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The COVID-19 pandemic – what is the true impact on our workplaces?

What does the pandemic mean for businesses, employees and our health system?

More than a year after the first lockdown announcement, living with - and working through - the COVID-19 pandemic may seem like a “new normal” for many. However, the Coronavirus has truly changed the way that we interact with one another and the majority of businesses have had to adapt, finding new ways of working together.

But how long will these new ways of working last? We explore the long-term impacts of the pandemic on workplace health and wellbeing and suggest steps your business can take to prepare for permanent change.

In this article we'll cover why:

Agile businesses are winning

Building a strong identity and culture is vital

Employees - and employers - need support

Tailored benefits are a must

Flexible working is key

Managing long COVID is important

You need to consider the impact on our health system

Agile businesses are winning

Businesses that have embraced flexibility and agility over the course of the pandemic appear to be thriving. The notion of rolling with the punches is now a mainstay of doing business - and being agile is something that all sectors are adapting to.

Organisations have had to show robustness and quick thinking to constantly reassess their ever-changing priorities, challenges and activities in the past year, including their approach to employee wellbeing and engagement. This ability to pivot and show agility, however, will be a permanent fixture for successful businesses, even as they enter calmer waters.

Some industries, such as Management Consulting, IT Consulting, Tech and Telecommunications already conduct business with this spirit and predict that they will continue to do so, but increasingly, slow adopters are now recognising the need to take a more flexible approach to business to evolve. Across the board, if businesses aren’t yet being agile, they will find a real need to adopt this approach in the long term to prosper, not simply to navigate a crisis.

Therefore, being prepared to change attitudes and operations to benefit a workforce can make a big difference and give employees confidence that they are valued and listened to by their employer.

Building a strong identity and culture is vital

Whilst external factors will always see some businesses rise and fall in the aftermath of the pandemic, what’s going on internally will play a significant part in differentiating the businesses that are ticking along and those that are growing.

Building a strong brand and business culture that engages employees and practises what is preached is going to be vital as consumers increasingly look for responsible and reliable brands and employees place more importance than ever on the culture of a workplace and non-financial benefits.

A brand applies as much to the people working within your organisation as it does to those outside of the business and simply having a suite of marketing assets won’t cut it. Instead, businesses need to be actively looking at what their employees value and ensure the brand reflects this.

Despite the time investment required, now is the time to elaborate on that strategy: it will be the heart of a business that thrives and whose people believe in its mission and values.

Employees – and employers - need support

Last year, when we conducted research for our mental wellbeing in the workplace report, we knew that some of the answers would be shaped by respondents’ experiences of working during the pandemic. We also anticipated that some of the responses would reflect a shifting mindset for the coming year and beyond.

Almost half of all employees (46%) reported feeling more stressed over the course of the past year, which, at that stage, was partly the result of the upheaval caused by the pandemic. We found increased workload, financial concerns and workplace culture ranked as the top three reasons for deteriorating mental wellbeing at work and identified a resounding need for a de-stigmatised workplace culture around mental health and wellbeing.

Employees are still feeling unable to be honest about the reasons for sick days, don’t feel comfortable talking about their mental health at work and many find it difficult to recognise the symptoms of poor mental health and wellbeing in other colleagues.

As such, the need for robust mental wellbeing support has never been bigger. Businesses have a responsibility to understand the needs of their employees and increasingly show transparency and clarity, especially around the future of the organisation, with uncertainty and anxiety about the future proving to be a factor in the wellbeing of workers. If you can communicate authentically about the state of the business, potential job losses, role changes and your investment in your hard-working team, you will set the tone for a happier workforce and growth.

This support should be universal across any organisation, as leaders and managers can often be overlooked when it comes to considering the emotional impact of the pandemic and given the key role they play within businesses, they cannot afford to be neglected.

The pandemic is undoubtedly one of the biggest historical tests of resourcefulness, endurance and emotional intelligence for many managers, who have faced significant pressures of keeping their business afloat during uncertain times alongside an increased need for support from their team.

In our report last year, 48% of bosses told us that the pandemic was having a negative impact on their mental wellbeing, whilst 19% of these respondents were experiencing this impact for the very first time in their lives. Our most recent survey demonstrates that this picture is even more serious: 55% of managers have wanted to take time off work due to burnout brought on by the pressures of the pandemic but as they shoulder a lot of stress in the day-to-day and higher level running of organisations, they don’t feel they can. This is a real risk factor for physical and mental wellbeing problems further down the line.

It may be easier said than done, but opening up a two-way conversation between employers and employees and creating a culture of openness and support within a business is the first step towards creating a healthy, productive and engaged workforce.

Just as Mental Health First Aiders are trained to identify and act on the signs of poor mental health and wellbeing amongst colleagues and peers, your senior team should be trained to step in and support one another when required. If you have business healthcare in place, the provision of mental health support and counselling isn’t reserved for employees: it’s open to the boss as well. In many cases, partnering with a company such as Benenden Health means that the help and support offered is impartial and always confidential.

As you structure your business to be more flexible, don’t overlook your own requirements. You, too, can work remotely, benefit from no-meeting Wednesdays or make it clear that you won’t be available for calls during certain times of the day. Your employees will thank you for taking the time to look after yourself, because your self-care will be reflected in your decision-making, your team management and the tone that you set for the business.

Tailored benefits are a must

Just as the outlook for different businesses is so varied, the need for tailored benefits amongst your team members has become more apparent. In fact, we found that 55% of employees would consider a different employer if their needs weren’t being met at work. One size certainly doesn’t fit all, so a package that allows your people to pick and choose elements can be very effective.

Supporting your team to be their best and happiest at work goes hand-in-hand with reduced absenteeism and “presenteeism” (when people come into work unwell), so as an investment, a tailored benefits package does pay dividends. Naomi Thompson, Head of Organisational Development here at Benenden Health tells us that a genuinely tailored and well thought-out benefits package not only helps to “cultivate an engaged, productive workforce”, but also makes your organisation “a destination of choice for top talent”. To get to the heart of what your people want and need, you will have to consider the different life stages of – and pressures faced by – an intergenerational workforce; much of which will have been amplified during the pandemic.

Naomi Thompson goes on to explain that the first step in assessing your benefits package and addressing any shortcoming lies in “having open conversations with employees about their needs in a thorough consultation exercise.” To deliver a bespoke approach to employee care and wellbeing, there is no point in shooting in the dark: ask your people and they will guide you.

To further fine tune your support and benefits package, along with associated healthcare, monitoring your employee data (e.g. via HR software) will allow you to identify team and company trends, to ensure that what’s on offer is working well and, if it isn’t, what other avenues can be explored.

This approach will also help to bridge the gap between those who are working remotely and those who are working centrally. For example, remote workers may have additional mental health support needs, if feeling isolated, whilst a return to an office environment for others may signal the need for different talking therapies as fears around COVID-19 contraction resurface.

When it comes to the diagnosis and treatment of physical and mental health concerns, we have all heard that “prevention is better than cure.” In this case, the future of healthcare during and after the pandemic lies significantly within data management: using employee data to set a baseline, against which any abnormalities can be tracked and flagged.

Flexible working in the long term

One benefit that is sure to be in demand as we emerge from the other side of the pandemic is flexible working.

The events of the past year have put flexible working to the test in so many sectors and many organisations have demonstrated how a less rigid working structure can be successful. Allowing for flexible and remote working can help prevent the spread of any illness, particularly amongst team members who have yet to be offered a vaccine. It also lowers the perceived risk of infection, which we know has been a significant source of stress and anxiety for many.

What has worked in recent months, however, will not necessarily continue to be effective in the long term, especially with regards to employee wellbeing.

It is possible that for some the novelty of flexible working will fade over time, with an increased possibility of loneliness and isolation in the long run.

Therefore, encouraging a genuinely flexible approach to work that suits each individual is imperative, whether that means some time spent remotely and some time spent in the office, or a robust employee engagement programme to connect team members who are geographically far apart. This should also be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure the approach continues to work for employees and doesn’t negatively impact their physical or mental wellbeing.

Management of Long COVID

From a physical health perspective, Long COVID will leave its mark on the workplace over the coming months.

The NHS has outlined its suggested approach for returning to work for those recovering from illness on a dedicated microsite and its recommendations are certainly food for thought when it comes to managing your team through and beyond COVID-19. When defining your policy or protocol for staff returning to work after a COVID-19 infection, the support offered should be a mix of practical and emotional.

Returning members of the team may require reasonable adjustments - from a phased return to work to shorter hours or different tasks - in order to ensure that they can manage the symptoms of Long COVID. Talking to team members whilst they are off will open up a dialogue that they feel comfortable in having, because they will see that you are invested in their long-term health and wellbeing. This will also allow you to gauge how they are recovering from illness, and allow you to work with them effectively, to decide how to build up their working hours again.

Alongside this, a visibly poorly or tired colleague may raise concern and anxiety amongst others, so do make sure that your plans allow for time to mitigate any fears on this score. In many cases, the team will want to know that their co-worker is going to be OK, so it pays to talk and keep communication open.

Impact on our health system

Whilst adapting to the ever-changing demands of coronavirus care, the NHS is suffering from the equivalent of aftershocks when it comes to fulfilling care for those whose needs were put on hold to deal with the first wave of the pandemic.

This covers all manner of care, from routine screening that was deferred, illness that has developed as a result of delayed check-ups, escalating illness and - not insignificantly - an overwhelming demand for mental health services, both within and outside of the NHS. The BMA makes an important point when addressing this backlog of care: not only is this phenomenon the result of pressure points exerted on the NHS, but also a shifting pattern in patient behaviour. Patients have largely been more reluctant to present with problems, whether due to fear of contracting COVID-19 or due to relegating their concerns beneath the perceived importance of others in need.

NHS wait times are currently at an all-time high, which means that your people could be kept waiting, worrying and potentially suffering for a long time. This, in turn, has an impact on their happiness and productivity at work, which is where you can step in to facilitate things through a private healthcare package. The support that can be offered here will cut through any worries about not being important enough to be seen, along with the fear of sitting in a crowded waiting room.

How can private healthcare lighten the burden on the NHS? We can demonstrate this through our Business Healthcare proposition. The organisations who partner with us allow their people to access GPs, receive diagnoses and use mental health helplines, meaning that their physical and emotional needs are addressed, without lengthy waiting times and without adding to the caseload of the NHS.

This intervention not only helps people in times of need, but it also keeps them healthy. The NHS is a wonderful but ultimately finite resource and it needs support to see itself through the next stage in the pandemic, which can come from ethical and affordable private healthcare.

Bob Andrews, CEO of Benenden Health, explains: “ethically sound private healthcare provision can play an extremely beneficial role in a mixed economy. Private healthcare packages not only offer great support to families and businesses but our NHS too, and the provision of private healthcare should not be seen as direct competition with the NHS or an expensive luxury as it is often perceived”.

From the employer’s perspective, a happy and healthy employee is a productive person and from a wider social perspective, a well-cared for person is less likely to require NHS intervention and hospitalisation. Bob adds: “a privately-provided health package could significantly help people in a time of need, providing a safety blanket – rather than a competing service - for when the NHS is under strain. To be most effective, the NHS and private healthcare should work harmoniously together to the benefit of the nation’s health”.

Looking forward

We have some way to go before a less volatile “normal” is established, given the rapid response of health legislation and business guidance that the pandemic has necessitated so far. To ensure you, your team and your business continues to flourish during challenging circumstances, it’s important to look at culture, wellbeing and healthcare provision. Please do feel free to get in touch with us on 0808 301 2936 to discuss an appropriate health and wellbeing package for your business.