Employers are spending thousands of dollars on gifts, prizes and incentives to counteract the depressing effect of lockdown blues on their staff. Jane Phare reports.
Andy Gray and his wife Katie have never known anything like it. They started their Whangarei-based gift company, Giftbox Boutique, five years ago planning to grow the business slowly. Instead it's booming, thrust into rapid growth by the appearance of Covid-19 which forced workers to stay at home and bosses to worry about how to motivate them.
Business picked up markedly during last year's lockdowns and remained steady after that as companies made an effort to reassure and thank staff.
"I guess there's been a lot of companies that have been a lot busier as well so that's put staff under pressure. And then with this particular lockdown, things been absolutely crazy for us," Andy Gray says.
Some companies have placed orders worth $50,000, and the orders are still coming in.
Business owners talk with each other, he says, and they pass on the idea about how to motivate staff.
Others in the gift industry are equally busy receiving orders from businesses for between 50 and 200 gift boxes. "It's a message to say 'hold on, hold tight, everything's going to be okay,'" Gray says.
Carin Hercock, managing director of French-based research company Ipsos New Zealand, sent personalised gift boxes to her 30 staff in Auckland and Wellington after noticing a flattening of the mood in video meetings.
"There was just this one particular day where it just felt like everyone was at the end of their tether," she says. "They just seem to be finding it that much harder and it just felt really important that we acknowledged that, and did something to try and brighten up their day."
The company also gave each staff member an extra day of paid leave in October and two days in January.
"The idea is to give them some time when they can actually enjoy it because a lot of people are having to take leave to look after kids during lockdown. We wanted to give them a little bit of a holiday later on when hopefully they can enjoy it."
Like other employers Hercock says staff seemed to cope better with the 2020 lockdowns. "It was a new and uniting kind of time. People felt if we all hunker down we will get through this."
Hercock says it's important for employers to recognise what their staff are going through working from home.
"We're actually asking them to take our business into their homes. We're invading their personal space and making our business part of it. It's quite a big ask and we need to reflect that we appreciate that," she says.
"The boundaries have blurred and you can't pack up from your work day and leave it behind like you're leaving the office."
Aware of some of the personal pressures his staff have been under, Auckland Business Chamber CEO Michael Barnett makes a point a keeping in touch with them so that he can get to know their back stories. He's also been organising fruit and vegetable boxes that staff can collect from the company carpark.
The staff at Invenco, a company that makes self-service payment machines, get together on Friday afternoons for an online fancy dress and quiz session. Chief people officer Rebecca McKaskell says all the 200 staff are invited to dress up and join in.
Engineers and programmers wearing pink and green wigs compete against other staff for $50 prizes in the various quiz sections. McKaskell says because the programmes and engineers tend to win, joke prizes have been added including prizes for causing the biggest laugh and the best dressed.
With many staff working at home by themselves, the quiz evening is a way of connecting with the office in a light-hearted way, she says.
Hercock says her staff had been talking to colleagues in the company's Australian offices and witnessing very long lockdowns in Sydney and Melbourne.
"I think people entered this lockdown not knowing how it was going to end. That's made it harder for them."
Her staff were "chuffed" to get the gift boxes, she says.
"They sent me lovely messages about how it made them feel, getting something that was a surprise and that in turn made me feel really nice. It brightened up my day."
Andy and Katie Gray took on additional staff when orders flooded in during last year's lockdown. Now they're up to 29 staff to cope with a 300 per cent increase in business in recent weeks, with plans to have 40 by Christmas.
Some of their team have been working 10 to 12-hour days to keep up with demand, sending out 800 boxes a day. Depending on the budget and the size of the company, employers send out a range of gifts including The Chocoholic ($45), the Thankyou Very Much ($100) and The Ultimate Indulgence ($200).
"I don't think the value really matters, I think it's the thought that counts," Andy Gray says.
Surge of calls from employees wanting help
Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) company Benestar has experienced a surge of calls for counselling support from employees during the latest lockdown. Benestar counsellor Lily Olsen says the company dealt with more than 800 calls last month from employees accessing their company's free EAP counselling.
"The numbers of people needing support have gone up so much. We've had our busiest weeks because people are struggling with lockdown."
Olsen, too, thinks people coped better with lockdown the first time round.
"Now there's almost a sense of hopelessness. It's like 'well, how long is this going to happen for?'"
The Benestar counsellors have noticed an increasing number of employees experience what Olsen describes as a "feeling of languishing" rather than severe depression.
"It's that feeling of not really enjoying life so much, and just not feeling yourself because of these drastic changes that have happened."
Business owners and managers need to check in regularly with their staff to make sure they are coping and to be aware of any behavioural changes, she says.
"Take the time to notice if somebody's not engaging in things as they would usually. Has there been an issue with the amount of work that they're producing?"
Rather than assuming they're being lazy because they're working from home, there could be other reasons.
"In reality they could be really struggling and they just don't know how to reach out."
Many staff are living and working on their own, and lack social interaction, Olsen says.
"As humans, we're social creatures and for many of us our roles require us to be very social."
It is important for employers with an EAP service to remind staff they can speak to a trained counsellor at any time free of charge, she says.
"It's literally a service that is sitting there waiting to be used and sometimes all it takes is just one session with a counsellor."