How The Pandemic Is Really Changing Our Working Lives

Julie Wacker is a business psychologist at Robertson Cooper, the workplace wellbeing consultancy that runs the Good Day At Work initiative. She spoke to Tobias Gourlay about the positive and negative impacts of the pandemic on our working lives – and why history indicates the vast majority of us will bounce back from it quickly and easily.
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Before we talk about wellbeing in the workplace at the moment, Julie, can you give us a brief overview of Robertson Cooper and what you do…
Robertson is Professor Ivan Robertson. Cooper is Professor Sir Cary Cooper. Robertson Cooper was spun out of Manchester University about 20 years ago, back when stress was becoming a thing in the workplace. As organisational psychologists, they were some of the first to look at the impact of stress and how it plays out in work performance, and costs for organisations.

And what have they found since then?
What’s become really apparent is the issue is not solved by just thinking about stopping stress when crisis hits. We have to consider all the things that impact people’s experience of work. Wellbeing is at the centre of those and, as a niche consultancy, that’s all we do: look at wellbeing at work.

What do you understand ‘wellbeing’ to mean?
Wellbeing has a bit of a bad reputation insofar as you can ask ten people on the street what it means and you’ll get ten different answers. Which is why we talk about the Good Day At Work. That’s something everyone can intuitively understand and engage with. Nobody wants to have a bad day at work, right?

But there’s some serious research underpinning the nice, easy concept?
We’ve done a lot of analysis on what’s actually going on when somebody says they’ve had a good day at work. If you go to a board meeting and ask everyone round the table about wellbeing, they’ll probably talk about staff feeling happy and engaged, with good workplace relationships. A good day at work does involve those things, but it’s not just about the fun. It’s also about a lot more than that.

When’s someone had a good day at work, we look at the tasks they’ve completed. Because a sense of task achievement is crucial – as humans we want to feel like we’ve done something when we shut our laptop at the end of the day. Secondly, we want to feel like the tasks we’ve achieved have had some meaning and created some impact.

We’ve studied hundreds of thousands of responses to the question of what makes a good day at work and they concentrate around these things – with some personalisation. For conscientious people, task achievement – ticking off a to-do list – is more important. For extrovert people, the social aspects are more important. It’s important to remember a good day at work is not the same thing for everyone.

And recognising these findings can help organisations as well as individuals?
Absolutely. It’s a win-win and organisations are starting to recognise this. A lot of the people-focused activity that goes on in HR departments is essentially all about creating good days at work: recruitment and retention policies and procedures are designed so staff can go home feeling good, having achieved something impactful and enjoyed some good relationships along the way.

Our research has given us some figures to back this up. Someone having a good day at work is 31% more creative than someone having a bad day, so as an organisation you’re going to get more of your problems solved if your people are having good days. A person on a good day is also 28% more productive, which has its own obvious benefits, and 71% more likely to be an advocate for the company they work for, which is super important in terms of brand recognition, attracting talent, etc.

"Someone having a good day at work is 31% more creative than someone having a bad day, so as an organisation you’re going to get more of your problems solved if your people are having good days."

You make it sound like a no-brainer. How do we all go about creating more good days at work for everyone?
Individuals play a big part, of course, but we see this as a cultural issue, and one that organisations need to be proactive about. We want to catch people before they reach a crisis point, before they develop a stress- or work-related mental health issue and require the help of a mental health first aider like a doctor or counsellor. Being proactive, which is what we’re focused on, means things like having conversations earlier, equipping managers to have those conversations, and creating feedback loops through things like wellbeing champion networks.

Where should you start with this?
We have a framework for looking at everything that impacts employees’ mental health and wellbeing in a holistic way. Policies and procedures are hugely important, but it’s also about workplace culture. Individuals need to have the skills and the permission to look after themselves: do they know how to be more resilient? Do they also feel free to not look at emails late at night? Managers should make wellbeing a priority – if they know its link with productivity and creativity, they will do that.

The next level up is the strategic organisational level. We have a model called the Six Essentials which we gather a lot of data for. It covers the various workplace pressures including workload and work-life balance, autonomy and job security. A lot of the solutions that come out of it can be quickly implemented, especially around communication, but it’s important to note again that the mental health and wellbeing issues in any organisation tend to be different, so the solutions tend to be multiple and varied. Sending out an email saying you’ve done a workshop around resilience is not enough for a long-term cultural shift. Over the last year, as resilience has been stretched, we’ve noticed it’s the organisations that have looked at wellbeing culturally that have done well, not the ones that have just sent round tips and techniques about sleep – that’s all valid, it just won’t achieve much in the long term on its own.

How have those workplace pressures changed in Robertson Cooper’s time?
Job insecurity has got worse over the last 20 years. For the last decade or so, it’s been there or thereabouts as the number one wellbeing concern. You can put that immediately down to our working lives: fewer and fewer of us have a job for life; mergers and redundancies are a bigger part of our lives, while we still have the pressures of families and mortgages.

Work-life balance is another one. We wrote a paper I think eight years ago about working-from-home technologies and how we should be talking about the integration of work and life, rather than work-life balance, because new tech was enabling a blended approach. Which is obviously what everyone’s look at right now.

Let’s get into the pandemic then. What has it changed?
It’s accelerated that integration of work and life. Long term, a lot of people now hope for a blended approach, that they can have some flexibility and go into an office two or three days a week. If that happens, it’s a reflection of trust and organisations’ ability to give people the autonomy that is so good for wellbeing. Before Covid, research told us the optimum amount of time working from home was 20% (i.e. one day a week). I wonder whether that’s still the case or whether that’s shifted more towards 40% – my gut feeling is that seeing the technology in action and teams working well in this way will have pushed that figure up.
 
Working from home has also helped relieve some of the pressure we feel around autonomy. It’s almost impossible to micro-manage someone virtually, so people are being given more responsibility to look out for their own work. That’s a real positive and a big part of why you’ll hear a lot of people saying they like working from home.
 
The other really positive thing about the pandemic is that we’ve seen a shift in the attitudes of CEOs and board members to wellbeing. We’ve been banging this drum for 20 years. Up until the pandemic, organisations would take an HR approach to workplace wellbeing, just ticking boxes on it. Now it’s become so obvious to management that you have to deal with wellbeing in order for your company to perform. I don’t want to be one of those annoying people, but we’ve been the busiest we’ve ever been in terms of inquiries. And those inquiries are not just about doing a bit of resilience training. There’s a genuine intention to find out how staff are doing and what organisations can do to help them.

"Working from home has also helped relieve some of the pressure we feel around autonomy. It’s almost impossible to micro-manage someone virtually, so people are being given more responsibility to look out for their own work."

So that’s the good… Presumably there’s been some bad too?
Job insecurity was already a huge pressure and it’s really amped up now. This  affects wellbeing at a foundational level – insecurity is a slow burner that tends to sit with us all day. Work relationships have also taken a massive hit. Losing those little incidental conversations about your weekend or what you’ve been watching can reduce our resilience. Our purposefulness is probably also down this year – anecdotally, a lot of us have been experiencing a sort of fed-up fatigue during the latest lockdown.
 
I would say one other thing, however. We don’t have the research yet on the pandemic, but in previous disasters or traumas where people have gone through the sort of high stress they’ve experienced this year, most of them recovered well. And they tended to recover quickly too.

You’ve actually got one data point that says the pandemic might not have been that bad for workplace wellbeing…
Well, yes. This is a strange thing for which we have no current explanation, but we are working on understanding it:

In 2016, the average number of Good Days at Work per week in the general population was 3.02.

In 2021, that average number was 4.15.

Both of those numbers are out of five and all completely valid in terms of how we measured them (standardised for part-time workers etc). Maybe it is the WFH culture allowing for work-life balance, but we definitely do not know exactly what this is about yet!

If we do need to recover, what can we do to bounce back fast?
I know I’ve been talking about wellbeing as a cultural issue, but there’s an interesting point here. This is my personal opinion, but it’s also what Robertson Cooper would ultimately recommend: however much an organisation makes things happen around you, you are ultimately in control of your own wellbeing. In the face of having that mortgage to pay, the family to feed and perhaps being in a job you don’t like but can’t just quit, that’s an important thing to remember.

There are things you can do to take charge of your own wellbeing. This year, it seems like a lot of people have been finding it difficult to summon the energy to face the day. We’ve just released a free download for managing your energy that covers the four pillars of wellbeing (physical, mental, financial, social). It’s not a preachy thing; it just asks you to take half an hour to think about whether you’re everything you can to look after yourself at the moment. It looks at little shifts you can make to your sleep, your nutrition and familiar things like that, but also has some points on emotional regulation – how you can deal with little anger spikes and the like so that they’re not draining you. These are all things that are in the control of us as individuals and that make a difference.

If we think of ourselves as computers, getting this stuff right is like ensuring you have enough space on your hard disk to deal with whatever comes at you in the moment. Once that’s in place, you can start to download some apps and explore long-term things like resilience strategies – we’ve done a free report on this too.

Finally, Julie, do you think our resilience has taken a knock over the last year or so?
Perhaps in some ways. Resilience is built partly through experiencing adversity. On the one hand, we’ve all been going through some very high-level adversity. On the other, if you haven’t had to get up at half five in the morning recently and fight your way onto a train, you might have lost some of your resilience to these sorts of everyday adversities and be wondering about whether you could ever do that again. This is why I’m concerned about the impact of the pandemic on children. Eight-year-olds are not worried about the big picture, but they have not been building resilience in terms of navigating friendships, making excuses for not doing work in class and the like. This is critical to their development, and it’s kind of the same for adults going into an office.

It’s going to be interesting seeing the results of the exposure therapy as some of us have to go back to these things we’ve stopped doing. But, as I said before, more than 80% of people are likely to bounce back from all of this very easily.

Every extra Good Day At Work creates:

9% increase in productivity
10% increase in advocacy for the organisation
11% increase in job satisfaction
12% reduction in the intention to leave
5 fewer day of sickness absence per year 
16 fewer days of presenteeism per year
 

Find out more about Robertson Cooper and the Good Day At Work initiative here.

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