The Malta Independent 25 June 2024, Tuesday
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Workers well-being – an antidote to Covid deprivations

George M Mangion Friday, 7 May 2021, 11:08 Last update: about 4 years ago

Following the Covid-19 outbreak, many employers noticed the impact employee well-being has on their performance and consequently on business results.

Due to the drop in business and the payment of furlough schemes by government, some employees (not state workers) became distressed and worried, and employers had to find ways how to accommodate the rising needs for empathy towards their employees. 

There is a growing expectation within sectors such as hotels, entertainment and MICE services, factories, language schools and some non-essential stores for employees to suffer emotional stress. In Malta, there is a growing feeling among employers that having stressed workers will not lead to a thriving workforce once the pandemic measures are finally lifted. We do not hear so much discussion about such problems from Castille since as a major employer, it has kept all of its 47,000 workers on full pay but as a gesture of solidarity it topped-up a wage supplement for an alleged 100,000 private sector workers.

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Still, behind closed doors, we hear experts worrying about a negative shift towards mental health caused by the pandemic. This is the elephant in the room. In the private sector, within balance sheet constraints, a respectable number of companies started funding wellness and mental health care services as new employee benefit packages. During the pandemic, it is a common feature that these involve paid subscriptions to online fitness programmes. Other measures, include instituting proactive policies like flexible hours and reduced hours' schedules.

These smart HR policies are slowly making their way to include regular assessment testing whether there's a fair balance between job loads and the resources workers have to complete them. Such deliberations contribute to lower levels of stress, anxiety and burnout. It is a no brainer that employers which focus on creating a more supportive overall job culture may find their employees more willing to take advantage of any wellness benefits and invariably produce more.

Ideally, workers suffering from mental stress caused by pandemic deprivations (such as curfews, lockdowns and quarantines) should find it easy to seek help and advice. For a fact, in Malta professional offices such as audit, estate agents, law firms, notaries, architect studios, veterinary services, among others do not qualify for furlough grants yet such professions saw their turnover shrink during the pandemic. Can you blame them for sounding their difficulty trying to cough up extra funds to support employees' welfare?

Logic dictates that for every business (money-permitting) it is always important to have workers who are fit, healthy and happy. For the better-run firms, they trump policies which disrupt a work culture that promotes health. Given that workers spend most of their adult life at work, it's no surprise that they want to be fit and happy.

Perhaps the "old" school in Malta, popularly creeds that promoting health is seen as a pricey initiative that yields "soft" results. Instead, captains of modern industry believe that wellness not only improves production, but makes money. Having discussed the pros and cons of wellness, let us now view certain options that help sustain such a state of mind. The obvious one for online workers is exercise programmes and/or methods of relaxation such as yoga and meditation.

The latter may seem esoteric yet studies have shown that meditation can induce relaxation. Last year, when fitness centres closed down amid the Covid-19 pandemic, many gym-goers were rightly concerned about how their physical health would be negatively impacted. For some, the prospect of working out at home may have seemed daunting without the right equipment and expert instruction and encouragement. Following these gym closures, the sale of virtual fitness classes, exercise machines and other at-home workout equipment started to make headlines on Facebook chats.

Employers that were once offering gym reimbursements or other on-site wellness benefits changed to virtual offerings, including programmes with live and on-demand fitness classes. Even in the near future when gyms re-open, people may still continue to enjoy the flexibility and comfort of at-home fitness. Live and on-demand fitness classes that tap into digital connection features make these programmes stand apart from simply working out alone at home.

Another concern arising out of pandemic restrictions is touch deprivations. Our subconscious is not so tolerant of touch deprivations and we all clamour for the time when normality returns and social contact is de rigueur. Few will disagree with the dictum that touch deprivation during lockdown is an experience which has its long-term harmful effect.

Touch deprivation has been examined to evaluate its relationship to health problems, negative mood states, sleep disturbances and stress symptoms. One may ask - why criticize the strict social distancing ordered by health authorities when such measures may prevent the spread of Covid-19 and its airborne viruses? Staying two metres away from friends and strangers has been practised by the entire population during the past 14 months. Wearing of face masks is also mandated even though the spread of the new variants (the UK, Brazil and South African) goes unabated in certain countries like India. The pandemic presents a unique challenge to societies all over the globe.

Although, in certain parts of Europe infections are under control, in other countries such as Germany and India, the outbreak is spreading fast. Prime Minister Robert Abela this week pointed out that by the end of this month, government will have issued a total of €455m in wage supplements and other assistance, including rent subsidies to help tide over the pandemic.

This additional expense has partly contributed to an unprecedented €1.3bn deficit and comes at a precarious time so close to the launching of a date for the general election. But it is not all doom and gloom. Malta like other countries has seen the pandemic serve as a catalyst for the digital revolution. We have all experienced the effects of this transformation, such as in the way we now order online our food, clothes, household goods and have it delivered to our doorsteps. Another major change is teleworking. A year ago it was the exception not the rule (although this was offered as a family-friendly perk to state employees) but it has now become the new normal for many.

This shift to remote working helps particularly those families caring for children at home when schools are shut. Striking a work-life balance is never a simple task and it has been made harder during this period as the common thread for furlough businesses that promoting health didn't necessarily add to the bottom line.

Research shows that there is a new trend in maintaining a healthy wellbeing for workers. Hallelujah... a trend that says good health is good business.

 

The writer is a partner in PKFMalta - an audit and business advisory firm


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