How businesses can rewrite leadership excellence by putting wellbeing first

Managing the blurred boundaries of employees’ personal and work lives will be vital for success beyond Covid, says Helen Grover

We may all have been weathering the same storm this year, but we’re far from being in the same boat as each other. Our sense of shared responsibility has given people a reason to be both encouraged and hopeful as they faced difficult times. But within certain professional circles, it’s easy to talk the talk about how flexible or dynamic businesses have been in adapting to working remotely or redeploying staff. In doing so, companies have perhaps glossed over how significant of a culture shock this year has been for many workers, particularly for staff who were not accustomed to working so flexibly before.

For many workers, working from home was simply not an option to them pre-pandemic. This is most true of businesses operating in the industrial, distribution and manufacturing spaces, because of the physical nature of work. In the infancy of the Covid-19 pandemic, only 17 per cent of workers in transport and distribution said they’d be able to work from home at the time, according to YouGov

Asking these employees to work from home, work in a different part of the business where possible or take a temporary step back from their working environment (ie through the furlough scheme) can have an immense impact on their mental wellbeing. And for HR professionals, it’s been a constant challenge to ensure that we’re supporting them in the right way. 

Many were thrust into caring for family members and children to a level that they’d not previously been used to. Managing a challenging and unfamiliar work environment while also caring for a family during a pandemic is no easy feat. At the opposite end of the spectrum, managing furloughed or newly working from home staff who lived alone was similarly challenging, both for the individuals themselves and their managers. 

HR professionals, particularly those working in industrial sectors, must recognise that no one employee’s personal situation will be the same. It’s easy to lump colleagues into at work, working from home or furloughed pots when, in fact, each person within those pots is dealing with an entirely different set of circumstances. The risks of making assumptions that staff will be happier spending more time with their families, or that working from home suits everyone, are clear when not all employees are as willing to come forward and express their anxieties as others. The all-staff conference call has been a useful tool during 2020 for communicating important business news – but it’s no substitute for one-to-one chats with team members. Being conscious of employees’ concerns on an individual level, wherever possible, is vital. 

At GEFCO, we invested a lot of time in calling each member of staff on furlough. Those one-to-one calls were really important. It meant that we could ask them how they were doing, how life has been in recent months and how they felt about returning to work. We were able to have conversations that people may never have felt comfortable having on a group call. For instance, one colleague we spoke to was desperate to return to work, but circumstances meant that they couldn’t return, so we found them an alternative role in the short term that meant they could be back on site more quickly – an outcome that helped alleviate some pressures on their mental health.  

We can’t understate how powerful an impact poor mental health can have on colleagues’ and business performance. Particularly this year, as the lines between work and home life have become more blurred, it’s become increasingly apparent that employers must support workers’ mental wellbeing, in the same way that workplace health and safety is considered a critical business area. Throughout this year, GEFCO has looked for new ways to deliver mental health wellbeing support to staff to ensure they are well-informed and feel well-looked after. 

Of course, as with any business, there won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to colleagues’ situations but, if we’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s that communication, along with creating widespread empathy, is vital for a happy, productive workforce. Therefore, let’s make this year the one where the blueprint for leadership excellence is rewritten as one focusing on empathy and humanity.

Helen Grover is HR director at GEFCO UK