How to support employee wellbeing as lockdown eases

Occupational health, emotional support and navigating the 'new normal'

clock • 6 min read

Health Shield's Carl Laidler explores occupational health, employee emotional support and navigating the 'new normal' post-lockdown

There's currently a palpable sense that the "we're all in this together" Blitz-like spirit, that has built since the initial stress of lockdown, is coming to an end. And although some employees are undoubtedly craving an escape from the home and the same old faces - or, worse, the loneliness - the fact remains that life is going to change and for many this is deeply unsettling.

As we enter this ‘new normal', employee wellbeing will continue to take centre stage. But mindsets need to shift from short-term fixes to a temporary situation to long-term ways to prevent deep-seated issues. And for this, employers will need to identify health and safety risks on a huge and largely remote scale. This is going to require cost effective ways and means of assessment and much deeper collaboration between Occupational Health, HR, providers and consultants.

For some, the ‘new normal' could see remote working continuing for many more months. The niggles they've put up with during what was considered a kind of ‘make do' phase could now become prevailing issues. For others, a new world of staggered work shifts, dividing screens on desks and one-way systems in workplaces awaits. Unsurprisingly, various polls suggest that many workers are nervous about returning. Not only that, but for employers there's a question mark over whether they'd be liable if returning staff were to fall ill with COVID-19.

In short, the ‘make do' phase is over. It's not going to be enough to leave niggles, aches, pains and anxieties go unchecked. Or to simply provide generic support, such as advice on taking regular breaks, exercising and sending out reminders about the company employee assistance programme (EAP).

Backlog of issues

Since the start of lockdown, employer duty of care saw some statutory health and risk assessments suspended by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) - for example, hearing and respiratory tests. The HSE also provided additional guidance around display screen equipment (DSE) tests. All in all, sensible moves by the HSE: leniency and practicality in acknowledgement of the need for employers to take a more intuitive approach to a rapidly evolving situation.

However, as the lockdown is further eased, practicality will have to be replaced with formality again. Temporary working from home arrangements become more permanent for some and phased returns for those on long-term furlough look likely, as per CIPD guidelines.

Now, attention will need to turn to what some experts are describing as a "tsunami" of mental health issues that have been stored up during lockdown. Not to mention reports of a significant increase in musculoskeletal complaints. The Institute for Employment Studies' (IES) 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. Leaving employees to balance their laptop on their knees clearly isn't going to cut it long-term.

Pinpoint the problems

Anxiety and stress levels will also need to be assessed. Employers have an obligation under the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 for employee wellbeing, including mental health. This involves identifying issues and minimising risks.

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. It's no longer enough to simply put in place a programme of benefits and services and hope employees use them. Evidence dictates this will only ensure low engagement and, consequently, low perceived value.

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. For example, 51% of employers giving their health and wellbeing support a top rating in comparison to 33% of employees.

But how do you gain insights into employee needs? You can obviously just talk to people… but that's not all that easy in a remote working environment. Plus, in our experience, individuals are often happier completing a questionnaire than they are speaking directly with their line manager or HR.

Minimise the risk

That's why, as part of Health Shield's Occupational Health (OH) support services, we've recently designed 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. 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 - also known as a ‘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 EAP, mental health app or physio triage - and/or it could provide guidance to the line manager, highlighting issues and making recommendations.

What no OH support?

According to a recent article in Personnel Today, OH practitioners could fast become the first line of defence in the ‘new normal': 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.

A report just out from REBA and Unmind finds that over 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.

But, of course, many employers - particularly SMEs - have never had the luxury of such support and, with budget cuts an inevitability during the recession, that is unlikely to change.

There are now options available for SMEs though: packages of OH services that may be used as needed, as opposed to permanent in-house - to help control the costs - and that include an element of health assessment plus risk surveillance as required.

These include ongoing access to OH specialist nurses over the phone, plus digital face to face support, both of which can provide referrals and signposting to relevant specialist services: either wellbeing benefits and services already provided by the company or charities or public health bodies external to the company.

It seems to make perfect people and business sense for consultants to be fully up to speed to with all of these options so that they can advise clients appropriately as the lockdown continues to be eased.

That "we're all in it together" spirit may have received a jolt but as providers and advisers we can help keep it going. After all, the way in which we partner with corporate clients during this crisis will undoubtedly set the tone for the future.

Carl Laidler is director of wellbeing for Health Shield

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