When lockdown ends, will your business be ready to start again?

This article looks at what some of these changes might be and what employers should be looking at introducing as part of their benefits package.

Increasingly, health and wellbeing in the workplace is being globally recognised as key drivers of socio-economic development and with the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on people, businesses and entire countries, the world of work will look differently going forward. Central to the discussion are the issues of people, health and risk. That is why for businesses, employee health and wellbeing has never been as important as it will be from now on. The impact of social distancing on organisations will be immense and the way businesses manage this will have a huge impact on employee commitment and job satisfaction, and then work, through to staff retention, absenteeism, and productivity and performance.

Whilst businesses and HR professionals have been slowly developing their knowledge and understanding of the psychological, social and organisational dynamics in the relationship between work and health, they will have to sprint to build the frameworks around the health and wellbeing of the future.

This article looks at what some of these changes might be and what employers should be looking at introducing as part of their benefits package.


Health and wellbeing will become a top business priority

Through COVID-19, business leaders and owners are seeing first-hand how health impacts work. Whilst the current situation is greater than any individual business, it is creating a far greater awareness amongst business leaders of the business imperative to be better prepared and have the health and wellbeing services in place that support preventable ill-health. With common benefits including virtual GP servicesemployee assistance programmes, mental health support, rewards and discounts, peer to peer recognition, health information and support.


Businesses will take a more flexible approach to work location

Even prior to the onset of the pandemic, employees expectations of their work experience was changing, with the growth of agile or home working as a contemporary employee feature. Data from the Office for National Statistics, May 2018 shows that the number of UK workers who have moved into remote working has increased by a quarter of a million over a decade to nearly 50% of the workforce.

Despite this trend, some businesses were opposed to the idea of letting their people out of sight and work remotely. COVID-19 has resulted in pretty much all people who can work from home doing so, giving all employers first-hand experience of this new world of work.

The topic of remote working comes with many caveats that need to be addressed through health and safety assessments and not everyone is able to work remotely due to the nature of their role, or they may not have a suitable space to work from. And of course, not everyone would want to either. The health and safety considerations that need to be considered are things such as the impact on mental health (e.g. isolation), musculoskeletal health (e.g. posture), being able to separate work and home to switch off and rest and many more. Finding the right work/life balance for people is important so that people can make the most of all the benefits that remote working brings without losing the invaluable person-to-person time from the workplace. But having said this ,there will be a swing towards remote working with it being seen as a standard work practice rather than just being a perk. Businesses will also see the cost benefits of reducing office spaces.


More businesses will introduce active mental health support

COVID-19 is putting into sharp focus how a lack of social contact, changes to routines, uncertainty, financial worries and other issues can cause people’s mental health to suffer. We are living through a new rhythm of life, which can feel overwhelming and stressful, and this new rhythm is likely to be the new norm going forward. So, for many employers this will be the first time that they have had to think strategically about managing mental health issues as they move into new working arrangements.

The challenge for businesses is how to determine what they can do better in supporting their people and what wellbeing services they need to start introducing or promoting more heavily. These services can include counselling services provided in employee assistance programmes and the introduction workplace mental health first aiders.

The pandemic is quickly helping to normalise mental health support as something that we all need access to, rather than it being a stigma to avoid. Businesses need to develop and build their resilience for managing stress in the workplace for the future.


More tech-based wellbeing and health solutions will be made available to employees

With the onset of remote working following the lockdown, sports clubs and gyms closed and so people saw a vast growth in virtual keep fit activities as well as changes in the field of health diagnostics, with telemedicine, incorporating virtual GP services, computerised cognitive behaviour therapy (C-CBT), and telephonic occupational health assessments.

There’s also been an explosion in the wearables market, with more of us tracking everything from our daily steps, to how well we sleep and how many calories we are burning. People are increasingly interested and willing to invest in their wellbeing in order to maintain and introduce a flexible routine of exercise and diet management.

From an employer perspective there is often a bias towards in-person wellbeing initiatives. However, from online health talks to online yoga classes , new technology is enabling employers to think outside the box beyond traditional solutions to help employees look after their health and wellbeing.


Work-Life balance – does lifestyle matter?

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has also set people thinking about their lifestyles both in terms of physical activity but also around diet. Working from home has allowed people to look at their previous working day and set more time aside for exercise due to the time saved in commuting. There is more focus on the media on the fact that being more active releases feel-good hormones that help people feel better in themselves and give them more energy. People are discussing their sleep patterns in order to get a good night’s sleep and they are focusing more on what they eat and drink as they know that this will help them maintain their immune system.

This is further reinforced by the coverage of who COVID-19 has been affecting the most, namely people with underlying medical conditions or those with poor lifestyles such as smoking, poor diet and poor exercise regimes. Understandably, most of us are worried about getting infected by the COVID-19 virus. This is therefore bringing the risks of a poor lifestyle into much sharper focus.


Prevention and occupational health the new future? 

COVID-19 has forced everyone to think about prevention of bacterial and viral infections. Public health campaigns are not new in terms of getting people to change behaviours like asking them to wash their hands (properly), to cough into a tissue and discard it, and to isolate when unwell appear to have had an impact. Whilst this isn’t new advice, COVID-19 has changed the way people respond to these preventative measures.

What this means for employers is that they will be expected to provide much more support and guidance as well as direct interventions around delivering occupational health advice in the workplace. New social distancing protocols will mean that this has to go much further than simply promoting things like annual flu vaccination programmes. It will involve active dialogue around ways to boost our immune systems to combat illness, cover issues such as following healthy diets, getting enough exercise, drinking alcohol in moderation, not smoking, reducing stress and getting enough quality sleep. So, for many employers it will require new thinking and new initiatives, rather than just expanding on some existing benefits of the existing wellbeing offering.

There is likely to be an expansion in the number of employers who want to procure expert medical advice, by using the services of occupational health providers.


Connecting people through the benefit platform portal

With social distancing to become the new norm over the foreseeable future, employers will need to look at how they can connect up colleagues who may be working remotely for long periods of times as the pandemic goes through further phases.

Employers will have to play a central role in harnessing social connection through the workplace. Benefit platforms are an ideal tool to achieve this, as they incorporate company branding, have built in employee communications and messaging, provide access to health and wellbeing, including virtual GP services, employee assistance programs, rewards and discounts, peer to peer recognition, health information and other support. The role that these platforms play in future is growing in importance as employees will be have a greater appreciation of the impact. We now have a unique opportunity to make the workplace a force for good by raising the profile of social connection and building this important issue into the fabric of the employers health and wellbeing strategy.


A greater focus on employers: duty of care

Employers and their line managers play a vital role in supporting their employees’ health and wellbeing as all employers are legally bound to ensure that their employees are not exposed to unreasonable harm at work, both physical and psychological. This covers all employee tasks and responsibilities, including health and safety regulations, which is particularly relevant during COVID-19, as managers need to help their teams navigate new ways of working, uncertainty, anxiety and for many, distractions at home.

We’re all unique and our circumstances differ, so our response to the current situation will be different too, but the key to managing our way through this is to connect with other people. Whilst it’s normal to experience anxiety around the potential impact of the virus, it is important to talk about how we all feel, as sometimes just talking out loud can help people get through stressful situations, causing a positive impact on their physical and mental wellbeing.

As mentioned previously, having a benefits platform allows employers the ability to make employees aware of the resources that are available to them (such as private medical healthcare, employee assistance programs or occupational health support) and communicate and engage staff with these benefits.

Line managers can positively (or negatively) influence their team members’ mental health as they set the culture within the team. The role here for manager’s should be about trying to reduce worries by keeping people informed of organisation or team changes and the rationale for decisions taken. They can also ensure that the workload is manageable by allowing a bit of extra buffer time to ensure a good work/life balance.


Does sickness absence recording matter?

The Coronavirus pandemic has shone a spotlight on how businesses record and monitor the sickness absence. Whilst business leaders need accurate data to make decisions around resourcing and continuity, they will, going forward, want to know how many people are off, for what reason (contagious diseases like COVID-19), their anticipated return date and find a way to communicate key messages to groups affected outside of the normal email system.

Unfortunately, where absences are recorded manually on an internal system (or spreadsheet) by the employee themselves or their manager, there is a greater risk of absences not being recorded in a timely manner (i.e. from day one), not being recorded accurately, or not being recorded at all.

The importance of timely and accurate absence records has no doubt been validated by COVID-19. We may, as a result, see a greater focus on updating, communicating and enforcing internal policies and procedures. We may also see an increase in the number of companies that outsource the recording of absences to specialist third party providers. That is why the introduction of benefits platforms is so key in helping to deliver the required communications.


Stakeholder management

In many businesses, there are a wide range of stakeholders who have an interest in or influence over the approach to employee health and wellbeing. Whilst often led by business leaders, owners, and HR, stakeholders include Health & Safety, Employee Relations, Reward & Benefits, the legal team looking after Duty of Care, Facilities and Boards of Directors. The on-set of COVID-19 has brought the varied stakeholders together out of need, some for the first time, to look at how to join up all the various aspects of health and wellbeing.


The Future

The outcome of the coronavirus pandemic will be a greater focus on health and well-being in the workplace, as employers and their employees start to navigate their way through both the physical and mental aspects of health. This affords a great opportunity for employers to improve on their operating models to position wellbeing as a top business priority.


Wojciech Dochan

Managing Director, Bravo Benefits

Provider of the SmartHive Platform

Smart Hive is an integrated, cost effective employee benefits platform that provides your employees with access to all their health and wellbeing benefits in one place. Talk to a member of our team today or book your very own demonstration.