How has the pandemic has affected employees’ physical health?

Need to know:

  • Musculoskeletal problems, weight gain and long Covid are among the physical health issues affecting employees, with missed cancer diagnoses also causing concern.
  • Encouraging healthy habits such as regular screen breaks, walking meetings and ‘fake commutes’ will help to replicate office working conditions and encourage more physical activity.
  • Digital delivery of services such as GP appointments and physiotherapy offer convenience and encourage early access to medical advice.

The Covid-19 pandemic’s effect on mental health is well-documented but, whether because of lockdowns, home working or the virus itself, it has also taken its toll on the nation’s physical health.

Mark Allan, general manager for business and specialist products at Bupa, says: “Many employees have seen their physical health worsen over the last two years. Employers can play an active role in helping employees address these issues.”

A wide variety of conditions have been triggered or exacerbated by the pandemic, with musculoskeletal problems a prime example. Based on its analysis of 58,000 health assessments conducted in 2021, Bupa found that 81% of employees were suffering from some form of musculoskeletal problem.

Marc Holl, head of primary care at Nuffield Healt, says:. “Overnight everyone went from working in an ergonomically friendly environment to making do with what they had. Poor work set-ups combined with long hours in front of a laptop has driven an uptick in musculoskeletal problems.”

Physical consequences

This inactivity, coupled with lockdown comfort eating, has driven another health consequence: weight gain. Research published by Public Health England in July 2021 found that 41% of adults had put on an average of 4.1kg since the first lockdown.

A few extra kilos may be disheartening but left unchecked it can lead to an increased risk of serious health problems including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

Long Covid is another side-effect of the pandemic, with statistics from the Office for National Statistics showing that, as at the end of January 2022, around 1.5 million people in the UK were reporting symptoms four weeks after the initial infection.

Of these, just under one million say they are adversely affected, with fatigue (51%) and shortness of breath (35%) the top two symptoms.

Many serious conditions could also be going undiagnosed. “People couldn’t get access to screenings during the pandemic or were choosing not to get checked out as they were worried about the virus,” explains Allan.

“A report by Macmillan Cancer Support, The Forgotten C: The impact of Covid-19 on cancer care, published in October 2020, suggests there are around 50,000 people in the UK who haven’t yet been diagnosed with cancer. Being diagnosed later can lead to a worse prognosis.”

Preventative measures

Although many employees’ physical health will have suffered during the pandemic, the good news is that there is plenty employers can, and should, do to support them and prevent future issues.

“The Health and Safety Executive relaxed its requirements when lockdown was introduced but now that hybrid and home working is permanent, employers have a responsibility to look after their employees’ health and safety, wherever they work,” says Holl.

As it is not always practical to send someone to check on employees’ home office set-ups, tools are available to do this remotely.

Matthew Carlton, founder of Shine Workplace Wellbeing, explains: “We partnered with ergonomics specialists to provide consultations. These are conducted by video-call on the employee’s mobile so the specialist is able to look around the workstation and recommend any changes. We’re also seeing employers sending out the right kit so that employees can work safely at home.”

Good working habits are also important. Holl recommends varying the working position and taking regular breaks to stretch and move around. “It’s ok to work on the sofa or create a standing desk with an iron board, as long as it’s not all the time,” he says. “Encouraging walking meetings and fake commutes will also ensure employees get the movement they need when they’re working from home.”

Employers can also help staff with any physical health issues they may have picked up over the last couple of years, running health awareness programmes and giving them access to information and tools to support them.

Dr Katie Tryon, director of clinical at Vitality, says: “Employers need to find out what the issues are but also what employees want. Health risk assessments will provide insight into the health of the employee population but, to drive behavioural change, employers need to find out what they want to change.

“There’s been a relentless amount of health information over the last couple of years: people do switch off unless the message is crystal clear.”

In line with this approach, the organisation launched an initiative Next Best Action to help drive change. Through analysis of heath data, this identifies the one step, for instance stopping smoking or losing weight, that would add the most healthy years to an employee’s life.

Adding a social element to health campaigns can also help. Setting up clubs and groups so employees benefit from the support of their peers is one example, says Debra Clark, head of specialist consulting at Towergate Health and Protection.

“Where a group of employees have a common goal, they’ll share tips and activities with other members but it also makes them more accountable for what they’re doing,” she explains.

Employers can also take steps to address the missing diagnoses for serious conditions. Dr Tyron recommends flagging the NHS screenings first and foremost but then using health data to identify employees who would most benefit from a health screen.

Accessible benefits

It is also prudent to audit the benefits and tools in place to support physical health, especially as employees are not necessarily coming into the workplace every day anymore.

Replacing corporate gym membership with online classes makes sense but smart employers are going a step further with wellbeing allowances, says Carlton. “This gives the employee freedom of choice, allowing them to pick what works for them whether that’s tennis club membership or yoga classes.”

New tools are also available. Many services can now be delivered digitally, including GP appointments, physiotherapy and even some cancer screenings. This makes access more convenient but also encourages employees to seek medical advice early.

As well as a shift from insurers, employers are also changing their healthcare purchasing habits, says Matthew Gregson, executive director, UK corporate at Howden Employee Benefits and Wellbeing.

“We’re seeing more organisations broadening out their healthcare offering so everyone can benefit,” he explains. “This is really positive: looking after employees’ health and wellbeing is essential.”