In this blog Dr Jana Patey, a Visiting Academic at the University of East Anglia, offers key insights on how important it is for organisations to pro-actively notice and act on the changing needs of their workforce to foster higher levels of productivity, engagement, health and wellbeing.

How do we strike the right balance between wellbeing and productivity? Is it possible to deliver a good wellbeing offering to employees whilst reaching organisational productivity goals? What role can employee representatives play? And what happens when we find ourselves at the epicentre of the pandemic? When trying to resolve this puzzle, it is helpful to consider mutuality. From the paper published in The British Journal of Industrial Relations by Guest and Peccei in 2001, we know that working towards mutual gains involves focusing on and finding common interests and goals between employers and employees, whilst also acknowledging their differences.

The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the need for employers to demonstrate concern for employees’ health and wellbeing, and the need to notice, understand and act on changed employee expectations. These conditions open opportunities for unions and employee representatives to, for example, contribute to improved trust and communication, as well as to greater productivity.

Since March 2020 in the UK, employee wellbeing concerns have become more important than ever. Recent research findings from the ‘Wellbeing and Productivity at Work’ project at the University of East Anglia show that the organisations which successfully supported employee health and wellbeing through the pandemic recognised the need to listen to diverse employee needs and experiences. They addressed all parties’ concerns through, for example, engaging working groups or creating health and safety/ diversity forums. Purposeful dialogue between all parties helped organisations to learn and adapt. Our research organisations with the most advanced approach to wellbeing reported instances of increased outputs and employees felt valued and recognised as professionals but also as human beings and included in decision-making.

In a 2013 paper from the Human Resource Management Journal, Boxall offered examples of mutuality gains. For example, employers can benefit from a competent and committed workforce while employees gain opportunities for personal growth and development, fair treatment, job and pay security. A later (2017) paper in the same journal by Guest offered useful insight into HR practices that contribute to positive employment relations because they influence employees’ motivations, attitudes and behaviours. These involve investing in employees, providing engaging work in a positive social and physical environment, providing opportunities to voice ideas and concerns, and provision of organisational support. Such practices enhance wellbeing and make it likely that employees will reciprocate by performing well – mutual gains.

The pandemic has forced employers (we hope permanently) to shift away from seeing their workforce as mere instruments of productivity. After the initial shock, commitment from top management to health and wellbeing alongside the trust of middle managers in their teams and efforts to stay connected, responsive and supportive resulted in a number of companies adapting well to new ways of working.

When organisations were pro-active in noticing and acting on the changing needs of their workforce, this helped significantly in achieving mutual gains. Pre-existing wellbeing strategies and established activities underpinned and strengthened their pandemic offering. We followed the actions of a large construction company which re-focused their existing work groups to act on the pandemic concerns of the workforce and to share learning. One of the most successful initiatives to come from the workgroups was setting up networks for people in similar situations to offer support and advice to each other during lockdown. We also followed a small IT firm with an individualised approach. They used their pre-existing mechanisms for purposeful discussions to regularly check-in with staff, ran Q&A sessions and upped their regular meetings.

The companies with an advanced approach to wellbeing focused on communicating the need to prioritise wellbeing and make some work-related allowances. They were also regularly issuing pulse surveys, consulting their workgroups and wellbeing representatives, learning from mistakes and adapting their actions accordingly. This suggests that even in a crisis, compromising and accommodating changing interests creates ample conditions for mutuality to arise. This insight from research during the pandemic demonstrates how mutual gains can be reached when organisations diffuse decision-making on wellbeing throughout their structures and commit to actively noticing and acting on the changing needs of their workforce.

Dr Jana Patey is a Visiting Academic at the University of East Anglia and has research interest in health, wellbeing and affect at work, social relations and organisational psychodynamics.

For more detail on the evidence behind this blog, see:

Boxall, P. (2013). Mutuality in the management of human resources: assessing the quality of alignment in employment relationships. Human Resource Management Journal, 23 (1), 3–17.

Guest, D.E. (2017) Human resource management and employee well‐being: Towards a new analytic framework. Human resource management journal, 27(1), 22-38.

Guest, D. E., & Peccei, R. (2001). Partnership at work: mutuality and the balance of advantage. British Journal of Industrial Relations, 39(2), 207-236.

Acknowledgements: This research has been supported by Economic and Social Research Council grant reference number ES/S012648/1.