Staff wellbeing can no longer be ignored in light of Covid-19, writes COVER editor Adam Saville
There is a certain amount of irony in the fact that it has taken a prolonged period of empty offices and enforced remote working for employers to begin to fully understand the true value of employee health schemes.
Absence - of busy offices and water-cooler chats - makes the heart grow fonder, as they say, and it's clear that some employers did not know what they had till it was gone, when it came to staff engagement and a sense of workplace community.
Indeed, it had been all too easy for many employers, especially in the SME space, to take staff productivity for granted, despite findings from the Stevenson/Farmer review and stats from Mind being so regularly touted and repeated by the health insurance and protection sector. Yet, it is during a time when staff are not seen (apart from on video calls) - on the eve of an anticipated second wave - that their health and wellbeing needs are finally being heard.
What we’ve achieved as a sector in the face of unthinkable challenges is remarkable.
And it's taken a global health crisis to hit home the truths that the employee benefits industry has been all too familiar with in recent times. Anyone unconvinced that we all have mental health, soon found out otherwise - CEOs included - after just a few weeks of lockdown. According to a recent survey by COVER, nearly 60% encountered medium, high or very high levels of anxiety during the Covid-19 crisis, compared to 92.6% experiencing low or very low levels in March, before the pandemic had consumed the UK.
It's no wonder that the removal of one of our four pillars of wellbeing (community), as a workforce, would lead us into troublesome waters as a nation. As the winter nights draw in, employers now need to think hard about how to spot the signs of a struggling workforce as many face an extended period of home working, despite recent efforts to stagger staff back to offices.
The fall-out of Covid-19 has already awoken the sleeping beast that is occupational burnout, officially classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) last year. And, as the British Medical Association (BMA) warned recently, we're facing a situation that could become a "mental health crisis" unless more support is provided to the NHS.
Thankfully, health insurance providers had - even before Covid - already laid the ground work to cater for a raft of unexpected challenges that lay ahead on the horizon.
Remote telehealth services, such as virtual GP consultations, are nothing new, but the pandemic presented the trigger that was needed to hit home their immense value and efficacy. The cost-savings for businesses should not be sniffed at going forward either, with a recent study produced by the Centre of Economics and Business Research estimating that UK companies could have saved £1.5bn in lost working time in 2019 through their usage.
Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) may have notoriously struggled for staff utilisation, but no longer is a laminated sign in the staff kitchen considered enough to alert staff to the availability of mental health support, for example. And guess what? During lockdown, HR departments actually had to talk about them. As a result, staff actually began to realise the true value of their potentially life-saving remote support, at a time when many no doubt have needed it.
The new zeitgeist
In the past, some employees may have felt nagged by emails about sleep, nutrition and the importance of exercise or dental hygiene, but in the post-Covid world of ‘fake news' accurate health and wellbeing lifestyle information is appearing as the new zeitgeist.
And who would have thought, five years ago, that mindfulness experts would be on hand to teach meditation and stress awareness techniques - now also over video calls - in the corporate space, for large companies as well as small.
The question for modern employers today is not ‘if' they should be investing in staff wellbeing support, it is ‘how?' And luckily, the products on offer in the group risk and health insurance market can plug that gap, especially as occupational health services face increasing demand.
What we've achieved as a sector in the face of unthinkable challenges is remarkable. Evolving services, such as skin cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy and cardiac assessment, are being provided remotely, while wellbeing programmes are being tailored to SMEs (99.9% of UK businesses). And now, more than ever, companies are looking for external guidance through these uncertain times. The onus is on brokers to seize this opportunity.
Adam Saville is editor of COVER
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