How ‘hybrid’ working may change occupational health forever

The new 'hybrid' working environment will create challenges for employers, employees and, potentially, occupational health.
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With this year’s long lockdown restrictions finally set to end this month, occupational health practitioners will be kept busy managing the operational and practical health and safety challenges of people gradually returning to physical workplaces. However, as Nic Paton argues, it is the emergence of possibly permanent ‘hybrid’ ways of working, and how this may change expectations and demand around health and wellbeing tools and support, that may provide a further challenge, and opportunity, longer term.  

The words “I went back into the office for the first time” have begun to creep into Zoom or Teams calls more frequently over the past few weeks, as UK workplaces gradually open back up.

Of course, many thousands of UK workers have been unable to work from home at all during the pandemic, for many varied reasons. Often ably supported by occupational health, they have continued to slog on the frontline in areas such as delivery and distribution, manufacturing and production, retail, education and so on.

Nevertheless, with the final lockdown restrictions ending this month (assuming the government’s roadmap holds) and the vaccine rollout continuing apace, for many within occupational health, thoughts are turning to what ‘the great return’ may actually look and feel like not just over the summer but into the autumn and beyond.

Increased focus on health and wellbeing

None of us, of course, can predict the passage of the pandemic, or what perils may be awaiting us this autumn and winter in terms of Covid variants. Yet, according to health, wellbeing and benefits consultants at least, health and wellbeing – both physical health and safety but also managing mental health and anxiety – will remain absolutely key considerations and conversations for employers.

As we saw in the partial return to physical working last summer, for occupational health practitioners probably the most immediate challenge will be – and is likely to remain – ensuring workplaces stay as safe as possible in terms of Covid-19 transmission. As well as testing, hygiene and ongoing infection control measures, the airborne nature of Covid-19 means that ensuring workplaces remain well-ventilated will be critical.

“I anticipate a lot of investment in HVAC [heating, ventilation and air-conditioning] and clean air and being able to keep windows open,” predicts Yves Duhaldeborde, senior director at Willis Towers Watson. There may also need to be a complete rethink among many employers about their physical work environment. “How desks are facing, how spaces are organised to facilitate collaboration whilst minimising risk. But there will also be a focus on encouraging people to come into the workplace to engage with activities that are fun and collaborative, things they cannot get at home,” he adds.

After the forced home-working experiment of the past year, the likelihood of a large-scale return to five-day commuting just to sit in front of a computer or of people hammering up and down motorways to go to a business meeting seems unlikely, at least in the short or possibly even medium term.

That said, many workers will only be too eager to get back into physical workspaces at least some of the time, to engage again and collaborate with colleagues and perhaps to escape isolated, cramped or unsuitable home offices. Yet, even with many by this point having had at least one vaccination, employers may need to tread carefully when it comes to managing ‘the anxiety of normality’.

For many, emerging from the ‘safety’ of the home office is going to be potentially a big transition and adjustment, especially at first. There may be anxieties to manage around the first time employees are expected to return to public transport, to potentially crowded city centres, even just to gather in a meeting room (especially if the ventilation isn’t great).

Practical mental health tools and support

To that end, there is likely to need to be an ongoing focus on practical mental health support tools – mental health first aiders (MHFAs), employee assistance programmes (EAPs), apps and resources, resilience tools and training and so on.

Somebody could be really anxious about going back into an office while others could be anxious about not being able to go back. I think that is something employers are really going to have to be aware of” – Debra Clark, Towergate Health & Protection

“Somebody could be really anxious about going back into an office while others could be anxious about not being able to go back. I think that is something employers are really going to have to be aware of,” points out Debra Clark, head of specialist at Towergate Health & Protection.

There may also need to be a significant rethink around our attitudes to ‘presenteeism’ – will in fact there be any tolerance at all in the future for that colleague who has dragged themselves into work to sit coughing at their desk?

Andrew Drake, client development director at consultancy Buck, argues that, as we come out the pandemic but also after the unprecedented experience we have all been through, businesses are going to need to be looking long and hard at what they’re offering their employees across the board. This is especially going to be the case in terms of health and wellbeing benefits and services, and how these align with what it is employees are themselves now prioritising about work.

“There is going to be a real need for businesses to ensure that what they’re offering in terms of benefits is now suitable for their people; making sure benefits are designed in the most appropriate way and deliver the right solution to the employee at the end of it, actually help the employee,” he points out.

“For example, after the year we’ve all just been through, if somebody is performing badly then you, as an employer, may need to be looking at much more than simply their workplace performance. Are they sleeping properly? Are they drinking too much alcohol, and is that what is stopping them sleeping? Are they eating properly? Are they exercising regularly? There is a recognition now that, because the line between work and home no longer exists, these they do both massively impact on each other,” he adds.

“How does it feel, as an employee, for you to work there?” agrees Clark. “Employees are looking for a much closer alignment between their employer and their own values. So it is going to be about engaging with them about the right things in the right way.”

Split between remote and physical OH support

Within this hybrid working mix, virtual as well as face-to-face health and wellbeing provision will remain important – and occupational health practitioners may therefore find themselves being pulled in two directions, to develop service provision models that work for both, perhaps simultaneously.

There may also need to be a focus on how people who remain remote from the physical workplace, perhaps now permanently, will learn about and access services on offer over the long term. “For example, where you might in the past have been sat next to someone who had a virtual physiotherapy appointment and told you how well it had gone, you haven’t got that anymore. So, for the employer, how do you now get that message out?” points out Clark.

I think we will see more around wellbeing benefits. Private medical or online health assessments are becoming more popular, as is critical illness and even will writing” – Sarah Robson, Aon

“I think we will see more around wellbeing benefits. Private medical or online health assessments are becoming more popular, as is critical illness and even will writing. There was a massive boost last year in wearables and fitness technology, and mostly among women,” adds Sarah Robson, senior strategic consultant at Aon.

With mental health and wellbeing support in particular so much in the spotlight, EAPs, MHFAs (and support for first aiders themselves), wellbeing champions, proactive and creative health promotion initiatives, private and fast-track healthcare provision (often delivered virtually) and private medical insurance may all become increasingly important ‘sells’ for employers looking to engage and retain employees.

Occupational health, as often the pivot around which many of these ‘softer’ health benefits or services rotate, could well find itself therefore needing to take on an increasingly important health and wellbeing leadership or advocacy role as a result.

New leadership or advocacy role?

As Matthew Gregson, director and head of corporate at Howden Employee Benefits, neatly encapsulates it: “Covid-19 has accelerated the need to rethink our ideas of what work/life integration and ‘wellbeing’ looks like,” he argues.

“Into 2021 and beyond, once employers have found a good hybridisation of work, engagement and wellbeing, they will be in good position develop their focus towards how these initiatives drive company performance,” he adds.

There has been much talk in recent months of the opportunity that the challenge and adversity of the Covid-19 pandemic potentially offers to occupational health and how, as Dame Carol Black has argued, occupational health needs to “seize the moment”.

The challenge, and opportunity, therefore for occupational health practitioners as we move through this transitionary period may, arguably, be twofold.

First, and naturally, it is going to be about how to manage the immediate return-to-work process and ongoing practical and operational challenges of working and living with Covid-19 as a virus that, in all likelihood, will now be a permanent fixture on our societal and working landscape.

This, of course, will keep most practitioners hugely busy in its own right. But there is a second, softer, opportunity that practitioners, if they can, should try not to overlook. This is how, in what is we all hope set to become a sustained ‘post pandemic’ working environment, occupational health can make itself an indispensable part of this ‘hybridisation’ of the workplace.

In other words, how occupational health can become the wellbeing advocate, the health and wellbeing ‘glue’ if you like, within their organisation; how practitioners can position themselves as the expert authority figure leading on and communicating the increasingly important, and increasingly complex and fast-changing, connections that now exist between work and home, engagement and productivity, sickness and return to work, and health and wellbeing.

As we come out of the pandemic, it is not just the workplace but occupational health that may never be the same again.

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