This year, the change of seasons will bring about even more employee wellbeing issues than usual, fuelled by the cost of living crisis, as Imogen Cardwell explains.
Every autumn, the number of employees being referred into occupational health services increases sharply. At Pam Occupational Health, we typically see a 12% increase in employee referrals due to sickness absence caused by issues ranging from worsening mental health to inflammatory conditions being made worse by the colder weather.
This year, however, thousands more employees are at risk of becoming sick, due to the cost of living crisis and high fuel prices affecting both physical and mental health. One in four people saying they plan to keep their heating off all winter, while and many others say they will be forced to choose between food and staying warm.
Poor nutrition and trying to live and work in unheated buildings will generate even more physical and mental health risks, so it is essential that employers think about how to help mitigate these, and other, largely preventable seasonal health risks.
Create a psychologically safe workplace
Psychological safety – the extent to which employees feel safe opening up about issues without fear of ridicule or discrimination – is essential for a healthy workforce. Without this, employees will be inclined to hide any health issues until they become too sick to work.
The cost of living crisis
Many health issues remain more stigmatised than others, with financial wellbeing the issue that employees feel least comfortable discussing. According to our latest Health at Work survey, fewer than one in two employees feel comfortable discussing financial worries with their manager. Intriguingly, Covid is the least stigmatised topic, with more than seven out of ten (71%) employees saying they feel safe discussing this issue with their manager.
Part of the reason for this is that so much was done during the pandemic to normalise employees being able to discuss Covid, even testing and diagnosing themselves with it. Yet much more still needs to be done to open up conversations about mental, social and financial health.
Managers can help to achieve this by conducting new season check-ins with employees, to ask them in confidence how they are, instead of just talking to them about their performance and deliverables. The idea is to create a safe space for employees to open up about any issues they’re worried about or might struggle with going into winter.
Help employees create an individual wellbeing plan
This year, thousands more employees are at risk of becoming sick, due to the cost of living crisis and high fuel prices affecting both physical and mental health.”
As well as this, it’s important for managers to help employees create a plan to mitigate these issues. For example, if a homeworker is worried about the cost of heating their house during the winter, would they like to return to office working during cold snaps instead?
If they’re feeling down because they’re living alone, perhaps because their child has just left to go to university, is there a support group or other employees going through the same thing that they can meet up with?
If they know their eczema or asthma becomes worse at this time of year, would they like to talk to occupational health services about proactive things they can do to prepare for this?
In this way, by helping the employees to identify and plan for health risks, managers can help them to mitigate and manage these risks.
Signpost to appropriate support
To create a culture where employees feel safe opening up about health concerns and seeking support, it’s important that managers understand their role. This is to listen and signpost employees to specialist support, rather than offering their own advice.
Essential to guiding managers to do this is making sure they know what support services are in place before they talk to employees, so they can guide them to explore these for more detailed information.
Although these resources might be publicised on a company intranet, managers also need to know what there is and how to guide employees to access it, be this financial support, mental health counselling via an employee assistance programme (EAP) or a physiotherapy or other musculoskeletal (MSK) helpline.
If an employee opens up about a more serious health condition, such as depression or severe back pain, the manager should know in advance what to do. This might mean referring them into occupational health so that a clinician can provide both the employee and manager with advice about what the manager can do to support the employee while they get treatment.
Reduce the risk of colds, flu and Covid
The winter months are the optimal time for respiratory infections and colds to spread. In response the NHS is now offering free autumn Covid boosters and flu vaccines to those in a clinical risk group and the over-50s.
So, make sure employees are aware of this and encouraged to take time off work to attend medical appointments if needed.
With many people also looking to scrimp on food and heating to reduce costs, education on how to do this healthily to keep their immunity high could prove valuable.”
Following the removal of Covid restrictions over the past few months, employers should also make sure employees know what to do if they develop symptoms. In particular, the need to try to stay about home and avoid contact with other people for at least five days.
Consider what anxieties or worries people might have about getting sick with Covid again and what, if any, restrictions you want to reintroduce over the winter months, such as hand sanitising, mask-wearing or homeworking if people are worried.
Alternatively, if you want to adhere to changing government advice, make sure employees are aware of this.
With many people also looking to scrimp on food and heating to reduce costs, education on how to do this healthily to keep their immunity high could prove valuable.
For example, a nutrition workshop debunking the myth that you have to cook fresh vegetables or meat from scratch, when frozen and tinned vegetables and meat alternatives, such as baked beans, can prove much more cost effective and convenient to prepare.
Simple advice on the importance of wearing thermals and layers to trap layers or warm air, in much the same way that a wetsuit traps a layer of warm water, can make a big difference.
Employees might also welcome education about the importance of keeping muscles warm, to avoid the neck, shoulder and back strain that can result from soft-tissue and circulation problems when we allow ourselves to get too cold.
Take a whole-person approach
Few people are only worried about rising energy costs or only going through the menopause or only experiencing joint niggles and pains.
Most physical health issues are affected by mental health issues and vice versa. For example, many mental health conditions are due to social isolation and lack of interaction with others, while physical health conditions, such as musculoskeletal pain, can be made worse by feeling stressed and tense.
Social prescribing tackles both issues at once, by connecting employees with volunteer social groups. These groups can range from walking groups and gardening clubs to craft activities and environmental charities.
The idea is to prevent the need for pills, such as anti-inflammatories or anti-depressants, by tacking the underlying social issues for sickness.
The approach has been endorsed by GPs and doctors, so look at ways of connecting employees with social prescribing activities. You can Google social prescribing for your local area or where employees live, and even set up your own workplace scheme to support wider ESG objectives.
These groups can also support financial health, as most are free to attend and volunteer-led, eliminating the need for employees to fund gym memberships to keep active.