The new “hybrid” work environment will pose challenges for employers, employees and possibly also health protection.
With this year’s lockdown restrictions finally ending this month, occupational health professionals will be busy handling the operational and practical health and safety challenges of people who are gradually returning to their physical jobs. However, as Nic Paton argues, it is the emergence of potentially permanent “hybrid” ways of working and how this can change expectations and requirements for tools and support for health and wellbeing that can represent yet another challenge and opportunity in the long term.
The words, “This is my first time back to the office” have crept into Zoom or Team calls over the past few weeks as the UK workplaces re-open.
Of course, many thousands of UK workers were unable to work from home at all during the pandemic for a variety of reasons. Often supported by workplace health, they continue to be at the forefront in areas such as delivery and distribution, manufacturing and manufacturing, retailing, education, etc.
However, with the final lockdown restrictions ending this month (assuming the government roadmap is in place) and vaccine rollout continues, many in the occupational health sector are not turning to what the “big return” might actually look and feel like only through the summer, but into the fall and beyond.
Increased focus on health and wellbeing
Of course, none of us can predict the course of the pandemic or what dangers await us this autumn and winter in terms of Covid variants. However, health and wellbeing – both physical health and safety, and how to manage mental health and anxiety – will remain absolutely important considerations and conversations for employers, at least in the view of health, health, and benefits advisors.
As we saw with the partial return to physical labor last summer, perhaps the most immediate challenge for occupational health professionals is to ensure that workplaces remain as safe as possible in view of the transmission of Covid-19. In addition to testing, hygiene, and ongoing infection control measures, due to the airborne nature of Covid-19, it is vital that workplaces remain well ventilated.
“I expect a lot of investment in HVAC [heating, ventilation and air-conditioning] and clean air and the ability to keep windows open, ”predicts Yves Duhaldeborde, Senior Director at Willis Towers Watson. Many employers may also need to completely rethink their physical work environment. “How the desks are aligned, how the rooms are organized, to facilitate collaboration while minimizing risk. But there will also be a focus on encouraging people to come into the workplace to get involved in activities that are fun and collaborative, things that they cannot get at home, ”he adds.
After last year’s forced homework experiment, the likelihood of a large-scale return to the five-day commute just to sit in front of a computer or people hammering highways to go to a business meeting seems unlikely. at least in the short term or possibly even in the medium term.
Even so, many workers will only be too anxious to return to physical workspaces, at least temporarily, to re-engage and collaborate with colleagues, and perhaps to escape isolated, cramped, or unsuitable home offices. But even if many have received at least one vaccination by this point, employers may need to be cautious about dealing with the “fear of normalcy”.
For many, getting out of the “security” of the home office will potentially be a major change and adaptation, especially at the beginning. The first time employees return to public transport, to potentially crowded city centers, or even just to gather in a meeting room, anxiety can arise (especially if the ventilation is poor).
Practical tools and support for mental health
To that end, there is likely to be an ongoing focus on practical mental health support tools – Mental Health First Responders (MHFAs), Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), apps and resources, resilience tools and training, etc.
Someone might really be scared of going back to an office while others might be scared of not being able to return. I think employers really need to be aware of that. ”- Debra Clark, Towergate Health & Protection
“Someone might be really afraid of going back to an office while others might be afraid of not being able to go back. I think employers really have to pay attention to that, ”emphasizes Debra Clark, Head of Specialist at Towergate Health & Protection.
It is possible that our attitude towards “presenterism” has to be fundamentally revised – there will actually be any Tolerance at all for the colleague who dragged himself to work to sit at the desk coughing?
Andrew Drake, director of customer development at the consulting firm Buck, argues that in light of the pandemic, but also after the unprecedented experience we’ve all had, companies need to think long and hard about what to offer their employees across the border. This will be especially the case in relation to health and wellbeing benefits and services, and how these align with what the employees themselves are prioritizing at work now.
“It is imperative for companies to ensure that what they offer in terms of benefits is now suitable for their employees. Make sure the services are designed to work best and deliver the right solution to the employee in the end. Actually help the employee, ”he emphasizes.
“For example, if someone is doing poorly after the year we’ve all just passed, you as an employer may need to keep track of a lot more than just job performance. Are you sleeping properly? Do you drink too much alcohol and does it keep you from sleeping? Are you eating right? Do you exercise regularly? There is now the realization that since the line between work and home no longer exists, both of them influence each other massively, ”he adds.
“How does it work? feeling, as an employee, to work there? ”agrees Clark. “Employees are looking for a much closer match between their employer and their own values. So it will be about talking to them about the right things in the right way. “
Division between remote and physical OH support
Within this hybrid work mix, virtual and personal health and wellbeing will continue to be important – and occupational health professionals may therefore be drawn in two directions to develop models for delivering services that work for both, possibly simultaneously.
An emphasis may also need to be placed on how people who are removed from the physical workplace, perhaps now permanently, learn about and access the services offered in the long term. “For example, in the past, if you’ve sat next to someone who had a virtual physical therapy appointment and told them how well it went, you no longer have it. So, for the employer, how do you get this news out now? ” points out Clark.
I think we’ll see more of the wellbeing benefits. Private medical or online health assessments are growing in popularity, as are critical illnesses and even writing. ”- Sarah Robson, Aon
“I think we’ll see more of the benefits of wellbeing. Private medical or online health reviews are growing in popularity, as are critical illnesses and even writing. Last year there has been a massive surge in wearables and fitness technology, especially women, ”added Sarah Robson, Senior Strategic Consultant at Aon.
EAPs, MHFAs (and support for first responders themselves), feel-good champions, proactive and creative health promotion initiatives, private and fast health care (often provided virtually), and private health insurance can become increasingly important for employers looking to engage and retain employees.
Workplace health, as is often the fulcrum around which many of these “softer” health benefits or services revolve, could therefore become an increasingly important leader or advocate for health and wellbeing.
New management or interest representation?
Matthew Gregson, Director and Head of Corporate at Howden Employee Benefits, sums this up clearly: “Covid-19 has accelerated the need to rethink our ideas about what work-life integration and” wellbeing “look like,” he argues.
“By 2021 and beyond, once employers have found a good mix of work, commitment and wellbeing, they will be in a good position and focus on how these initiatives improve company performance,” he adds.
Much has been said in the past few months about the opportunity the challenge and calamity of the Covid-19 pandemic may present to occupational health and how, as Dame Carol Black has argued, “the moment use “must.
The challenge and opportunity for occupational physicians during this transition period can therefore be twofold.
First, and of course, it is about how to tackle the immediate process of returning to work and the ongoing practical and operational challenges at work and living with Covid-19 as a virus that in all likelihood will now be a permanent fixture in our society – and work landscape.
Of course, this will keep most practitioners very busy themselves. But there is a second, softer opportunity that practitioners, if they can, should try not to overlook. In this way, occupational medicine can become an indispensable part of this “hybridization” of the workplace in a sustainable work environment that we all hope for after the pandemic.
In other words, how occupational medicine can become the wellbeing advocate within your organization, the “glue” of health and wellbeing if you want; How practitioners can position themselves as an expert authority leading and communicating the increasingly important, increasingly complex and rapidly changing relationships between work and home, engagement and productivity, illness and return to work, and health and wellbeing.
When we are through the pandemic, it is not just the workplace but also occupational safety that may never be the same again.