Employee Engagement Organisational Culture

How COVID-19 has impacted employee engagement and wellbeing in the workplace


Employee engagement and wellbeing go hand in hand. The equation is simple - healthy, happy employees are able to show up for work and bring their A game. Unhealthy, unhappy employees are not. That’s the gist of it. 

However, when you start looking at the intricacies of the matter, it becomes a lot more complicated. Especially at a time when an ongoing pandemic is sweeping the globe like a scary harbinger of Stephen King-style doom (FYI, in a super creepy twist of fate, the filming of a mini series based on Mr King’s virus novel ‘The Stand’ was underway when COVID-19 hit…).  

South African businesses, like their global peers, are doing their utmost to adapt to the social and economic changes that follow in the wake of the pandemic and the resultant lockdown. However, while everyone works to regain their footing and establish business continuity, the focus on employee wellbeing should also remain a priority 

Here’s why...

Absenteeism is expensive + COVID made it worse. 

Even before the pandemic, the South African economy was losing upwards of R70 billion (around 2% of our entire GDP) per year to absenteeism, of which 50% of these sick days are qualified as being 'excessive', i.e. that the employee in question was absent more frequently and for longer than would be considered the norm in their given industry.   

In total, that brought total lost productive work time in South Africa to more than 128 million days per year. Again, this was before COVID. These scary statistics tell us one important thing - employee engagement and wellbeing are not what it’s supposed to be.  

READ MORE: The real effects of absenteeism in the workplace 

Fast-forward to 2020, and the picture is looking bleaker still.  

The effects of the pandemic have placed a brand new level of pressure on South African employees, and it's having a huge impact on their physical, mental and spiritual well-being. This, in turn, affects their productivity, and the company's bottomline.  

What we know about the effects of COVID-19 and employee engagement so far 

Here’s what we know about the effects of COVID-19 on employee engagement and wellbeing in the workplace so far, based on research by the Society for Human Resource Management: 


  • 41% of employees are feeling burned out due to the effect of the pandemic.  
  • 35% are reporting symptoms of depression (lack of energy, feeling like a failure, experiencing feelings of hopelessness, little interest in doing things they used to love, trouble concentrating, etc.). 
  • Only 1 in 10 feel comfortable reaching out to employers and co-workers for help.  
  • Only 7% have sought the help of a mental health professional. 
  • 37% have not done anything to address their depression-related symptoms. 
  • More than 1 in 5 employees feel that their jobs have been affected in terms of personal opportunities, pay and benefits, job security, and working conditions.  


How employers can address these concerns 

In a follow-up article, SHRM professionals shared a few ways in which employers can start to address these concerns. This includes:

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1. Be aware of the signs of burnout 

Three million South Africans have lost their jobs as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The result has been that employees who were lucky enough to keep their jobs are burning the candle at both ends to show their worth. This may seem like it would benefit a company due to the increase in productivity, but in the long run, this type of overwork is not sustainable. People burn out, and then they leave.  

Here are a few signs of burnout employers should look out for:  


  • Increased levels of frustration and irritability 
  • Lower levels of motivation and more frequent errors 
  • Sarcasm and negativity 
  • High levels of self-doubt 
  • Fatigue and headaches 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Visible signs of poor health (e.g. sallow skin, sweaty pallor, etc.) 

TOP TIP: Pulse surveys are a good way to keep track of employee sentiment and gauge whether morale is being affected by certain changes in the workplace. 


2. Prioritise mental health and make resources available 

Be vocal about mental health and provide employees with resources to address any issues they may have.  

If your benefits plan includes offerings (e.g. counselling sessions) that may be helpful, remind your employees to use it. It may also be worth considering opening up these resources to their family members if possible. Alternatively, consider employing a counsellor that can be made available to employees in person, or via video chat.  

Employers can also offer guidance and access to online courses on general health and wellbeing that places the focus on eating healthy, getting enough rest, exercising, etc. 


3. Lead by example and put failsafes in place 

Managers and HR personnel should lead by example when it comes to maintaining a healthy work-life balance. After all, when senior members of your team arrive at the office at the crack of dawn, and only leave after 7 PM, this sets the bar for a very unhealthy status quo.  

Instead, team leaders should model healthy behaviours, e.g. taking advantage of flexitime by working a few hours at home in the morning, and then coming into the office in order to avoid a stressful commute during rush hour.  

Additionally, management can also put certain failsafes in place, such as restricting working hours in order to improve employee restfulness and productivity; and setting boundaries with clients by clearly defining and enforcing business hours.  

Check back soon for more expert insights into employee engagement and wellbeing in the workplace. We will be keeping a close eye on the effects COVID-19 is having on the South African workforce and report back with findings on a regular basis.

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