Why occupational health is now a top priority

Ethics aside, supporting the physical and mental health of employees creates a win-win scenario in the post-pandemic workplace, but there are challenges to providing better support

The coronavirus crisis has squeezed the life out of so much we previously took for granted, at home and at work. Things have changed, irreversibly. Many people express both a heightened appreciation of life and respect for mortality. But how does this translate to occupational health? 

As organisations begin to coax their employees back to the workplace, the expectation that employers should support the mental and physical health of staff, particularly in a workplace setting, has been dialled up in the past year. 

To instil confidence in employees that a return to work is safe, many companies provide COVID-19 rapid lateral flow tests, promise better ventilation, rigorous cleaning programmes and gallons of hand sanitiser. But is it enough? Should businesses take more accountability for their workers’ health?

According to employee benefits provider Unum’s Value of Help study, published in December, 86 per cent of UK employers have changed their approach to staff health and wellbeing because of the coronavirus situation. 

Moreover, 95 per cent of the 350 employers surveyed revealed the pandemic has “impacted their need to make employees feel more protected”, says Glenn Thompson, chief distribution officer at Unum UK. “Whether it is from individuals, communities or organisations, 2020 has brought the value of help and support to the front of all our minds,” he adds.

Dr Robin Hart, co-founder of Companion, which offers mental health support tools, is pleased organisations are showing a greater willingness to look after staff. “A lack of focus in this area historically has seen an increase in lost revenue and diminished productivity,” he says. “Attitudes have had to change in a very reactive way due to the pandemic. In reality, it’s accelerated a process which would have played out anyway, eventually.”

Win-win scenario

Besides, supporting staff health and wellbeing creates a win-win scenario. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) data shows that in the 12 months to March 2020, when the first lockdown came into force, approximately 828,000 workers, the equivalent of 2,440 per 100,000 people, were affected by work-related stress, depression or anxiety. This absenteeism resulted in an estimated 17.9 million working days lost. In the previous year, the cost of workplace injury and ill health was calculated by HSE at £16.2 billion.

“Nobody’s health should be worse at the end of a shift than it was at the start,” says Dr Craig Jackson, professor of occupational health psychology at Birmingham City University. “If it is poorer, then there is something morally, ethically and legally wrong in that workplace.”

He believes there is a newfound respect for occupational health departments. “The excellent, proactive work undertaken by many professionals in preparing COVID-secure workplaces – assessing staff return to workplaces, COVID screening, testing, tracking and tracing – will lead to people realising occupational health is not just somewhere to go to when you are ill and unable to work,” he says.

Jackson acknowledges “supporting staff better than before does involve additional time and costs”, but argues such spending is a good investment. This is backed by research from Deloitte, published last year, that estimates for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions, they gain £5 back in business value.

“Not only is there a strong moral case for employers to look after staff health, but it makes good business sense, too,” agrees Oliver Harrison, chief executive of Koa Health, provider of mental health programmes. “Healthy workplaces attract the best talent. They also avoid the negative impact of illness on productivity, measured in staff turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism.”

Wellbeing challenges

From a legal standpoint, organisations have a statutory obligation to protect their staff from physical and mental harm. However, Elena Cooper, employment consultant at Discreet Law, reports that “a large number of employees are taking advantage of what they perceive to be their employer’s duties around mental health”.

She asks: “We know a caring and supportive employer is a good employer, but where do you draw the line between being a profit-making entity and a nanny state?” With the prospect of businesses having to afford time off to long-COVID sufferers in the coming months, if not years, it’s a pertinent question.

Ethical and legal debates aside, organisations face other pressing challenges to improve staff wellbeing. “One of the greatest barriers is ensuring healthcare support tends to the needs of all who work within a company,” says Bob Andrews, chief executive of private medical cover provider Benenden Health. 

“There is often a disconnect between what employees want to see from a health and wellbeing programme and what businesses offer. Also employees are not the same and therefore a one-size-fits-all approach is outdated and ineffective.” He advises using a range of tools, including mental health apps, as well as low-cost human management.

Luke Bullen, chief executive in the UK and Ireland at Gympass, which seeks to improve wellbeing through exercise classes, spots another issue. “One of the major challenges for a post-pandemic workforce is going to be the hybrid workplace,” he says. “How do employees ensure their wellbeing strategy works just as well for those working at their tables as though working in the office?” Empowering staff to “tailor the wellbeing offering” is critical, he suggests. 

Spurred by events of the last 12 months, occupational health will surge in importance in the coming years. “By 2025 I expect it to be available anywhere, anytime, thanks to digital advancement,” predicts Paul Shawcross, clinical lead of occupational health services at physiotherapy provider Connect Health. His company employs an artificial intelligence-chatbot as a method of referral that “triages the patient to the right support for them, 24 hours a day, seven days a week”.

Whether it is bot therapists, wellbeing apps or human professionals, employers need to prioritise occupational health in the post-pandemic workplace. Support, of any kind, is what staff truly want and need right now.