Ina Opperman

By Ina Opperman

Business Journalist

The conundrum of productivity vs employee wellbeing

Does looking after the wellbeing of employees mean that productivity has to suffer or can a good leader find the balance?

Leaders in the workplace find it hard to solve the conundrum of productivity vs employee wellbeing after so much changed in the corporate world and business sector over the past three years due to the changes brought on by the pandemic and lockdowns.

The pandemic altered the workplace dynamic and resulted in the introduction of hybrid work models that affect the way business leaders engage with their teams from a practical perspective as well as an emotional level that led to challenges that many still struggle to overcome, says Norah Sehunoe, executive head for human resource at Santam.

Research by Gartner, which reveals that most hybrid employees believe their direct manager is their most direct connection to company culture, highlights the key role that leaders and managers play in the new ‘world of work’.

Sehunoe says the way a leader responds to employee needs represents the company and its culture and manages employees will ultimately affect the success of the overall team and the responsibility should therefore be treated with the importance it requires.  

ALSO READ: Health and wellbeing policies in the workplace need to shift

Productive versus wellbeing

A big factor in the hybrid or remote working environment is finding the right balance between keeping productivity levels up while ensuring the wellbeing of your team, she says.

“On the one hand, self-disciplined employees do well with working remotely and can manage their time and workload effectively. In fact, their productivity often increases because they feel the need to prove they are working and producing results.”

However, Sehunoe warns, this constant “always on” pressure can eventually take its toll as they may struggle to find a work-life balance and begin to suffer mentally and at this point productivity declines.

“On the other hand, there are employees who struggle with the flexibility of working from home and may be unable to manage themselves effectively. These employees generally need more input from teammates and leaders and managers can typically see a dip in productivity when they are not physically in the office.”

According to the Sapien Labs 2022 Mental Health of the World report, South Africa is among the five countries with the highest proportion of respondents who reported to be ‘distressed’ or ‘struggling’. “From an HR perspective, these results are consistent as we see that mental health continues to top the list of issues that employees seek assistance for via company employee wellness programmes.”

Sehunoe says balancing the business need for productivity with employees’ need for overall wellbeing has therefore probably been one of the biggest challenges that leaders face in a post-pandemic world.

ALSO READ: How employers and employees can co-create a new way of work

The need for soft skills

The need to balance employee wellbeing with productivity has led to a greater need for soft skills from leaders. Business leaders can no longer get away with only being technically strong. A high level of emotional intelligence, in terms of understanding their own emotions as well as how they affect others and understanding their team members’ emotions and its impact on their behaviour, is now a critical requirement for leaders, she says.

“Leaders must be compassionate, transparent and visible while working remotely through increased communication. They must have a high level of emotional intelligence to manage different personality types and get the best out of them in a virtual environment. They must help team members navigate the intricacies of work/life balance so that the business and its people can move forward in the best possible way.”

Sehunoe warns that leaders should not set out to drive productivity but start by creating a space where people want to be. “When employees feel they are in a safe space and are valued, they become stronger and give more than what is expected of them. Once you create that space and culture, productivity will naturally flow.”

ALSO READ: Invisible burnout becoming a silent workforce killer

Leaders must be adaptable

Leaders must be adaptable and there is a great term for it: bounce-ability, the ability to bounce back from challenges, she says.

“The past three years taught us that things can change in a heartbeat. Resilience and agility are important traits for leaders who must make quick decisions and adapt to changing market conditions in real time. They must be visionaries and have the foresight to accurately scenario plan for what may be coming around the corner to lead their organisations forward sustainably.”

Sehunoe says authenticity has never been more important. “Leaders must be authentic and vulnerable because it is in your vulnerability that people see your strength.”

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