Harvard Initiative Shines A Light On The Vital Role Of Employee Well-Being In The Workplace

 Harvard Initiative Shines A Light On The Vital Role Of Employee Well-Being In The Workplace

By Naz Beheshti

Disruptions in the workplace caused by the pandemic have had more far-reaching consequences than most people realize, say researchers at a collaborative network within the Harvard School of Public Health. Far more than just a source of employment, work plays a vital role in our mental health and sense of social connectedness. Business leaders should keep this larger role in mind as they steer their companies through the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

SHINE (Sustainability and Health Initiative for Netpositive Enterprise) was founded in 2013 on the premise that “human well-being is key to a sustainable future” and that “work is foundational to human flourishing and sustainability.” In the view of Executive Director Eileen McNeely, the workplace should be seen holistically as a “platform for well-being”—a source of meaning, purpose, and connection.

“What many businesses have not got to grips with is the total disruption the pandemic has caused in every area of people’s lives,” said McNeely in a recent interview. “This has a huge impact on how they best support their employees.”

Belonging and the workplace

The role work plays in providing us with structure, dignity, and purpose is well understood. What surprised McNeely in research conducted since the pandemic began is how much people’s sense of belonging and connection depends on the workplace. With lockdowns disrupting business as usual, people are missing “a key access point to what makes them happy, healthy and well.”

As the nation prepares for a new surge of the coronavirus over the winter and new restrictions in many areas, business leaders should make belonging a part of their vision of employee well-being. That effort needs to go beyond cultivating camaraderie and team spirit.

Challenges for company culture

On a positive note, numerous surveys have found that employers generally get high marks for conveying concern about employees’ well-being during the pandemic. Many note there seems to be a new emphasis on creating a “culture of caring” in the workplace.

Yet, in order to produce lasting change, culture-building must go beyond expressions of concern and address a variety of policy issues as well. A new report from Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business, Workplace Inclusion – Nurturing a Culture of Care and Belonging, explores the importance of diversity and inclusion initiatives. While most managers believe they engage in inclusive behavior, fewer than half of those they manage agree.

This disconnect is especially significant when considering the disproportionate effect Covid-19 has had on women and people of color. As our nation grapples with the pandemic and the racial and economic inequities it has exposed, it is incumbent on business leaders to be at the forefront of a new conversation about inclusion. Moreover, business leaders must recognize that employees who may have struggled with a sense of belonging before the pandemic will be most acutely affected by the distance and disruption of remote work.

Connection, concentration, and control

One of the surveys conducted by McNeely and her colleagues at SHINE found that, in addition to an expected rise in anxiety and isolation, respondents reported a decline in their sense of control and their ability to concentrate.

Being apart from the workplace has not only made us feel less connected. Working at home and juggling personal and professional obligations has created new challenges around our ability to control our work environment and concentrate fully on the task at hand. While flex work is usually associated with an increased sense of autonomy and control, the pandemic’s forced disruptions seem to be undermining that same sense.

McNeely says these findings have implications for business leaders for the coming months and beyond. Even as some employees return to the workplace at least part-time, others will continue to work remotely or on different schedules. Zoom calls will remain a part of the new normal, whether in the office or at home and will present an ongoing challenge to our ability to concentrate and control our work environment. These challenges are only exacerbated by the open plan designs many offices have adopted.

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Originally posted on Forbes

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