How can employers support the long-term physical health of their workforce?

How can employers support the long-term physical health of their entire workforce

Need to know:

  • The physical health of employees has been put at risk due to the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic across all sectors and industries.
  • Organisations can introduce initiatives and incentives to encourage and motivate staff to engage in physical activity during the crisis.
  • Those who are unable to work from home require extensive physical and mental support to fulfil their roles effectively.

The importance of caring for the physical health of employees in the long term has increased significantly due to the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic. Many issues, such as commuting and working safely while remaining active and healthy, have presented a number of implications for employers to consider.

Unum’s Employee benefits and the value of help research, published in December 2020, found that 95% of employers admit that the pandemic has impacted their need to make employees feel more protected, but 40% now place more value on staff being fit.

Issues raised by the pandemic

A large number of employees are working from home and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Alistair Dornan, director, organisation wellbeing at Gallagher, believes this has led to employees stretching their days out for longer due to not having to commute. He says: “There has been an issue with employees not having that regular activity that they get from commuting to work which can have critical long-term effects. Gyms and organised sports being closed due to new lockdown measures have further exacerbated this issue.

“Not everyone has the luxury of having a home office and have therefore had to find alternatives to working at home. This has led to musculoskeletal issues among many [others]. There have been many issues with absence and sick days at work which has been cited by a large number of employers. This can lead to challenges that staff face every day, who lack support in terms of physical health.” 

Dr Peter Mills, european medical director at Cigna, believes that the health crisis has shifted the attention to new healthcare initiatives for employers to invest in, more so than previously when employers used this as a tick-box exercise. He says: “There has been an increasing demand for organisations to address the concerns of employees working throughout the pandemic, regardless of what working situation they are currently in. The demand for healthcare benefits has been on the rise, but it is becoming ever more important with millions of employees changing their working pattern.”

For example, Mills notes that employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and online wellbeing platforms have seen an increase in interest from employers due to the ability for employees to access these at any time.

Many employees may struggle to fulfil their home commitments as well as their work commitment, and may struggle physically and mentally to perform their roles to the best of their ability, says Laura Young, head of HR at AIG Life. She adds: “We have a number of employees who have parental responsibilities trying to juggle that with working from home, as well as younger staff who are working in a small bedroom isolated from the rest of the world. It is a difficult issue for HR and organisations to address these diverse and complex issues.” 

However, it is not just employees working from home who are dealing with the brunt of change. Teams that are unable to fulfil their role from home must still be supported to ensure that they are performing their roles in a safe manner. Doran continues: “There has been an increased demand for HR teams to find ways to get regular tests to employees that dealing with customer of physical-based roles. It is a matter of urgency for organisations as it may not only save them from health risks, but also for fellow staff. 

“The impact of untold anxiety of the health risks has seen a substantial increase for employees unable to work from home. For employees that are currently working, many employers are looking to get back to the workplace, but it is clear that there are long-term issues of spreading the virus through creating Coronavirus secure workspaces now and in the future. An effective testing protocol has proven to be one of the major priorities for HR and organisations.” 

Employees working in factories, or in delivery customer-facing roles, face a heightened risk of catching the infection and passing it on to others. Employers need to find ways to support the issues that are faced by these teams and quell their worries. 

Initiatives to support physical wellbeing 

Employers need to be in constant communication with their staff to ensure that they are investing in the right type of support to improve physical wellbeing. Glenn Thompson, customer solutions director at Unum, says: “Working through the pandemic can be a very stressful period and can leave many feeling mentally and physically vulnerable. Employers should encourage their teams to take a proper lunch break away from their desks, including doing some form of exercise if possible. People should be encouraged to only sit at a desk for a maximum of 40 minutes before standing and moving, to avoid any prolonged issues that may arise.”

Virtual competitions, such as step or run challenges, can motivate staff to engage in being active on a regular basis for the chance to win prizes and recognition. 

Employers can also offer employees funds to build their home office, or lend out home equipment. This reduces the risk of staff suffering from musculoskeletal issues. However, Mills believes that organisations need to go beyond just offering this. He says: “One of the key things that need to be in place is a Coronavirus-specific health and wellbeing strategy. That way, employers can offer a range of benefits that suits all employees, from free GP support to mental health counselling.”

Physical health and stress has been, and will continue to be, an issue for employees living and working throughout the pandemic. Organisations have the opportunity to put building blocks in place to support the overall health of a whole workforce both now, and for the future.