Large employers are struggling to align their responses to fast-changing employee expectations, creating important new opportunities for smaller, more nimble enterprises to compete – both in terms of customer experience and the job market. Best of all, out-of-pocket costs for employers are low, and the upside is significant.

As we wrote earlier, the disconnect between leaders and employees regarding the pandemic impact is widening. The immediate imperative for employers is to set aside their assumptions and develop a specific understanding of how their employees are faring.

Few companies have a wellbeing strategy in place 

An important ramification of this gap in perception relates to employee wellbeing strategies companies have implemented. On that front, the scores are abysmal: just 19% of leaders responding to a survey conducted by and the Harvard Business Review say they have a wellbeing strategy in place. This maps almost exactly with findings from IBM that fewer than 1 in 5 employees rate their employers’ support of their wellbeing during the pandemic as “excellent.”

What’s especially confounding is the fact that in the same survey from Indeed and HBR, more than 90% of leaders said a happier workplace makes it easier to retain and attract talent, and 87% believe it gives them a competitive advantage.

What employees expect in 2021

Additionally, the experience of the pandemic drove significant changes in what employees expect from employers. Topping the list: a sense of belonging and focus on individual mental health and wellbeing.

“Employees now expect senior executives to care far more about their mental health. Forward-thinking companies are responding by using data insights and staff feedback to inform strategies and decision-making at board level,” John Crowley wrote for Raconteur.

Notably, employees are demonstrating their willingness to act upon their desires. They are not paralysed by uncertainty. According to the “What Employees Expect in 2021” report by IBM, 20% of employees voluntarily changed jobs, and the top four reasons they gave for doing so were:

  • More flexibility in work schedule or location (32%)
  • Desire for more purposeful work (27%)
  • Better support and benefits for their wellbeing (26%)
  • Wish to work for a company that was a better fit for their values (25%).

“If executives want to retain top talent—particularly Gen Z and Millennials—they will need to understand employees’ evolving expectations, motivations, and aspirations for 2021,” note the authors of the “What Employees Expect in 2021” report by IBM.

Investing in employee wellbeing pays off 

A recent CEO study from IBM compared Outperformers to Underperformers across multiple dimensions. With respect to employee wellbeing, the difference was stark: the data revealed that Outperformers focus more on employee well-being, with 97% more of them than Underperformers supporting workforce health and wellness — even when it impacts near-term profits.

However, the same gaps in perception between leaders and employees highlighted above also exist when it comes to the effectiveness of the plans companies implement to address employee wellbeing concerns, reducing the return on investment and worse, bypassing the significant improvement in performance and engagement a well-received wellness program can deliver.

Perspectives on wellbeing program effectiveness differ 

Large global studies from both Microsoft and IBM shed light in recent weeks on the difference in perspective that exists between leaders and employees regarding the effectiveness of company wellness programs and their responses to employee needs during Covid.

The Microsoft Trend Index showed the disparity in perceived individual wellbeing, with more than 60% of surveyed leaders saying that they were “thriving,” whereas more than half of employees reported being overworked, and nearly 40% indicating they are exhausted.

The IBM study entitled “Closing the Chasm” found that executives tend to overestimate the effectiveness of the company’s efforts to support employees. For example, 80% of executives agreed or strongly agreed when asked if their companies were supporting the physical and emotional health of employees. However, when employees were asked the same question, only 46% agreed.

“The message here is that, for many organisations, sensing-and-responding processes are underdeveloped or just plain ineffective,” the IBM study authors commented. “If you think you’re providing a benefit, and the recipient of that benefit doesn’t see it the same way, you’ve failed. Employee expectations of their employers have permanently changed. There’s clearly more work to be done to deliver on the promise of comprehensive employee well-being.”

Where to go from here

Leaders need to recognise the impact the workplace has on employee mental health, wellbeing, and happiness. While these are three distinctly different dimensions, consider, for example, the effects stress has on people:

  • Workplace stress is correlated with increased depression and anxiety,
  • Stress also contributes to physical ailments, such as diabetes and hypertension.

To find the truth about how your employees are faring, and to identify any particular trouble spots within your organisation, we recommend the simple “AURA” approach:

  • Acceptance. Accept that the divisions in perception described above are likely to exist within your organisation. Even if you think your organisation is perfect, it’s still a good idea to check. It’s better to operate from a position of certainty.
  • Understand where your team stands and how the pandemic has impacted them – truly. Engagement Multiplier has created a short, focused “Culture Check” survey that will enable leaders to swiftly identify issues present within your organisation that are negatively impacting employees. (If you are not an Engagement Multiplier client, you can use this survey at no charge by clicking here.)
  • Respond transparently to your team. Share the findings with employees to build trust and accountability.
  • Act where it will make a real difference. Armed with the truth, you’ll be able to take focused action and resolve the challenges employees are experiencing.

Simple actions that can improve wellbeing 

Chances are the insights from the survey will reveal areas where leaders can take meaningful action to boost morale, reduce stress and improve employee wellbeing with no significant expenditure, such as:

  • Flexible schedules and hybrid work arrangements, to take pressure off families, or catering to new employee preferences,
  • Coaching managers whose teams are struggling more than others, and help them develop improved leadership skills and habits,
  • More clarity around the company’s direction of travel, and their contribution, to provide more certainty for employees.

There’s no question pursuing the truth about what employees think and feel requires some courage and bravery on the part of the leadership team. And “wellbeing” is a broad topic that’s new to many leaders. However, it’s important for leaders to remember they don’t need to be all things to all people. Focusing on connecting with employees, hearing from them directly, aligning leadership actions with employee feedback, and communicating transparently with the team will enable the company to make immediate progress toward improving employee wellbeing.  Utilise our new Mental Health & Wellbeing on-demand survey to assess your team.