Coronavirus: lockdown ‘phase two’ may bring added headaches for occupational health

A tube station in London as lockdown restrictions eased last week
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Niggles, aches, pains and anxieties stored up during lockdown need to be nipped in the bud before they become long-term health issues. But how can companies, especially SMEs, identify these risks, especially where employees may still be working remotely? Carl Laidler offers some answers.

Increased investment in occupational health services is predicted by HR leaders as CEOs across the UK gear up to get their companies back to work.

A recent report from REBA and Unmind has concluded that more than a quarter (28.7%) of employers have already, or are planning to, increase investment in OH services to help support them and their employees during the current crisis and beyond.

About the author

Carl Laidler is director of wellbeing at Health Shield

While employers will need expert support to figure out when and how safely to make that shift back to physical working, reports suggest that employees have been storing up a whole load of niggles, aches, pains, anxiety and stress during what we might term “lockdown phase one”.

Whether individuals continue to work remotely or return to the workplace – or what we might now call “lockdown phase two” – these issues will now need to be addressed beyond the “temporary fix” approach that has understandably prevailed during the worst of the crisis. This is going to require cost-effective ways and means of assessment and much deeper collaboration between OH, HR, providers and consultants.

As Occupational Health & Wellbeing has recently warned, OH practitioners may find themselves as something of a first line of defence in this “new normal”, and potentially at risk of being overwhelmed as a result. OH will be dealing with everything from individual issues to company-wide solutions, such as access to PPE, ensuring social distancing can be maintained, and even conflict resolution.

Striving for certainty

We all know there are still huge and inevitable unknowns. Not least of these for employers is whether they’ll be liable if returning staff fall ill with Covid-19.

The only certainty in all this is that life is going to change. The “temporary” work arrangements that are now being put in place might well become more permanent for many.

A phased return for those on long-term furlough is likely, as outlined in recent guidance by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Although we’re all going to have to accept a degree of risk, employers will still have a duty of care to minimise all risks within their power.

To date, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has shown leniency around various statutory health and risk assessments, for example suspending hearing and respiratory tests and providing additional, practical guidance for display screen equipment (DSE) tests.

This represented a sensible and altogether more intuitive “think on your feet” approach during the mass shift to lockdown. For example: making it clear that it is OK to work hours that fit around home schooling and other commitments; stressing the importance of a dedicated work area, wherever possible; and the need to take regular breaks.

While the “we’re all in this together” effect pulled us through the lockdown phase, the bigger worry is that an aftermath of recession and unemployment will be overwhelming for some.

Stress & depression trends

The Lancet Psychiatry reports that Covid-19 hasn’t changed everything with regards to mental health but it has accentuated existing trends.

This is largely borne out by UCL’s population survey, the results of which are shared weekly with the government, NHS England and the World Health Organization. The Covid-19 Social Study shows that levels of anxiety spiked around the start of lockdown but have since been gradually subsiding as we get more used to the situation.

At the time of writing, the latest results (the week nine report, published 20 May) showed that stress related to Covid-19 had fallen slightly, while other worries about food, finance and unemployment remained stable. Anxiety and depression levels still remain higher than usual reported averages. They are worst among younger adults, those with a lower household income, those with children, and those living in over-crowded households.

For many individuals already living with mental illness pre pandemic, the inability to access support has brought about particular issues. Psychiatrists are warning of a “tsunami” of mental illness from problems stored up during lockdown. A survey of mental health doctors by the Royal College of Psychiatrists found that 43% had seen a rise in urgent cases while 45% reported a reduction in routine appointments.

Musculoskeletal trends

Meanwhile, we’re also seeing reports of a significant increase in musculoskeletal complaints. The Institute for Employment Studies’ Working at Home Wellbeing Survey, carried out during the early stages of lockdown, found that more than half of the survey respondents reported new aches and pains, especially in the neck (58%), shoulder (56%) and back (55%), compared to their normal physical condition.

Now, employers will have to consider desk-set ups at home if their employees are going to be working from home for the next few months. Interestingly, Google recently announced that it is giving global employees a $1,000 (£812) or local currency equivalent allowance to cover the cost of necessary equipment and office furniture. A total of 70% of its employees will be working remotely for the rest of the year.

While not many companies will have such deep pockets, the sentiment is similar for all. It’s now time to switch from emergency fix and make-do mode to longer-term targeted intervention mode.

One-size-fits-all won’t work

From an employer perspective, this translates into the need for improved engagement with existing mental health and wellbeing services. This was challenging enough for most pre pandemic.

Indeed, a survey of SME employers and employees carried out by Health Shield last year, in partnership with Opinium, revealed a discrepancy between the type of support employers thought they provided and the perception of that support by employees.

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of employers thought their mental health support was “effective” in contrast with only 57% of employees thinking the same. The same went for overall health and wellbeing support, with 51% of employers giving their support a top rating in comparison to 33% of employees.

Time to get more targeted

The only way to overcome such issues is to better identify support requirements and target interventions appropriately.

To achieve this, mechanisms should be put in place to enable individuals – whether remote working or not – to feed back to their employer any issues they may be facing before they become deep-seated. And in our experience people are often happier completing a questionnaire than they are speaking directly with their line manager or HR.

For example, our occupational health support services at Health Shield include a working from home questionnaire, which asks “soft” questions about the home and work environment, with a view to establishing work life balance, contact with colleagues and support from the line manager.

Once completed, the information acts as guidance to HR and OH. This could be something as simple as helping them flag to the line manager that a member of staff is struggling to complete a piece of work and needs support.

If an employee is taking time off sick with stress, an OH management referral or “stress intervention report” might be appropriate.

Armed with the results of this, HR, OH, their providers and consultants can work together to put in place appropriate coping mechanisms, which may involve signposting to existing benefits and services – such as the employee assistance programme, mental health app or physio triage – and/or it could provide guidance to the line manager, highlighting issues and making recommendations.

While uncertainty remains “le plat du jour” as we enter lockdown phase two, it is comforting to know that there are ways and means to get the right support, in the right place at the right time, wherever the workforce may be.

References
“Covid-19 and employee mental health research,” REBA, Unmind, May 2020, https://reba.global/reports/mental-health-survey

“COVID-19: returning to the workplace”, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/emp-law/employees/workplace-guide-returning-after-coronavirus

“Coronavirus: will it be occupational health rather than the NHS that is overwhelmed post-lockdown?”, Occupational Health & Wellbeing, May 2020 (June 2020 in print), https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/coronavirus-will-it-be-occupational-health-rather-the-nhs-that-is-overwhelmed-post-lockdown/

“Mental health and Covid-19: change the conversation”, The Lancet Psychiatry, May 2020, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(20)30194-2/fulltext
Covid-19 Social Study, UCL, https://www.covidsocialstudy.org/results

“Psychiatrists fear ‘tsunami’ of mental illness after lockdown”, BBC, May 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-52676981

Bevan S, Mason B, Bajorek Z. “IES Working at Home Wellbeing Survey: interim findings”, April 2020, https://www.employment-studies.co.uk/resource/ies-working-home-wellbeing-survey

“Google Gives Employees $1,000 Work-From-Home Allowance”, Forbes, May 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/beasleydavid/2020/05/27/google-gives-employees-1000-work-from-home-allowance/#6b3656444c04

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