Health and wellness trends in the corporate world are constantly evolving. However, over the last year, the unprecedented spotlight on public health has emphasised the need for effective health and wellbeing initiatives in the workplace like never before.
One of the most significant changes for businesses and their employees has, of course, been the mass shift to remote working. Ongoing research we’ve been conducting with global workers and HR directors suggests that this shift has had a significant impact on employees’ physical and mental health, as well as productivity.
As key milestones draw nearer, including the UK government’s roadmap out of its current lockdown, many employees will be looking forward to returning to the office – at least some of the time. But it’s important to remember that the way we live and work will be affected for some time to come. For those responsible for corporate health and wellness strategies, understanding the short and long-term health trends created or accelerated by the pandemic will be critical.
Tackling the long-term effects of sedentary behaviour
For many employees, working from home has eliminated any form of commute. Additionally, without the opportunity to socialise or exercise in gyms, many of us are standing up less, or finding it difficult to motivate ourselves to take regular breaks.
This increase in sedentary lifestyles can increase the risk of a number of physical health issues, such as muscular skeletal conditions (MSK) and obesity. In fact, when asked about their biggest health concerns while working from home during the pandemic, 43 per cent of 4,000 global office workers we surveyed said they were most concerned about gaining weight.
Companies must help to promote healthy habits, physical activity and wellbeing in 2021 (and into 2022) if we are to begin to tackle the health impacts of sedentary behaviour. Investment in proper ergonomic equipment (both for those working from home, as well as in the office) will be key. As will age-appropriate screenings or annual health checks, and physical health initiatives, including access to virtual GP appointments, exercise options, physiotherapy and other forms of physical care.
Mental health will become the main priority
This increase in sedentary lifestyles can increase the risk of a number of physical health issues, such as muscular skeletal conditions (MSK) and obesity
Studies conducted over the past year have shown an increase in mental health issues since the start of the pandemic. For instance, The World Economic Forum found a particularly strong link between loneliness during the pandemic and a high risk of developing mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and sleep disruption.
This is particularly concerning in the UK, where the Office for National Statistics reports that 49.6 per cent of Britons experienced high levels of anxiety in 2020, and one in 10 mental health patients have been waiting over six months for NHS treatment. Our own research found that 74 per cent of global workers felt their mental health had negatively impacted their work performance to some extent since the outbreak of Covid-19.
While the expected easing of restrictions may offer some respite by enabling people to be in closer proximity, it may contribute to further issues such as social proximity anxiety. What is clear is that social distancing measures and their knock-on effects will not simply vanish. Employers will not only need to contend with the long-term impact of the crisis on people generally – including higher levels of anxiety and forms of PTSD – but will need to plan how they can support the diverse needs of employees as they adjust back to a more normal pace of life. Employers should talk to their employees to identify their concerns, needs and any gaps in their care, and offer support such as professional behavioural coaching or self-help tools.
Technology will find its place
The pandemic has helped to establish telemedicine as a practical and convenient healthcare solution, which has had a huge impact on providers and patients alike. For example, at Aetna we experienced a near 180-per-cent increase in people using our virtual health platforms from April 2019 to April 2020, with some areas more than doubling their usage.
This transition has changed the way people think about access to healthcare and support. Consumers now expect digital access to information, appointments and advice, and this is being reflected in the wants and needs of global employees. For instance, when we asked employees about ways their employer could help them better manage their physical health, 69 per cent said access to physical health services through their phone would help, while 77 per cent said they wanted convenient access to exercise or health appointment options online.
This appetite for digital health solutions means technology will play a fundamental role in our new approach to workplace health. Now is the perfect time to reassess how technology such as health and wellbeing apps and devices can support employees’ whole health and work-life balance.
at Aetna we experienced a near 180-per-cent increase in people using our virtual health platforms from April 2019 to April 2020, with some areas more than doubling their usage.
Monitoring long-term health trends will be essential
The indirect health impacts of Covid-19 are likely to become clearer as the year progresses, but we know that access to in-person consultations has been limited over the last year. This, coupled with a widespread fear of becoming infected with the virus, means many have delayed check-ups and preventative care such as mammograms. In fact, according to The Lancet, it’s estimated that some three million cancer screenings were missed in the UK in 2020, and the situation is equally as troubling across the globe.
Monitoring the delayed impact of these and other factors on their populations will allow decision-makers to guide the right elements of their corporate wellness programmes. Enabling access to consultations and age-appropriate screenings and health checks, whether by virtual or physical means, will be crucial to ensure employees are getting the care they need when they need it.
What can businesses do to help employees?
As we transition to the ‘next normal’, businesses should make sure their leadership and line managers are trained and supported to meet the needs of their teams and colleagues. Businesses should also be encouraged to tailor their Employee Assistance Programmes and other benefits to tackle some of these trends. Benefits and workplace policies could include everything from flexible working, so people can exercise and attend health check-ups, to access to clinical support to help them fill any gaps in their care, to opportunities to speak with a mental health coach. Benefits could also help employees find support resources in their local community to help them balance their day-to-day lives and family commitments.
In order for programmes to be tailored to the diverse needs of a particular employee population, communication is also key. Employers who regularly engage with and listen to their employees’ needs will produce the most effective solutions and the best possible health outcomes. Creating a culture where honest conversations about health are encouraged, leads to happier, more productive workforces.
The needs of employees around the world have changed drastically during the past year, and the return to normal working life will lead to even more change. Businesses must keep adapting to these ever-evolving circumstances and, wherever possible, maintain a working structure and culture that not only provides effective early intervention and condition management, but helps prevent health issues from arising in the first place. ■