The massive, perhaps permanent, changes wrought on the workplace by the pandemic mean we are now in uncharted waters when it comes to health and wellbeing, argues Matthew Bergmann-Smith. Occupational health practitioners should make 2022 the year they articulate and embed a new approach to employee health.
Before 2019, many employers were comfortably complacent that their workforce would be generally present and productive enough to keep their business going.
Absence management was a perennial challenge. Yet there was an equilibrium of sorts, as managers and their HR partners juggled normal sickness and injury absence, referring staff for occupational health support according to their capabilities.
Most employers strove to support staff as best possible, meeting their duty of care for their health, safety, and wellbeing.
Then the pandemic changed the world.
Still wrestling with the new
The Covid-19 pandemic brought successive challenges for employers of all sizes. Absences related to Covid multiplied. Managers struggled to keep pace with those off not just with infection but isolation or family care.
Future of OH
Knowing who was off and why, and when they might return to work, became a huge jigsaw puzzle.
Working from home became a sudden norm, so HR and OH scrambled to support employees, assess, and manage risks.
Office managers frantically rolled out infection controls to protect staff in offices and other workplaces. Testing responsibilities landed on employers, who then had to grapple with how on earth to manage test results.
As Deloitte argued at the end of 2020: “Organisations suddenly found themselves called upon to prioritise workers’ physical and mental wellbeing as a matter of survival, as protecting their health and alleviating their stress became critical to operations. Work and life, health, safety, and wellbeing became inseparable.”
Many organisational leaders are realising that business health is now intrinsically connected to employee health. It has become a business-critical issue, more often discussed around boardroom tables than ever before.
Executive leaders, HR leaders, and occupational health professionals have all adapted, learned, and worked incredibly hard to keep pace in the pandemic. Even now that many workers have returned to workplaces, knowing who is in work, fit for work, why they are not, or how to keep them in work, has never been as key to business continuity.
Many hurdles have been met, but still more are coming – the unknown impacts of the Omicron variant among them.
Ten ways to forge a new employee health landscape
Recent years have set the scene for a very different employee health landscape in 2022 and beyond. Here, then, we outline 10 factors that we believe all employers should bear in mind as they shape their strategies.
1. Maintain or strengthen workplace vigilance and testing. There is clear and increasing evidence that double-vaccinated individuals can still catch and transmit the virus. It is also likely to be true for those who have received booster doses.
Long Covid will not only drive demand for OH support and work adjustments, but some sufferers may have long-term sickness absences. Many may not return to the workforce.”
Very early Omicron indicators suggest reinfection risks may be rising. Continued workplace vigilance to minimise infection is essential. So is engaging staff to test regularly, and act responsibly if they have Covid symptoms to avoid presenteeism.
The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE’s) continuing guidance on workplace safety is an essential reference. Strong engagement and tight return to work management by line managers is equally critical, and processes to mitigate infection risk remain as important as ever.
After ending free workplace LFT test supplies for employers, government now asks them either to set up their own workplace testing or utilise an approved provider using guidance available here.
2. Support employees through long Covid impacts. Long Covid is a significant and growing problem, with one Oxford study suggesting that 37% of infections can lead to symptoms that last more than three months.
Fatigue is among the most common long Covid symptoms being monitored by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which can have direct impact far beyond productivity. While employers are now quite tuned into Covid-related absences, unrecognised or undeclared long Covid is likely to be a significant sick presence issue in 2022.
It may generate complex challenges especially for those in safety critical or decision critical roles. Long Covid will not only drive demand for OH support and work adjustments, but some sufferers may have long-term sickness absences. Many may not return to the workforce.
3. Get ahead of the workplace OH curve. The pandemic has heightened the urgent need for better employee health management. There may be increasing imperatives for all employers to provide effective OH support, following the outcomes of the Health is everyone’s business consultation.
Government is promising to help smaller employers to plan better OH provision, while many large employers have facilities in place. However, OH provision alone is not the answer. It cannot be fully effective in isolation.
Full benefits may only be realised if OH is better integrated into overall workforce management, alongside key workflows such as absence and HR case management. Connecting and sharing the health workload and accountability between HR, line managers and their OH providers will create more effective programmes.
4. Budget for more health spending. Demand for budget for strategic health initiatives and employee health support may rise in 2022. British employers already say they are likely to increase spending on health by as much as 18% in the next year, according to a Bupa global survey.
Larger employers often deliver health support via EAP or health insurance schemes but, as such spending rises, they must also help managers to refer staff effectively if they are to secure value from these schemes. Many are underutilised or have redundant overlaps across different schemes that are never identified simply because referrals are unstructured, utilisation is unmeasured, and employee health data and patterns are invisible.
5. Keep mental health firmly in mind. There has been a huge growth of interest and attention on mental health. It was already a growing concern, then hugely stimulated by the pandemic. The ONS is carefully monitoring depression levels in adults that can be linked to Covid.
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The Mental Health at Work Commitment promotes a systematic approach for employers. However, promoting mental or physical health effectively requires organisations to take a more proactive approach not just to recognising health issues but in terms of enabling managers to engage around them and take appropriate action.
6. Meet rising employee expectations of care for their health. The pandemic shook staff faith in their safety at work. One global survey suggests that 68% of the workforce no longer feels completely safe working in their employer’s buildings.
It will take not just time but demonstrable commitment by employers to show that they are prioritising the health and wellbeing of staff. Brands that took the best care of their people when the pandemic hit are already reaping rewards for their reputation, talent retention, and recruiting power.
7. Embrace a long-term shift to remote working within health planning. It is increasingly apparent that many firms will not return to default office-based working. Others are embracing flexibility. However, home working brings new practical health and safety considerations.
The duty of care extends to home workers as well as those working on-premises or in the field. The HSE provides solid core home working health and safety guidance.
Not all employers are yet fully conducting risk assessments of home workers or fully considering the physical, mental, however, or the social health of newly distributed workforces. Cursory workplace wellbeing initiatives are simply not enough any more.
8. Recognise employee health and wellbeing as a factor in corporate social responsibility. Organisational behaviour is increasingly under scrutiny by employee communities, investors and media. No firm can claim to be a good corporate citizen that does not proactively care for the health of its own workforce community alongside the other communities it purports to support. In a social world, how companies treat staff has become a matter of public record.
9. Recognise the impact of health management on staff attraction and retention. Covid has intensified this challenge at every level of the workforce. Younger workers and those about to enter the workforce are now seeking more.
The recent ‘World’s Most Attractive Employers’ survey described talent expectations as undergoing ‘seismic shifts’. Covid is also creating issues in attracting and retaining older experienced workers in the workforce.
Many are nervous to return to workplaces, with some retiring rather than work at risk, creating a risk of massive drain of talent and knowledge from firms that fail to step up on health.
10. Put the human being at the heart of HR technology strategies. HR technologies have mushroomed in recent years, with many firms using several systems. Yet the typical HR management and point solutions deployed by large employers have no capability to help them manage health workflows, information, or capture health-related data. Nor do they have the capability to connect health to other critical HR workflows such as case management and absence.
European CHROs (chief human resources officers) interviewed by McKinsey suggested that “the Covid-19 pandemic –which accelerated employee demands on HR to meet physical and mental health needs, as well as intensified moral concerns about a company’s overall impact on society – lent urgency to their view that some core human element has been lost in all these technological advancements.”
Making the change in 2022
Employers should be considering not only the people involved but the joined-up processes, connected platforms and professional OH providers required to effectively protect and promote their health and wellbeing.”
With so many drivers for change, simply doing the minimum to meet the duty of care to protect staff health, safety and welfare is no longer enough.
Assuring employees of excellent occupational physical and mental health and wellbeing have become critical success factors for every organisation.
Such assurance cannot be met with tickbox-based health and safety protocols, random healthy eating initiatives in the canteen, reliance on HR to pick up the slack, or minimum necessary provision of occupational health to use as a service of last resort.
In 2021, CIPD research suggested that just 46% of UK companies had any formal health strategy. This, despite some indications that many UK CEOs were ahead of their global counterparts in prioritising employee health and mental health, during the early pandemic.
That has to improve in 2022.
Leaders are in critical need of better visibility and accurate information about employee health in real time, to navigate the remainder of pandemic and beyond.
Without comprehensive and purposeful strategies for health, the right systems cannot be installed. These are essential to give decision-makers the employee data they need to manage organisations.
Most enterprises have numerous HR technologies in play, yet none that can connect the dots around employee health or improving an employee’s experience in this area. In one global research study, for example, some CHROs stated that their current HR technology solutions hinder, rather than improve, employee experience.
Time for a comprehensive approach
It’s time for all employers to embrace proactive strategies for employee health. They should be considering not only the people involved but the joined-up processes, connected platforms and professional OH providers required to effectively protect and promote their health and wellbeing.
Making good employee health management part of the DNA of your organisation will not just benefit your workforce and sustain productivity but help drive future organisational success in myriad ways.