How can HR remotely manage… staff wellbeing?

People Management’s series looks at the implications of many employers now having to conduct all people processes remotely in the wake of coronavirus

There’s no doubt the Covid-19 crisis has had a serious impact on employee wellbeing. Whether it’s fitting work around home life and childcare, financial concerns or mourning the loss of a loved one, some staff are struggling to find balance in uncertain times. 

Spotting a dip in employee wellbeing is challenging even when you are in the workplace, let alone in a virtual working environment. So how can HR professionals keep an eye on what’s going on with their workforces under the surface when they and managers are not face to face with them? 

“There isn’t a magic answer,” says Ngozi Weller, director at Aurora Wellness. “But there is so much fear going around, it’s important managers and HR do what they can to counteract that.” 

Give managers access to mental health resources 

Line managers will often be the first responders for employees needing additional support, so ensuring managers have access to the right training and resources to support their team is the first step. 

“The most effective mechanism to protect employees’ mental health is to ensure supervisors feel confident to have a psychologically savvy and supportive chat with team members,” says Neil Greenberg, professor of defence mental health at King’s College London.

Dan Lucy, principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), says line managers are “critical” in supporting the wellbeing of their teams and HR should provide ample resources. “HR has an important role to play here in ensuring that adequate sources of support are available and managers are aware of them, as well as in supporting managers to have the right kinds of listening conversations with their teams,” adds Lucy. 

Embed talk of wellbeing into meetings and catch-ups

Mental health consultant Petra Velzeboer advises managers to “top and tail” their meetings with wellbeing questions. “Those questions could be ‘what’s your biggest challenge?’ or, using the science of gratitude, it could be an uplifting question like ‘what is the one thing you are doing to look after your mental health?’ That will normalise that conversation with everyone, rather than just [aiming this at] people we think are in crisis,” says Velzeboer. 

“The more we normalise that check-in question, the more likely it is someone struggling will actually come to you for support.”

Lucy adds that quality and quantity are equally important in communication: “It is not just the frequency of communication that matters, but the quality of that communication. If managers can listen attentively and give employees the space to voice concerns, with the right support managers can be well placed to support individuals who may be struggling.”

Monitor changes in employee behaviour 

Weller says spotting changes in behaviour will “alert” HR teams and managers to any potential issues. “Once you’ve spotted consistent changes in behaviour over a period of time (not just once), then it’s about ‘going deep’ with that individual,” says Weller. “Start off by being a friend, ask how things are going and offer a one-to-one chat with them so you can talk about what is going on.” 

She adds that if you are managing a team without two-way communication, it will be “hard to manage wellbeing because they don’t trust you”. She says building that relationship is extremely important during the current crisis. 

Dr Roxane Gervais, occupational psychologist at Practical Psychology Consultancy, advises managers and HR to look for signs of struggle. “Is it that the person is not producing what they have been asked to do? Are the tasks being delivered later than asked? Is it not up to the person's normal standard, and is the person not contacting or checking in with colleagues?” she says.

She adds though that these signs could also be “an indication of adjusting to new work patterns or to new equipment” at such times, so care will need to be taken.

Take appropriate action 

Greenberg says if an employee is distressed, the first action should always be a one-to-one conversation to help them solve any difficulties with “simple, practical steps”. He adds: “Only when good camaraderie, supportive managers and peer support has not worked, should formal mental health support be recommended.”  

Weller says that in such an unprecedented situation, you cannot expect your people to perform at 100 per cent. “It’s not possible in this situation [to give 100 per cent] so you need to cut people some slack, reduce your expectations and let your people know you understand and can empathise with their pressures,” adds Weller. 

Similarly, Gervais advises a conversation on how line managers can support employees by reducing their responsibilities. “Depending on the issue, the worker and their line manager will have to agree on what is needed for the worker to cope better with the situation. Perhaps agree to new deadlines or provide more support,” she says.

Lucy adds that managers are “well-placed” to support wellbeing through fun social activities. “That could be through explicitly social events or through suitably relaxed and informal team meetings. The key thing is facilitating social and meaningful connection,” he says.