Living and working in an ‘age of ambiguity’

The pandemic is having a wide ranging impact on all aspects of people’s lives. From the massive shift to home working for many to the furlough scheme for others, employees have experienced a fundamental shift in the way they work and live.

According to a recent survey of workers, employee happiness has declined and there has been an increase in presenteeism during the pandemic, as the boundaries between home and work, which were once certain, have become blurred.

Blurred lines and a culture of presenteeism

The survey by Aviva, polled 2,000 employees in February 2020 and again in August 2020, finding that most people were happier before the pandemic and that a culture of presenteeism had emerged. Key findings included:

  • More than half (52%) agree the boundaries between their work and home life are becoming increasingly blurred – up from 40% in February.
  • The number of employees who are completely happy almost halved: 20% in February vs. 13% in August.
  • 43% of employees ranked their mental health between ‘very bad’ and ‘fair’, compared with 38% in February.
  • 84% say that they would carry on working even if they felt unwell.

A significant trend of presenteeism and the ‘always on’ culture was highlighted by the survey. The increased uncertainty and heightened anxiety has led to many employees working longer hours and taking fewer sick days. In February 2020, 67% of employees took zero sick days over a three month period; this increased to 84% in August.

Employees may feel the need to prove their productivity while working from home, particularly if they feel their jobs are at risk. But such e-presenteeism is likely to have a negative impact on productivity and inevitably mental wellbeing. According to the report “the ambiguity experienced is compounding behaviour that is detrimental to long-term employee wellbeing.”

Young people (18-25) were found to be particularly affected, with 53% reporting feeling anxious compared to the national average of 34% and 17% ranking their mental health as bad compared to an average of 11% across all age groups.

There have been changes in employee self-determination across the board and the main priorities for employees have shifted as they are increasingly looking for a greater work-life balance over salary – a trend which has increased since the pandemic struck.

Employer considerations

Most employers have implemented new ways of supporting employees, which has been welcomed, but the survey highlights that more needs to be done. Despite a majority of employees believing employers have made some effort to adapt, there is still a loss of motivation among employees. Just 15% of employees agree that their employer is trying really hard to understand what motivates them and only a quarter (26%) agree their employer is genuinely concerned about their wellbeing.

With research confirming a conclusive link between wellbeing and productivity – employees are 13% more productive when happy – no organisation can afford to ignore the issue of employee wellbeing.

Indeed, employee wellbeing was already rising up the corporate agenda pre-Covid-19 but the pandemic has propelled it further into focus for many organisations.

It is argued that a new partnership is required between employees and employers. Personal control surpasses employer control when it comes to what employees want and there is clear evidence that more tailored support, rather than a one size fits all approach, is required.

Aviva’s report argues that “now more than ever there is a case for employers to embrace the ‘Age of Ambiguity’ to support their workforce with their mental health, physical and financial wellbeing.” To this end, Aviva recommends five ‘employer considerations’:

  • Understand how they can deliver on emerging flexibility needs.
  • Personalise mental health and wellbeing support.
  • Create sense of purpose, clarity and autonomy in the workplace.
  • Prepare workers for fuller working lives and the transition from work to retirement.
  • Create more targeted interventions by understanding personality types.

Towards a happier future

As all personality types were found to desire flexibility, it is suggested that prioritising employee wellbeing as a ‘need to have’ rather than a ‘nice to have’ and incorporating flexibility into working life could be a way forward for businesses when it comes to recruiting and retaining the best workers.

The ‘age of ambiguity’ could be the perfect opportunity for businesses to make the necessary changes to support their employees, helping them to improve their physical, mental and financial wellbeing – for mutual benefit.

The pandemic has thrust the world of work into a period of intense change and uncertainty, but many of the trends were already underway, particularly the shift in employee outlook. Employees’ desire for flexibility continues to grow as they seek a better work-life balance and there is no sign of this abating. The Aviva survey has shone a spotlight on this trend and suggests that “employers who embrace their employees’ desire for long term flexibility will see the benefit of a healthier and happier workforce” – leading to a happier future for all.


Enjoyed reading this? Why not take a look at some of our previous posts on working conditions:

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