How responsible are employers for their employees’ wellbeing?

The pandemic has had myriad mental health implications.

Arguably, there’s another insidious epidemic running concurrently to the pandemic right now. That of burnout. Many are exhausted, afraid, depleted and depressed.

An Oracle and Workplace Intelligence study found that 2020 was the most stressful year people reported ever experiencing in their working lives. 85 percent said newfound work-related stress was impacting their home environments. 78 percent reported the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health.

And 76 percent said they thought their companies should be doing more to protect their mental health. Which begs an interesting question. How responsible should employers be for their employees’ wellbeing?

Workplace wellness is not a new concept. The global workplace wellness market was valued at USD $52.8 billion in 2020, and has a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.1 percent forecast from 2021 to 2028. It should hit $66.2 billion by 2027.

Thousands of varying sector verticals have sprung up to assist employers in providing employee assistance programmes (EAPs) to employees. And Covid-19 may have accelerated this.

Avishal Seeth, Head: Sanlam Umbrella Solutions, says, “Covid-19 has highlighted the shortcomings of not including holistic wellbeing as part of the employee value proposition. Increasingly, employers are recognising the link between wellness and productivity in the workplace.

“People are a company’s greatest asset and the best people are becoming a scarce commodity. Having a holistic employee value proposition (EVP) is key from a retention and talent attraction perspective.”

How responsible are employers for their employees’ wellness?

The pandemic has had myriad mental health implications. Before Covid-19, it was estimated that one-third of South Africans will experience a common mental disorder in their lifetime.

Now, Netcare is planning to add mental-health facilities to its hospitals as mental health volumes surge. Widespread retrenchments, layoffs, remote working and ongoing concern for oneself and one’s loved ones are all taking a toll. Boundaries have blurred between work and home life, leading to digital presenteeism - the burden of needing to feel connected and available around the clock.

Then there’s the question of money. Many are struggling to make it through the month, leaning on loans to replace net income lost.

Seeth says that Sanlam has seen members having to pause, cancel or cut down retirement contributions in the wake of retrenchments, furlough or being laid off. This has significant implications for people’s futures - which is extremely concerning in a country where just 6 percent of South Africans can retire comfortably

Employees are ultimately responsible for their own financial, mental and physical wellbeing. But, there’s no getting around the fact that happier, less stressed people are likely to be better, more productive performers.

Most individuals spend a lot of time at work. It’s in employers’ best interests to build on people’s personal resilience by providing work environments that are conducive to learning, growth and general happiness.

What can employers do to really make a difference?

Right now, employers are dabbling in several services - from offering gym memberships and virtual yoga, to meditation app subscriptions, take-out vouchers, and even small stipends to allow team members to rent hot desks in co-working spaces.

That scratches the surface and does make a difference. But, one of the best ways to empower employees to be confident and secure is to look ahead.

Helping people to know they are financially provided for post-retirement is one of the greatest gifts an employer can provide, especially amid the pandemic.

Seeth adds, “Employees get the peace of mind that they’re providing for their future selves. They get access to educational material, free proactive benefit counselling and the chance to choose a solution that really works for them. Many umbrella funds have also branched into ecosystems built to facilitate success and confidence for members, by offering general wellness services in addition to the financial

Going forward, the global competition for top talent - especially those with scarce skills - will continue to escalate. Employers may not be responsible for their employees’ wellbeing. But, those that take holistic employee value propositions seriously will be the ones to ‘win’ and retain high-performers.