situation far more negatively than HR teams, [suggesting] that Covid’s impact is not fully visible to HR teams.”

This disconnect appears to have appended despite Covid pushing wellbeing up the HR agenda. More than four out of five HR professionals (81 per cent) said the pandemic had increased their wellbeing focus. Similarly, a quarter (24 per cent) of workers said they were looking for extra wellbeing support from their employers in the coming months.

Dave Capper, CEO of Westfield Health, said the impact of the pandemic on employee mental health “may not be visible, let alone heal, for many years”, and argued the virus could permanently change people’s connection to both work and their colleagues. “In 2021, companies will need to support wellbeing from the top down,” he said.

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“They know that the talent in their teams is essential to recovery and, by taking steps to protect that talent mentally and physically, they will be ensuring a healthy future for all concerned.” 

In 2020, days off because of mental ill-health increased by 10 per cent, resulting in a £1.3bn rise in costs for businesses. In total, these mental health days off cost employers £14bn a year.

But the report noted that the full extent of the crisis was likely unknown as presenteeism and booking time off as “unofficial mental health days” masked the scale of the problem. The report states that “without a physical presence in the office, employees may be inclined to overcompensate or exaggerate their online visibility while quietly suffering”.

Capper said, however, that the way businesses were responding to the pandemic gave him hope that such gulfs in communication between HR teams and workers could be overcome.

“When we come out the other side of this pandemic, there will be a long‐term commitment to supporting employees’ mental and physical wellbeing,” he said.