From coronavirus to the social injustices highlighted by Black Lives Matter – 2020’s events compounded by the effects of isolation, anxiety and illness – has taken its toll on the wellbeing of 93% UK employees, according to a new study of 13,271 employees and 366 business leaders analysing workplace wellbeing.


The research led by Perkbox, the employee experience platform, revealed that 73% of respondents felt that coronavirus had negatively impacted on their mental health – with increased loneliness resulting from remote working and greater worries about financial security fuelling if not exacerbating current daily anxieties.


Curse of the young in COVID: loneliness and financial despair


The study highlights how workers, aged 18-24, are struggling the most with managing their wellbeing in the age of COVID; 31% profess to experiencing ‘poor mental wellbeing’ in comparison to just 13% of employees in the 55+ age group. Health and safety concerns, isolation and disruption to routine magnified by the likelihood that younger workers are typically employed in industries most affected by lockdown (e.g. retail, hospitality & leisure) add significant financial worry to an already heady cocktail of concerns that impact on overall wellbeing. For example, over 1 in 5 (21%) of 18-24 year olds rate their financial health as ‘poor’ compared to 15% of 25-34 year olds and 13% of 45-54 year olds.


Research revealed the five most pressing wellbeing challenges that employees currently face include:


  • Feeling ‘less connected’ to company and colleagues (41%)
  • An increased feeling of loneliness and isolation (38%)
  • Greater financial concerns (38%)
  • Burnout in managing work life and home life simultaneously (37%)
  • Sedentary lifestyle impacting on physical health (35%)


Saurav Chopra, CEO and co-founder of Perkbox, commented: “Wellbeing issues are unsurprisingly on the rise, not least because of the unique set of challenges faced with the pandemic. Although in the minority, it’s important that employers do more to identify those in their teams who describe their wellbeing as ‘very poor’ before this escalates into a serious problem. Making the wellbeing of staff a priority will be intrinsic to building a successful business post-COVID. People – whether consumers or employees – won’t forget brands and businesses who have failed to support their staff or customers at a time of great need.”


Mental wellness in the face of social unrest


The extent of systemic racism, highlighted by a spate of incidents that mobilised global Black Lives Matter protests, has had a negative impact on the mental health of 27% of employees.


While a third of bosses (in companies with 100-249 staff) admitted that employees were mentally affected by such injustices and social unrest, only 22% of leaders addressed Black Lives Matter within their organisation – raising questions on whether corporate silence may have compounded feelings of neglect experienced by workers who do not think their employers have done enough to support them during an already challenging time.


Further research showed that 34% of bosses didn’t believe having a firm stance on social issues was important (26% said ‘neither important or unimportant’; 5% said ‘somewhat unimportant’ and 2% said ‘very unimportant’), despite 52% stating that an organisation having a ‘purpose’ was among the top five essential elements for attracting and retaining the best talent.


Meanwhile, 17% of employers stated that CSR had in fact become less important since COVID – perhaps indicating a misconception that CSR is a ‘nice to have’ optional extra rather than a necessary part of company culture that engages employees and attracts new recruits.


Only a third of businesses reported to their people on diversity & inclusion initiatives and deliverables, while 27% did not think having a diverse workforce was important. Most alarmingly – 17% of smaller businesses (employing 50-99 people) stated Black Lives Matter movement had in fact made CSR less important to them. On a similar footing, the Australian bushfires, which ravaged the country at the beginning of 2020 and claimed the lives of over 1bn animals, made CSR less important to 21% of businesses (employing 100-500 staff) – raising the question on whether organisations of that size think they’re less culpable for climate change, believing it’s the responsibility of larger businesses to spearhead sustainability initiatives. Alternatively, this ‘detachment’ could be down to geography.


“Social crises and quarantine have largely given people time to reflect on what is and isn’t important in life,” commented Saurav Chopra. “And while ‘purpose’ has been a much bandied about term in the corporate world pre-Covid, against the current context, people want to shop with businesses that align better with their personal values and work with companies for the same reason too. We anticipate that CSR will be even more important for businesses wanting to engage, attract and retain talent in a post-Covid world. In terms of Black Lives Matter, undoubtedly there will be employees – especially those of a BAME background – who will identify very deeply with experiences of racism and be traumatised by the events and videos that have spurred global protests. Clearly there are mental health repercussions. This presents a crucial time for employers to check in with their team; to reflect on how – as businesses – they can do better, both as a responsible organisation that can effect meaningful change, and as a caring employer. With only 5% of UK’s small businesses are ethnic minority-led, leaders need to look outside of their bias – whether conscious or unconscious – to do more to improve diversity.”


How employer trust affects employee wellbeing in the age of remote working


While there are many published studies supporting the hypothesis that autonomy at work lifts morale, Perkbox’s study revealed a direct positive correlation between an employer’s trust and an employee’s mental wellbeing at work. Half of employees who feel that their employer completely distrusts them (in being as productive working from home as they would be in the office) currently experience poor mental wellbeing. Conversely, 61% of employees who felt completely trusted by their employer profess to having ‘good’ or ‘very good’ wellbeing.


Overall, 88% of employees feel that their employers have looked after them well during the pandemic, with many companies taking extra steps to support employees, including:


  • Checking in to see how staff are individually coping (45%)
  • Allowing more flexibility in working hours (33%)
  • Organising social meetings and activities to maintain good communication between teams (32%)
  • Providing access to tools help improve wellbeing (e.g. online resources, wellness apps) (28%)
  • More compassionate leadership / taken a softer, people-centric approach to management (19%)
  • Giving access to free therapy (12%)


In fact, during the pandemic, 28% of businesses implemented both emotional and financial wellbeing initiatives since lockdown, with a further 36% of businesses planning to invest more in employee wellbeing initiatives post-Covid.


“Autonomy has shown itself to be the key to workplace happiness, with academic studies supporting the idea that freedom from micromanagement lifts morale. So trust is really key to the success of such programmes, and our research supports that,” commented Saurav Chopra. “The lockdown period has been dubbed ‘the world’s largest work-from-home experiment`t’. Our study showed that a huge 60% of people had ‘never’ worked from home before the pandemic, but any employers who were previously reticent about adopting flexible working practices pre-Covid will have less reason for their reluctance – especially if they have made remote working a relative success amid today’s challenges. Although we think the office space is far from ‘dead’ in a post-Covid world, flexible working practices will be more readily adopted; if not it then it should merit serious discussion – particularly if the benefits relating to productivity, happiness and creativity is tangible.”