This year The World Happiness Report (WHR) focused its findings on the COVID-19 pandemic. The results were both startling yet unsurprising. By measuring the weekly happiness of 2,000+ people every week, they found the following:
When COVID hit in March 2020:
- It caused a 30% drop in employees’ weekly happiness
- It took 13 weeks for scores to get near pre-pandemic levels, but they were still 10% lower
- It sent scores down by a further 20% in the second wave.
This feels validating or at least familiar. However, when we measure the weekly data from our Friday Pulse clients against the WHR, we see a stark contrast. Companies that put wellbeing front and centre bounced back to pre-pandemic levels in just three weeks. They didn’t experience a second dip and ended the year with happiness scores 20% higher. In short, they’ve navigated a stronger way through the pandemic.
COVID-19 has been a massive setback for every business everywhere. Over the last year, we’ve been tracking how companies with a wellbeing focus have been doing, periodically publishing articles with updates. Despite our best efforts, we were only able to make educated guesses at how well (or poorly) companies were faring. With the WHR, we now have a benchmark and can finally see how a focus on wellbeing can make a real difference.
In essence, companies that look after their people are doing significantly better than their peers. While they faced the same challenges, they displayed more resilience. Specifically, they bounced back 4x quicker from the first wave and completely avoided the second.
The World Happiness Report Findings
Throughout 2020 the UK polling company YouGov have been asking a representative sample of 2,000 people how they have felt each week – what they call tracking the “mood of the nation”. Like everyone else they didn’t know a global pandemic was about to hit but, graphically, their data shows how it has impacted people.
COVID-19 dramatically affected the happiness levels of workers. The first wave of COVID in March 2020 resulted in a huge dip in weekly happiness. Undoubtedly, this was due to high levels of anxiety over COVID coupled with the sudden disruptions to how we work. There was then a slow, 13-week recovery back towards near pre-pandemic levels of worker happiness with a second fall as restrictions continued.
When we compare the same timeline with Friday Pulse weekly happiness data, our clients reported:
- An 18% drop in their weekly happiness scores in March 2020, compared to a 30% drop reported by the WHR for white-collar workers
- A return to 90% of pre-pandemic happiness levels in just 3 weeks, compared to 13 weeks
- End of year employee happiness levels were 20% higher with 47 weeks at (or above) 90% of their pre-pandemic happiness levels, compared to 20 weeks reported by the WHR.
This is resilience-in-action, showing both bounce-back and absorption.
The second wave of lockdown proved particularly revealing. While the rest of the UK’s white-collar population experienced a steady decline in their happiness scores, our group of wellbeing-focused companies displayed remarkable resilience by maintaining their happiness levels.
Dr Jan Emmanuel De Neve, one of the writers of the WHR and director of the Wellbeing Research Centre at Oxford University, said, “‘What gets measured gets done.’ Companies that care enough about the wellbeing of their employees to be pulsing it regularly had their staff cope much better with the fallout of the pandemic. Even putting aside the direct links between employee wellbeing and performance, COVID revealed which companies were better than others at helping their employees navigate the difficulties of the pandemic. They were the ones best at relieving employee stress.”
What does it all mean?
Companies that focus on wellbeing and track happiness scores did experience a major setback when the pandemic first hit and their scores over the whole year were significantly 6% lower than the previous year. However, the YouGov data shows they have fared much better than the general population of white-collar workers whose scores were on average 16% lower over the whole year.
I estimate that this suppression of employee wellbeing across the whole working population has resulted in a loss of productivity of approx. £3,000 ($5,000) per employee. For a 200-person organization (roughly the average size of a business in the UK & USA), this represents a loss of over £600,000 ($1m) per year.
The group of wellbeing-focused businesses were not totally immune to the pandemic, but my estimate puts their lost productivity at £1,200 ($2,000) per employee over the year. In other words, businesses could have saved further losses of £1,800 ($3,000) per employee.
When we take these numbers to the UK economy of 30million employees, a wellbeing focus could have added £52billion to the UK economy. The US workforce is 4x as large with about 120million workers meaning a wellbeing focus there could have added approximately $360billion to the economy.
A small investment in people’s wellbeing can drive significant financial benefit and improve a nation’s productivity.
How do you invest in your people’s wellbeing?
It doesn’t have to be a big lavish party (that’s definitely out of the question right now!) or investing in an office gym. It’s an effort of time and focus, rather than money. Companies who monitor happiness scores and support employee wellbeing can reap huge dividends (pandemic or not).
Hold weekly meetings to discuss what went well and didn’t go well in the previous week. These meetings allow for team members to connect, despite remote working conditions.
Discuss emotions and happiness data
Leaders need to listen to their people and make changes. These discussions create an accepting environment of how everyone’s experiences of the pandemic are unique, as much as they are similar.
Celebrate wins and express gratitude
By focusing on celebrations and expressing gratitude to team members people focus on how far they’ve come and what they’ve accomplished, rather than the difficult journey and its shortcomings.
Care for each other
Encourage teams to talk about how they can support each other. By doing this, teams can learn from one another and create a culture of self-care.
Wellbeing-focused companies follow these strategies and track their weekly happiness scores through the use of platforms like Friday Pulse. This happiness data enables them to respond and adapt.
A pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint
Although the phrase “we’re all in this together” is true, how we all come out of the pandemic will differ. The release of WHR’s data is revealing and shows us the benefits of wellbeing. Companies could have avoided a second COVID setback and recovered quicker.
While universal setbacks are unusual, it’s not unusual for a company to face challenges. Friday Pulse has been able to help many companies through COVID and other corporate setbacks. And, we’d love to help you and your organization.
– – –
 The % drop is compared to pre-pandemic levels.
 In order to make as fair a comparison as possible we have re-calibrated both sets of data as a % of their pre-pandemic means. Note that in the YouGov survey the pre-pandemic average was 51% of white-collar workers responding that they were happy last week whereas in the group of Friday Pulse clients 68% of their employees responded happy or very happy last week. The questions are asked in different contexts so whilst it is highly likely the employees in this group of organisations are happier on a weekly basis, by only making a comparison to the pre-pandemic averages we are making more modest claims and are on stronger ground statistically to make the comparisons. As an indication of the scale of these drops, they are of the of the order of 6-7 standard deviations below the mean – the word “unprecedented” is entirely appropriate here.