Employees report poor health outcomes due to pressures in the workplace, with deleterious effects on the future of small businesses as well as the national happiness quotient

A recent survey has found the vast majority of respondents had experienced a negative impact on their physical, psychological or emotional wellbeing over the past three months because of increased pressures in the workplace.

The findings from the second annual Workplace Wellbeing survey, conducted by the Employers and Manufacturer’s Association and health insurance company nib, found 91 percent of those surveyed reported a physical effect. Fatigue was the most common, followed by anxiety and difficulty sleeping.

A quarter of respondents said they planned to find a new job during the next year, with many putting flexibility, career development, regular feedback and wellbeing initiatives on the top of their wish list as they scan the job listings.

Understaffing because of skills gaps and the flu season was cited as one of the main reasons for employee disquiet, with people often working longer hours to make up for a lack of new talent across many sectors.

A man who recently left his job at an advertising agency said squeezed margins had led to the organisation deferring new hires in favour of loading the work on the shoulders of the people already under contract.

The man, who didn’t want to be named, said the stress was easily visible on the office floor.

“You can see it even in how people walk through the office,” he said. “Storming through instead of casually walking, red faces, nervous tics. I’ve seen really smart people who under such immense pressure turn into nervous wrecks.”

He said the pace in his old role was relentless, and in a senior leadership position he was forced to juggle many things at once.

“Catching up with after hours work was the norm. The main thing was there were no breathers in between, it’s always back-to-back,” he said. “And if you’re constantly in a stressful environment, it has a massive impact on work-life balance.”

After moving into a job in the tech industry, he was able to take back control of his life.

“In the company I am in now, it’s a lot easier to hire people and spread the workload,” he said – as opposed to the previous environment, where getting a new pair of hands on deck required writing a business case and proving where the extra revenue to cover another salary would come from.

“The financial set-up of global industries is to improve profit margins, and often the biggest place to save is staffing costs,” he said.

The survey shows understaffing is the main source of workplace stress, which EMA CEO Brett O’Riley said can go on to affect the feasibility of the business itself.

“Flow-on effects can impact an individual’s wellbeing, but also productivity at the business and its sustainability into the future,” said O’Riley.

He said the finding that a quarter of people are looking for a change should sound a clear warning bell for businesses to pay more attention to the wellbeing of their employees.

Alan McDonald, head of strategy and advocacy at the association, was surprised by the sheer breadth of scale of people saying they had felt negative impacts physically (91 percent), psychologically (87 percent) or emotionally (87 percent).

“I think that’s reflective of the pressure we’ve been working under,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t even realise it’s there until you stop and think about it and think actually I wouldn’t have reacted like that a year ago, or I do feel a consistent level of tiredness.”

He said the results reflect the pressure and pace demanded by the pandemic, although wellbeing had been an emerging conversation for a few years before Covid.

Lockdowns and isolation periods had also meant many employees had to shoulder greater burdens during the early pandemic years. However, McDonald said many had not had the chance to put those burdens down yet.

He said comments with survey responses reflected that both employees and employers often had to pick up extra tasks during the pandemic, and many are still doing them.

“Everyones’ been forced to react in different ways and do different things to keep businesses open or to keep the workplace going,” he said. “And many people are still doing the extra bit, perhaps due to staff shortages or absenteeism.”

He said it was important for employers to be mindful of how big each job might have become over the past few years.

“Do we need to look at job sizing internally, relieving the pressure for employees? Because finding employees at the moment – as I’m sure you’re aware – is really hard,” he said.

McDonald said allowances such as allowing different ways of working, back-and-forths between employees and management and clear paths of future progression were all ways businesses could retain their talent.

“Only 26 percent of businesses are effectively promoting internal talent,” he said. “Your staff want to see how they can continue to grow their career. If you put in that effort with your staff around career progression and career development and training and skills, they do tend to be stickier.”

EMA head of strategy and advocacy Alan McDonald said studies show people are more likely to stay in their jobs if there’s a clear path to progression in the company. Photo: Supplied

The association has launched a programme called FirstSteps, which McDonald said includes a diagnostic tool allowing employers to analyse their own businesses through a lens of workplace wellbeing, which has already had 72,000 users.

He said one thing he had noticed over the past few years was a change in the willingness of Kiwis to put up their hand and ask for help if they have a problem, something that would be rarely seen even just five years ago in the business sector.

“The key is having a heightened awareness,” he said. “Taking stock of what’s happened, being aware that these mental health issues are playing an increasing role.”

Ian Sargeant is the head of group and partnerships at health insurance providers nib New Zealand, which partnered with the association on the survey.

He said the way companies think about their employees has changed a lot over the past few years.

“There’s been a lot of disruption to the traditional way of working and a health crisis that has put people’s health and wellbeing on the forefront of their mind,” he said.

It came through in the survey with the difference between last year’s results and this year’s.

Last year, only 23 percent of respondents said they were concerned about the mental health and wellbeing of their family – this year, it was 56 percent. In 2021, a quarter of people put their own mental health and wellbeing as a real concern, while this year it had more than doubled to 58 percent.

“Where that plays out in an employment sense is companies are grappling with how to support a distributed workforce and thinking more and more about their duty of care and how they look after their people,” Sergeant said. “A lot of businesses are thinking about how they can be more proactive in their approach to employee wellbeing.”

Head of group and partnerships at health insurance providers nib New Zealand Ian Sargeant said it’s important for businesses to front-foot conversations around employee wellbeing. Photo: Supplied

The survey showed eight out of 10 HR or culture teams were looking at how to invest more in employee wellbeing over the next year. However, it poses a challenge for small businesses who may not have many people solely focused on human resources.

It’s a particular challenge for New Zealand, where 97 percent of all firms have fewer than 20 employees. These 546,000 small businesses account for about a third of employment and contribute to more than a quarter of the country’s GDP.

New ways of working have also had immense effects on the wellbeing of employers and employees, although it seems to be a sword that cuts both ways.

Sargeant talked about the murkier boundaries between home and work now that remote working is an option. He said on an individual level, setting those boundaries clearly could be a good option for workers wishing to preserve their work-life balance.

The survey found only a quarter of workplaces are embracing new ways of working well, while a quarter of people said change had not been managed well in their workplace.

The unique challenges of the past few years have rewarded companies that were able to be nimble and flexible.

And with rising costs of living, skills gaps and worldwide uncertainties not expected to let up soon, it seems those qualities will continue to be prized well into this decade.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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