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homeless man on street waiting for vaccine

BY Leo Hynett

Business

How Are Big Companies Caring for Employee Wellbeing?

From building relaxation booths to providing reset days, the likes of Amazon and Google are stepping up to care for employee wellbeing.

June 01  2021

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When you hear the words ‘employee wellbeing’ you may think of something like cosy breakrooms, or businesses that allow you to take mental health days or offer fully flexible hybrid working. You probably don’t think of dystopian mindfulness chambers in the middle of your warehouse – or maybe you work for Amazon and that is precisely what you thought of.

Employee wellbeing is something that companies are considering now more than ever. The physical health and safety of staff have long been the responsibility of employers, but as we entered the pandemic companies found themselves looking out for the mental wellbeing of employees more than ever.

As a possible return to the office looms on the horizon, some staff find themselves wondering whether they will continue to be offered the same flexibility around time off work for mental or physical health reasons. Though wellbeing is now being spoken about more, has the care offered by employers actually improved during the pandemic?

 

Looking after Googlers

Google has always prided itself on employee wellbeing, offering ‘onsite wellness and healthcare services, including physicians, chiropractic, physical therapy, and massage services.’ During the pandemic, Google staff – or ‘Googlers’ – were the first employees of a major company to be told that hybrid working would be continued after restrictions ended.

But how well have Googlers actually fared? Google’s wellness manager and resilience lead, Lauren Whitt, stated that ‘Covid-19 is something we weren’t anticipating or frankly prepared for from a mental skills approach’. The fact that they have someone with such a title suggests their wellbeing efforts were already off to a good start. Whitt’s team have created a series of resilience and wellness videos for staff to help them through the pandemic.

Google also recently offered a so-called ‘reset day’ where employees can switch off from work. This was done to help avoid burnout surrounding the pandemic. Though this ‘reset day’ is well-intentioned, the need for it suggests that normal life at Google remains far more stressful than the company would like. Google stated that ‘the holiday is tied to the pandemic and won’t be added to the annual calendar’ and the day off did not apply to the temporary contractors that make up approximately half its workforce. Once these factors are taken into account, the ‘reset day’ seems much more like a showpiece than an actual step towards companywide change.

Are ‘wellbeing’ efforts used to avoid bigger change within companies?

Our general lives have become infinitely more stressful in light of the pandemic, but even once this ends it is important that businesses remember that employees may still have stress outside work. Actively working to minimise workplace stress is vital, whether that workplace is returning to a physical location or remaining online. Keeping connected – as human beings as well as colleagues – plays a key role in this, especially if working from home is to be a continued state of affairs.

If a return to the office is on the cards then businesses need to ensure they address workplace stresses as opposed to simply slotting back into old routines. This is an opportunity to bring the open communication and empathy that has developed over the pandemic back into the office space.

Employees are no longer going to see the old office de-stress methods as enough. Some offices boast things like a ping-pong table to de-stress during busy days but then do little to make workers’ days less stressful (or even allow time in the day to make use of such facilities). There is far more to creating happy employees than providing perks such as free fruit and office breakout spaces. In fact, these things can actually have a detrimental effect – providing these simple wellbeing efforts can make companies feel like they are doing their bit without the need to enact actual systemic change.

AmaZen

Unlike Googlers, Amazon workers have spent more time working in-person during the pandemic than ever. The company has recently come under fire from employees and social media commentators alike after installing what it called the ‘AmaZen’ booth in some of its warehouses. These chambers supposedly provide a space for stressed workers to sit with relaxing videos.

The small footprint of this telephone box-like chamber is only a tiny fraction of the space in the warehouse and it is hard not to draw parallels between the physical space given to the wellbeing space and the amount of care actually given. The company has been criticised multiple times in the past for not doing nearly enough to fix working conditions and this seems like a potentially lacklustre attempt at combatting these criticisms.

‘During shifts employees can visit AmaZen stations and watch short videos featuring easy-to-follow well-being activities, including guided meditations, positive affirmations, calming scenes with sounds.’ 

Time in the AmaZen booth is meant to ‘help staff focus on their mental health’. To make days spent in the warehouse more bearable, the ceiling of the booths are painted like a blue sky. The video of the booth has since been deleted from the company’s Twitter account after it was slammed as ‘dystopian’ and ‘like something out of Black Mirror’ by other social media users. Part of the social media vitriol was undoubtedly down to Jeff Bezos’ profits from the pandemic as well as historical workers rights battles.

Despite these criticisms, this may well be a step in the right direction for Amazon – AmaZen makes up a small part of the new health and safety programme ‘WorkingWell’ they are implementing across the US. This caters to emotional wellbeing as well as physical, teaching everything from body mechanics to mindfulness. The need for this programme arose from rising injury rates among Amazon workers, especially repetitive strain and back injuries among its warehouse staff.

 

Summary

One-off days off won’t be enough to tackle workforce burnout, but the acknowledgement that it is an issue that needs to be rectified is certainly a good start. Though the AmaZen booth was met with understandable distaste, it too is a step in the right direction. Or, it will be, provided that this is the first step of many and not simply a token effort that won’t be followed through.

The pandemic has changed how we work and how we communicate within our teams, the transition back to normality is the perfect opportunity to change the culture around workplace stress and wellbeing.

About the Author: Leo Hynett

Leo Hynett is a contributing Features Writer, with a particular interest in Culture, the Arts and LGBTQ+ Politics.

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