What did 2020 teach us about employee wellbeing?

The pandemic’s impact on workers’ mental and physical health should be a wake-up call for employers, says Ian MacRae

One of the greatest challenges for employers and workers in 2020 was finding ways to work to keep companies afloat and to support people, people managers and their psychological wellbeing.

This trend will not disappear in 2021, and it will be necessary to bolster and cultivate employee wellbeing while people continue to work remotely or in partial return to offices. There was a growing awareness of mental health and wellbeing throughout 2020, but the challenges are not over. In 2021 and beyond, all organisations should be:

  • assessing overall levels of wellbeing of staff on an ongoing basis; and
  • ensuring frontline managers and teams are still sensitive to individual wellbeing.

Why work engagement?

Based on decades of research into both burnout and wellbeing, work engagement has emerged as the best psychological measure of psychological wellbeing in the workplace. Work engagement is a “positive, fulfilling work-related state of mind”. 

People with high levels of work engagement have energy in their work, feel a sense of purpose in their work and feel immersed in their work (similar to a state of ‘flow’). That means engagement is an excellent way of measuring psychological wellbeing in the workplace, and is the opposite of burnout.

How did wellbeing change in 2020?

Last year was a bumpy one for people’s wellbeing. We would normally see fairly stable levels of psychological wellbeing in aggregate. Individual wellbeing typically depends more on individual circumstances and major life events than general economic or social trends. Good employers with supportive and constructive policies tend to foster wellbeing, while unstable work environments, volatile working relationships, financial insecurity and unreasonable job demands tend to have a negative impact on wellbeing.

The past year has seen different patterns in wellbeing with more concerted and dramatic changes in people’s wellbeing. When people lose job resources like autonomy, social support and a sense of control it negatively affects their wellbeing. When a company is in trouble and people do not have the job resources to deal with the stress or instability, we might expect to see wellbeing levels decrease across the company. Yet it is rare to see that instability hit wellbeing levels nationally or even globally.

Wellbeing data from Clear Review’s My Mindspace was collected from thousands of people across dozens of UK companies in 2020. The trends in wellbeing are worth noting:

  • Lockdowns, curfews and similar measures tend to trigger an immediate and drastic reduction in employee wellbeing.
  • Wellbeing levels tend to bounce back but it takes weeks or months.
  • The lower levels of wellbeing appear to have lower troughs each time; each subsequent set of restrictions hits wellbeing a bit harder.