‘The change in workplace dynamics will dictate the skillsets needed in the days to come’

We spoke to Preeti Dubey, Founder & Director, STRIVE HIGH Pte. Ltd, Singapore to understand the key challenges to employee wellbeing in the security domain across organizations post the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of mental health counsellors/professionals in alleviating these challenges, new or innovative strategies that organisations are deploying to combat the scars on emotional wellbeing of their employees and her advice to both organisations and workers in India to enable them to come out stronger post this pandemic.

Interviewed by Adeesh Sharma

Preeti Dubey, Founder & Director, STRIVE HIGH Pte. Ltd, Singapore

1.       What are the key challenges to employee wellbeing in the security domain that you've come across organisations post this pandemic?

COVID-19 abruptly changed regular work routines and pushed people to adapt to the new norm of working virtually from home. Though the trend of working online was already underway, and some companies had started offering WFH options to the employees, COVID 19 made it mandatory, creating a 'do or die' kind of situation for everyone, leaving many unprepared. Making adjustments at home to work remotely was one of the first challenges. It involved finding a quiet place to work and battling with a new set of "distractions" like a child wanting attention or a dog barking. What the transition also did is that it blurred the line between people's personal and professional space. People tend to keep their family life separate from professional life. Still, with office doors virtually opening at home, their personal lives are out in the open, which is not comfortable for many people. On the other hand, the caregivers and frontline workers who had to go to work, leaving children at home (due to school closures) without appropriate support and care, have experienced significant stress levels.

During my training, many people reported that the merging of personal and professional lives is confusing, affecting their efficiency. The sudden move to increased screen time causes fatigue and shortens the attention span, as staring at a laptop screen is more exhausting than face-to-face interaction. But the situation further worsens when the bosses fail to recognize the difference between 'working from home' and 'staying (on leave) at home.' Many people reported that they are expected to be present and take video calls during office hours, but when they ask to take official leave to do personal work, they are asked questions. Lack of clear guidelines makes it confusing and makes them feel overwhelmed, unfocused, and unmotivated. Some leaders feel disconnected and find it challenging to offer feedback to their teammates, especially if it is negative feedback or involves further improvement.

The economic downturn caused by the pandemic has forced certain companies to lay off a large proportion of their workforce. In addition to the consequences of unemployment for individuals, there are adverse spillover effects for those who remain employed. Studies indicate that when organizations make redundancies, it negatively impacts organizational commitment, job involvement, and stress among survivors. Another impact that this may have is that the employees might feel scared in reporting sick even when unwell because of the fear of being written off. They may not share their stress and concerns with others, which might affect their mental wellbeing in the long run. Also, working in isolation is becoming a growing trend, which might further deteriorate the situation.

Some leaders fear a decline in team members' engagement level with each other as people get accustomed to WFH. Already many HR managers report reluctance in people to go back to the office. Though WFH has been extremely advantageous for the groups dispersed in different geographical locations, the distance among them is reduced to a 'tile on the screen.' However, it can have long-term ramifications in maintaining functional relationships and camaraderie between employees as cooler-talks take a back seat.

Many people reported that they no longer waste time commuting, and their efficiency level has increased dramatically. But for some, this commuting time used to draw a line between home & work. With this demarkation gone, some employees find it challenging to disengage at the end of the workday, impacting their relationships. Even though people are spending more time at home, they are continuously engaged with work all the time, they are physically there and yet not there with their family. Drawing a line between personal and professional fields while excelling in both will be critical for psychological wellbeing but will require a vast metal shift!

2. Where do you believe the role of mental health counsellors/professionals comes into play in alleviating these challenges?

Psychologists will play a pivotal role in alleviating current challenges and, in the long term, as working in uncertainty during ambiguity is gaining prominence and becoming the new norm. As a psychologist, leadership consultant, and corporate trainer, I have seen a sudden rise in the number of professionals opting for soft skills training, especially Emotional Intelligence. This wasn't a trend in the pre-pandemic times when these skills were recognised as essential but ranked lower in the priority list. The situation has changed considerably, as I see more leaders reaching out for coaching and training in this space.

With the creation of the new norm, there will be a massive shift in the skillsets required for professionals to succeed. WFH, is here to stay, either partially or entirely. The change in workplace dynamics will dictate the skillsets needed in the days to come. It will be hard to maintain the morale and motivational level of a WFH team and keep them engaged in the longterm. It will be even more challenging to get people back in the office, communicate about the safety measures, and make them feel that their wellbeing is of utmost priority. Creating a climate of mutual trust where people are comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities and nurturing relationships in the dynamic environment will play a significant role in creating a sustainable competitive advantage. The psychologists will play a key role in accomplishing it!

3. What new or innovative strategies are organisations deploying to combat the scars on emotional wellbeing of their employees?

I can see that the organizations are proactively organizing training to develop their managers' 'soft skills.' Even though face-to-face training is impossible, online training has gained tremendous momentum, especially on video conferencing platforms. One to one, coaching is also gaining more acceptance. The most significant shift that I have observed is that the organizations are becoming more sensitive to their employees' mental wellbeing and are willing to invest in behavioral skills development. In the pre-pandemic times, I had to emphasize the need for focussing on training in the soft skills space; this year, my clients and client organizations have initiated all my client engagements for training and coaching.

4. Any advice you would like to offer to both organisations and workers in India to enable them to come out stronger post this pandemic.

The Covid pandemic has highlighted the importance of employees' 'psychological wellbeing,' like never before. Good mental health supports people to thrive in their life, work, and relationships with others, while mental ill-health can negatively impact these parts of our lives in a significant way. In the long run, impaired mental health affects employees' performance, leading to higher turnover rates and reduced productivity. Hence, the organizations must make it a priority to focus on the mental health of the employees, along with the performance aspects. It is essential to realize that organizational culture and structure, individual beliefs and behaviors, are intertwined - they influence each other and cannot be regarded as independent.

As the forced confinement has caused loneliness, it has made it challenging to manage the heightened emotions associated with work pressure and maintaining self-composure. This kind of 'emotional labor' in the long term will affect the productivity upon which their survival depends. Organizations need to build a supportive environment for employees cautiously and create a safe space to share their challenges. They need to cultivate a culture of socializing with colleagues and leaders to avoid a social disconnect. They also need to provide clear guidelines on the clarity of roles, goals, and tasks and support employees in maintaining an appropriate work-life balance.

Organizations need to recognize that the best way to deal with the change is to prepare for it, and preparation involves learning to develop necessary skills. However, learning should not be enforced upon employees; instead, they should be made in charge of their self-growth trajectory by giving them access to suitable training, coaching, or counseling sessions. They should also be given access to advanced skills gap analysis tools, including behavioral assessments, to make self-directed decisions based on their aspirations. Investing in the growth of employees will make them feel valued by the company, inspire loyalty and deep-rooted engagement with the company, and at the same time, develop a capable and productive workforce.

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