The initial disruptions from COVID-19 may have passed, but its legacy has redefined the outlook for mental and physical wellness.
While the public health situation has changed the status quo in the workplace, the HR function has become the primary guardians of employee wellbeing.
As COVID-19 has spawned new ways of managing the workforce, multinational companies have channelled their international outlook into wellbeing strategies for staff across geographies. For global legal firm Withers, while employee wellbeing has long been an integral part of the firm’s corporate culture, COVID-19 has underlined the need to provide even more support and resources. “No one has been untouched by the pandemic, we are living through an extraordinary time,” noted Sharon Ser, Managing Partner of the Hong Kong Office.
With 17 offices across the world, Withers is staffed by a headcount of about 1,200, including around 100 staff in Hong Kong. Ser explained it is crucial that wellbeing initiatives are collaborative and in tune with the needs of staff in various locations, while enabling them to perform and deliver high-performance work. Withers swiftly accelerated the expansion of its digital platforms to allow every staff member – some of them were subject to complete lockdown – to work from home using cybersecure platforms and portals. The firm’s intranet is used to convey messages that show empathy, maintain morale, and keep people in different work settings connected.
The multi-branched approach
Withers also provides access to mental health services, which enable employees to seek help easily and confidentially when they need it. A multi-branched “Tree of Life” portal serves as a wellbeing platform for presentations by nutrition, motivation, and lifestyle experts. Staff also use the intranet and digital platforms to form interest and support groups. For instance, a favourite music platform and exercises designed to provide an endorphin burst while working at a desk have been tremendously popular. “People share both good and bad experiences,” Ser said.
Withers’ employee wellbeing initiatives would not be as effective if the firm’s HR function and marketing team didn’t work together to facilitate them. “The HR function is in touch with the emotional pulse of the firm and provides bridges between staff, regardless of their role or job,” Ser said. With the marketing team’s help, the HR function has been steering wellbeing programmes. She explained the goal is to make wellbeing initiatives as comprehensive as possible, while keeping employees’ feelings of being micromanaged to a minimal. “Everyone has a voice and can articulate what interests and concerns them or makes them happy,” Ser noted.
Collaboration and participation
As office and home lives have intertwined, there is a greater appreciation and understanding of each other’s home lives and struggles. “People become more ‘authentic’ as they open up and talk about what is happening in their lives – it provides a genuine feeling we are all in this together,” Ser said. A prime example is a company-wide initiative to raise funds for charity while boosting awareness of the importance of finding ways to remain active, especially for staff who are working from home. “The Withers World Tour”, which combined fund raising with exercise activities, challenged staff to participate in walking, running, swimming, cycling, and dance classes, lots of dog walking, and even lunge competitions to complete 23,000 miles, which is the distance between the Withers network of offices from Australia to California.
“Helping others can help to boost your own sense of wellbeing,” Ser noted. “It also taps into a modern need, particularly among the younger generation joining the legal profession. You can’t fail to notice the younger generation is looking for a certain quality of wellbeing, not just for themselves, but also to benefit the wider world,” said Ser, who believes if wellbeing expectations are overlooked, not being able to attract and retain the next generation of legal professionals could be a result.
Freedom, trust and respect – the fundamentals of wellbeing
Instead of offering a suite of tailor made wellbeing programmes, The Bees channels its employee wellbeing strategies into a well-established company culture based on freedom, trust, and respect. Founded in 2012, The Bees comprises about 20 marketing services agencies, each with its own management team. “We try to keep things fairly simple,” said KK Tsang, The Bees’ Founder and CEO. “We work on the principle that creative people need flexibility and freedom to be the best version of themselves,” he added. Tsang pointed out that with a total employee headcount of around 120, it is easier for the group to implement freedom, trust, and respect philosophies than an organisation with, say, 1,000 employees.
While all staff members are experiencing some degree of COVIDrelated disruptions, one of the more noticeable impacts is not being able to meet in groups to celebrate birthdays or enjoy the social events the group regularly organises. “Most of our staff members are quite young so they are fairly resilient to COVID-19 health concerns,” said Tsang. However, for employees who wish to seek counselling, the company has established an arrangement with a professional psychiatrist service, which it pays for.
Flexibility and choices
Tsang explained that, before COVID-19 struck, the group’s employees already valued the flexibility of working from home if they chose to do so. In some cases, staff chose not to work from home, Tsang said. Employees that choose to work from home do so for a wide array of reasons – they may need to look after children when their domestic helper is on holiday, take care of family members when they are ill, or take their pet to the vet. In other cases they prefer to be away from the office’s distractions. “Managers and their staff decide between themselves what works best for the individual,” Tsang explained. “It is important to remember that people are different,” he added.
Empowering employees to be the best version of themselves also benefits the business because people tend to have a greater sense of purpose. “The more you trust people, the more trustworthy they become,” Tsang said. For example, people tend to contribute more – whether to their work, families, or society at large, which is fundamental to their personal wellbeing.
Named after the pollen gathering insect, which is renowned for its hard work, collaborative and communication skills, and sharing of success, The Bees operates a 3-3-3, profit-sharing system. This means that 1/3 of the profits go to the employees, “We have an opportunity to get this right and ensure that employees are working in ways that they don’t just exist in, but importantly, thrive in.” Dr Zoë Fortune, CEO of City Mental Health Alliance Hong Kong 1/3 to the shareholders, and 1/3 to the group’s long-term development. “We believe in being fair to our employees. It is part of looking after their wellbeing,” Tsang said.
Thriving at work
Dr Zoë Fortune, CEO of City Mental Health Alliance Hong Kong (CMHA HK), believes it is important the transformation is used as a chance to address work-related physical and mental health issues. “We have an opportunity to get this right and ensure that employees are working in ways that they don’t just exist in, but importantly, thrive in,” she said. According to Fortune, this is important not just for retention of current employees, but for recruitment and ensuring that youths entering the workforce are supported, especially as these are times of unparalleled changes.
Conducted jointly with management consulting firm Oliver Wyman in mid2020, a CMHA HK survey collected data from 1,500 respondents across 13 different industries. The survey found that the prevalence of mental health problems in Hong Kong had increased from 23% in 2018 to 27% during the first six months of COVID-19. However, Fortune noted that while the survey findings indicated mental health issues are on the rise, she has been encouraged by examples of senior business leaders in Hong Kong opening up and sharing their own struggles during the public health situation. “This is important for shining a light on the topic,” she said. “It allows employees to feel supported and know that sometimes it is ok to not be ok.”
Employees need to be part of wellbeing development
According to Fortune, while
organisations are showing a growing
commitment to take care of their
workforce’s mental wellbeing,
it can sometimes be difficult to
know where to start. She advised
organisations and their HR function
to treat the development of mental
health strategies like other projects
that need resources – they require
a budget and widespread buy-in.
It is also crucial that any mental
wellness initiatives are driven not
just from an HR focus, but also from
an organisation-wide perspective,
including at the board level. “Often
HR teams are the ‘front line’ offering
support to employees and yet they
may not have been trained in this
area,” Fortune said. Consequently,
support from across the wider
organisation to implement strategies
is imperative, to ensure that mental
wellbeing plans can be implemented