The UN has set out a series of goals to help make the world a better place. Goal three is about promoting wellbeing for all ages. Put simply wellbeing refers to the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy, a state that has been challenged by COVID-19? So how do we continue to keep wellbeing prioritised when money is tight, and people are stretched to the limit.

Wellbeing a cost or an investment?

At the start of this year, in an article for Wired, Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University discussed the metrics of wellbeing. He explained that many companies view it not as an investment but a cost (check out this from prof Dan Ariely on Wired).

Janaina Tavares heads up Organizational Development at ActionAid Brazil.  at Action in Brazil, she says, ‘the scenario is changing with a focus from employee wellness programmes to wellbeing initiative. COVID-19 is a game-changer as companies are now offering more comprehensive health and productivity programmes that tackle emotions and mental health, social connectivity and financial education,’ she adds.

‘Pre-COVID-19, whether wellbeing was sometimes seen as a cost or an investment, depended on who you were talking to,’ says Vera Gramkow who is responsible for talent, performance and employee engagement at Bayer globally. ‘If it’s the board they are looking for proof of ROI. But investments in health and wellbeing are hard to measure,’ she adds.

‘Depending on the business situation especially when the margins are thin, you need a leadership team who is motivated by health for all, who maybe has a personal experience related to the importance of health and wellbeing,’ she explains.

Purpose and Motivation to Work

‘To benefit from human capital, companies will need to change their focus and start thinking more about the nature of motivation,’ suggested Dan Ariely. He emphasised the importance of what he called ‘goodwill’ — ‘the gap between the minimum someone needs to do to keep their job, and the maximum they will do if they are excited about doing it.’ Writing in January he believed in 2020, successful companies would be those who ‘manage to keep their employees invested in their work’.

When employees don’t feel like their work has meaning, they’re less motivated to do it. That means decreased productivity and engagement. This quote from April Wensel sums this up:

“It’s not hard work that burns people out, but rather the feeling that their work doesn’t matter.”

‘Having a purpose is important but a company needs to be able to articulate that,’ says Gramkow. ‘To just say we want to improve life, save the planet etc. isn’t enough. Everyone aspires to make a difference — but to bring this to life can be harder than it sounds. ‘For the younger generation, it’s not “give me purpose and I’ll work my day and night”. It’s “give me purpose but give me room to be me and flexibility,”’ she explains. Actions speak louder than words: ‘Employees need to see the impact they make’.

Listen to your staff

Talk to your employees now and find out who they are. Engaged employees are your advocates. Give them a voice. Hear what they have to contribute.

Tavares stresses that there is a need now, more than ever, to listen to employees. This is the cornerstone of her approach in giving employees a sense of autonomy (for example, they provide 24/7 access to psychologists) — and happiness is central to a good performance at work. For her wellbeing simply means ‘self-care’.

She also believes that giving staff a voice and sharing real-life stories are vital and points out that employees are a reflection of the businesses customers and how they respond to and how they’re treated, the culture of the company, is a vital test of a businesses success or failure. ‘Your employees are your first customers,’ she says. ‘If the organisation doesn’t have happy and satisfied employees they do not deliver performance-orientated results. You need to give employees a voice. Let them speak. Let them feel comfortable giving their opinions. What are their ideas? What are their opinions? Acknowledge them. Let them feel part of the organisation and the company, so they are happy where they are,’ she says.

‘Now is the time to turn up the volume on the behavioural part of wellbeing,’ says Gramkow. ‘This includes providing a sense of belonging. To do that employees need to feel trusted and be given a voice and see if their work makes a difference so that they will want to give their extra bit.‘“Do I have a voice? Do I feel my company cares about me? Do I work for leaders or with others who inspire me?” It’s more about a mindset shift than spending lots of money,’ she adds.

Safety in Lean Times

Psychology Today says: ‘Wellbeing is the experience of health, happiness, and prosperity.’ Prosperity is a bottom line, people need to feel prosperous — or at least comfortable. Will our new reality shake this — and how will our prosperity, and well-being be tested?

‘In modern life, people have many of their basic needs already met and we’ve moved up the Maslow pyramid* when it comes to our hierarchy of needs. Before COVID-19 we had many of our needs satisfied so we began to focus on what’s in it for me and my wellbeing,’ explains Gramkow.

‘Now, a primary concern around physical and mental/emotional wellbeing is about safety, employees want their employers to keep them safe, and keep them sane,’ says Gramkow. ‘the main focus might for now be enough now to know that their employer kept them safe during Covid-19 and cared enough about them to keep their job open. Yes, people to live to work, but we also do work to live,’ she says.

Mental Health

The pandemic has created uncertainty and fear. As well as the virus, there is a silent pandemic affecting our mental health. In the UK, anxiety levels have risen. According to the Office of National Statistics in the UK, between 20 March and 30 March 2020, almost half (49.6%) of people in Great Britain reported “high” (rating 6 to 10) anxiety; this was sharply elevated compared with the end of 2019 (21%) and equates to over 25 million people (out of the population aged 16 years and over).

‘We’ve seen an increase in issues around mental health. It’s a global issue,’ says Tavares. ‘We have weekly calls and I make it a point to listen to keywords and hear what people are saying and flag it up if I feel they are struggling,’ she adds. ‘We’re investing in mindfulness and non-violent communication. You don’t need a huge budget, you just need to listen,’ she emphasises.

Keep it simple

Solutions are about keeping things simple and returning to core values. Listening, providing a safe environment, taking small steps to create big change, and leading by example.

‘Organisations need to fight to keep their business alive, so it will be harder to invest health and wellbeing and hopefully, that will allow us to rethink priorities, scaling back, reimagine. It’s not always about spending money on all-singing, all-dancing events, free yoga, free fruit and extra benefits,’ says Gramkow.

‘Employees simply want to know that their company understands their situation and gives them the flexibility to balance work and life and also space to reflect. We need to be creative and innovative. There’s opportunity to reinvent how we think about health and wellness, and get back to basics, whether that’s simple acts such as virtual coffees on Zoom or supplying extra hand sanitiser to families,’ she adds.

Tavares agrees, ‘Companies with pool tables, gyms and Red Bull machines, still can make their staff feel like a slave to the company because they live their life in the office. If your employee is working 14 hours a day a ping pong table won’t cut it. Offering half days off, or toil-down when you have to travel for work (i.e. time off to account for time travelling) makes more of an impact,’ she says.

Leaders: Practise What You Preach

If you’re a business leader and have had an insight into a less hectic, less crazy life, start living it. Don’t send emails at 2 am and work 14-hour days.

‘Teams are the mirrors of their team leaders, so you have to be very careful to practise what you preach,’ says Tavares. ‘I used to work in NYC in the fashion industry and I had to learn to stop and to have a life out of the office,’ she adds. Gramkow agrees, ‘It’s tricky for leaders, who are supposed to promote health and wellbeing but may struggle themselves on how to be a role model.’ However, she sees a change, ‘Before COVID-19, they had the appetite for health and wellbeing but now there’s a sense of urgency.’

The Digital Revolution Accelerated

At ActionAid Brazil, a Human Resources Wellbeing platform was set up two years ago. ‘We created the platform with a start-up because there was nothing in the market that attended to our employees’ needs. Training is through chatbot, there’s instant messaging and anonymous surveys,’ says Tavares. ‘We just launched webinars run by the staff — they wanted something to take their minds off the pandemic,’ she explains. ‘We’ve discovered staff who are certified in story-telling and mindfulness. This simple act shows our staff we value them and at the same time, they’re becoming multipliers — enabling other team members to develop and learn.’

With COVID-19, digitisation has been kick-started and also offers flexibility and opportunity to restructure the working day as more people work from home. Tavares who’s been a home working advocate for years says that many of her staff who spend up to six hours a day commuting have requested more flexibility, but she adds they also miss the office. Gramkow agrees, pointing out that even younger people who would have been more in favour of a blended work/life balance, in other words, work, take a break, work again, are now missing the structure and connectedness of office life.

Covid-19 is a Wake-up call

We have been forced to stop the world and focus on health, get back to basics and prioritise what’s important. Tough times and an uncertain future lie ahead, but companies must pay attention to their people. ‘Now is the time to focus on wellbeing,’ says Tavares. ‘Wellbeing belongs to everyone, but HR has to lead it,’ she adds. ‘Health and wellbeing can be enablers for sustainability, as set out by the UN,’ says Gramkow. ‘Sustainability of a business model, as we develop pools of talented happy people with a longer employee life cycle. Happy and engaged employees, lead to happy customers and a sustainable business. It makes business sense,’ she says.

*The theory by Abraham Maslow, which puts forward that people are motivated by five basic categories of needs: physiological, safety, love, self-esteem, and self-actualization.

Fiona Bugler is an entrepreneur, editor and founder of Intrinsic Wellbeing ( a publishing company providing wellbeing content solutions to business.

Vera Gramkow and Janaina Tavares are supporters of UNLEASH, the biggest global gathering of the HR and tech community