Focusing on wellness at work

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Melissa Marsh with Mike Sayre
by Melissa Marsh with Mike Sayre
15 January 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on the lives and livelihoods of people around the world. While some places are on the road to recovery, others are going to see ongoing public health and economic consequences.

Melissa Marsh and Mike Sayre are from Plastarc - a member of the 100% Human at Work network, supported by Virgin Unite. Last year they shared how COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to telework and below they share how businesses can focus on the future of work and wellness.

In many ways, there is no going back to the way things were, but that’s not all bad news. Disruption leads to questioning of the status quo - in this case, presenting an opportunity to step back and re-examine the relationships between workplaces and the people who use them.

The modern economy inherited many elements of its structure, practices and culture from the Industrial Revolution - the assumptions underlying these structures about the location and nature of the work are ripe for change in multiple ways.

10,000 Hours/Getty Images
10,000 Hours/Getty Images

One welcome development is that companies are now being asked to make good on their promises to put workers first. Employers (the good ones, anyway) are embracing a more flexible approach to work and a broader set of supporting benefits in order to enable people to care for their children and family members and to protect themselves from illness. Broadly speaking, organisations and individuals are learning to work in more flexible ways that support wellness.

Simultaneously, there is new urgency in the conversation about how to support workers who do not receive these benefits. In the US there is a spotlight on the employer-based healthcare system, which is being challenged by sudden mass unemployment just as the need for care increases. There is also more focus on mental health, which is particularly important as people cope with the confluence of employment changes, new stressors at home, and general isolation caused by lockdowns and distancing.

This is an ideal time to reset our shared frame of mind about work-life balance. The phrase carries an implication that work and life are somehow severable, and we’re now seeing direct evidence that they are not. Thinkers like Stewart Friedman have long said that striving for balance is the wrong approach - the goal should be integration. This will mean different things to each organisation and person because each of us is unique. One surefire suggestion is to invest in telework skills, which improve an organisation’s ability to function while also granting employees the flexibility to arrange their lives as they see fit.


The changes accelerated by COVID-19 could lead us toward a future of work that is more inclusive. Organisations gain access to a more diverse workforce when they are more able to hire across geographic and social boundaries - and being more diverse makes them more resilient. This will enable small businesses to leverage the benefits of remote workers that have been available to multinational companies for years.

There is also an opportunity to make good on the optimism that prevailed during the first dot-com era. Back then, there was a sense that the globe-shrinking effects of the internet would bring about freer societies through more equitable access to opportunity. When labour becomes as mobile as capital, this dream moves closer to reality.

Urbanisation has been accelerating for years. While this has been good in many ways, it has also left rural communities and small towns struggling to retain educated workforces and grow their economies. Meanwhile, many urban areas are experiencing housing affordability crises, with rent burdens increasing across the board. There may now be an opportunity to rebalance this dynamic.

Justin Paget | Getty Images
Justin Paget | Getty Images

The workplaces and economies of recent decades shaped the cities many of us call home, and the shift in work habits currently underway will reverberate through our society for years. While there are certainly plenty of challenges to come, the last few months have shown that people can be amazingly adaptive, responsive and caring. We are optimistic that organisations can learn from this experience and offer workplaces that are more flexible and supportive of their people and their communities.

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