The coronavirus pandemic and its impact on working patterns has undoubtedly reinforced the importance of effective health and wellbeing strategies within the workplace. Gaps in many current strategies have been highlighted by the recent health crisis, which in recent months has caused most UK business to lockdown, forcing tens of thousands of employees to work from home. Health outcomes for homeworkers will have changed substantially during lockdown and the national drive to get people back to work presents a massive human capital management project.
Wolfgang Seidl, a partner at Mercer Marsh Benefits and its Workplace Health Consulting leader, has been a leading commentator on health and wellbeing for many years. He says the “haphazard” approach to wellbeing of many companies in the past, with far too little focus on outcomes, needs to be replaced with a more integrated approach if health, wellbeing and productivity are to be improved, or even maintained, as the nation’s great return to work unfolds.
Individual initiatives — be it freely available fruit in the workplace, or promoting a mindfulness app — may have limited benefits if they are not part of a more strategic plan, that aims to deliver benefits for the business as well as employees. This could be reducing absences, increasing productivity or ensuring employees are happier and healthier.
Seidl says: ”Health and wellbeing has become a focus for firms in recent years and we would expect to see this rise even further up the corporate agenda as a result of the Covid crisis.
“Almost 100 per cent of firms surveyed in our Global Talent Trend Report 2020 have a transformation agenda, and wellbeing is ranked as a top concern by nearly half of the survey respondents. Yet only 29 per cent of these businesses have a defined health and wellbeing strategy in place.
“Firms want to support their staff, but often lack the strategic vision to do this effectively.”
This will continue be a key issue for firms as the economy starts to re-open, and businesses move to a ‘back to work’ footing. The return to work creates immediate and long-term challenges for UK businesses he says. In the first instance there is the task of ensuring workplaces meet more stringent health and safety guidelines, particularly in relation to issues like social distancing and PPE.
As part of an over-arching health and wellbeing strategy, this return to work may encompass testing programmes provided by private medical insurers and occupational health teams.
Seidl says there is also the need for businesses to respond with “empathy” and understanding, providing effective help and reassurance for those that are worried about a return to an office environment.
While the lockdown happened very quickly, with businesses given little opportunity to prepare, the return is likely to be a far more protracted process. As a result health and wellbeing strategies need to encompass both those in the office and those who are continuing to work from home, be it on a full-time or part-time basis.
There are particular wellbeing challenges to working from home, Seidl explains. “I have long been an advocate of more flexible working, which can increase employee wellbeing. But there is the need to ensure that people’s home working environments are suitable, this is particularly true of many younger workers who may be in house shares and flats with little space to allocate for ‘work’.”
There is also the need to ensure employees set boundaries and are able to switch off from work at the end of the day. You want an environment where people feel like they are working from home, not living at work, he says.
Workplaces face longer term challenges too, Seidl says, particularly in relation to mental health, which is becoming an increasingly important part of any corporate health and wellbeing strategy.
“The evidence is clear that the coronavirus pandemic has contributed to the mental health epidemic we are in, with certain groups, such as younger workers particularly affected by issues such as anxiety and financial wellbeing.
“But it is unlikely that we are at the peak of the mental health problems yet.
“For many people mental health problems occur after the initial health crisis. We know that in the eye of the storm people may be reluctant to ring employee helplines for example. They many not want to bother them, if they feel they are not as badly affected as others. Instead they may seek help later, for issues like stress or anxiety.” But despite the challenges ahead Seidl retains his optimistic outlook, and says a renewed focus on wellbeing can help transform many UK workplaces for the better.
“Covid has certainly changed the landscape, and it has served to underscore what is important for both individuals and businesses. Good mental health, high quality workspaces and effective working relationships are all crucial to promoting wellbeing in the workplace. This has proved to be particularly true during this period of crisis.
“As we hopefully start to move past the peak there is the opportunity to use health and wellbeing strategies to improve workplaces and working lives for the better.
“Workplaces haven’t always been built around the needs of those who work in them. There is now the opportunity to change this. Given the difficult times we have been through this seems like a small silver lining: a potential turning point that should not be wasted.”
However, Seidl does not underestimate the financial challenge facing many UK businesses, and says a new focus on health and wellbeing has to take into account these economic realities.
“We are possibly in one of the worst recessions we have seen for 100-plus years. Businesses face challenges, and have to learn to be resilient. But effective wellbeing strategies can help them do this.”
So what does an effective health and wellbeing strategy look like?
Seidl says it is does not necessarily have to be expensive, and offer all the bells and whistles. “Some white collar workplaces might offer full PMI coverage for all their staff,” he says. “But there are other options. Cash plans for example can be cost effective and offer a whole range of support services to employees.
“Employee assistance programmes, for example, have become standardised and competitive in terms of price, so need not be cost prohibitive.”
The important thing is to think strategically about what the business wants to achieve, and how these various products, proposition and initiatives can help achieve this.
Seidl gives an example of setting up a mental health pathway for one of Mercer’s clients. “Here, it was a case of aligning existing services they already offered. This helped the firm promote services more effectively, and improved access and engagement. After two years there was a 9 per cent reduction in medical insurance claims, a 16 per cent reduction in the cost of claims and a 41 per cent reduction in staff absences.”
He says these outcomes were achieved by addressing and aligning existing services properly, not spending more money on other products, which may have doubled- up on existing services.
The wellbeing industry has mushroomed in recent years, and companies are bombarded with a wealth of different products and propositions, both online and face-to-face — covering a range of issues from mental health to financial resilience.
Knowing what is likely to be the most effective – and deliver the best bang for your buck – can be a daunting task, for companies and consultants.
Seidl says that in his experiences the most effective single step a firm can take is to train line managers. “This is a really effective way of establishing a culture of health within an organisation, and dealing with problems at an early stage.
“Here you are training managers how to spot problems and how to respond to employees who ask them for help, whether it is with mental health issues, debt or niggling injuries. They can then signpost appropriate help, and places to go for further support.”
This process can help establish proper pathways and encourage greater awareness and engagement with the various support services available.
Seidl initially trained and practiced as a psychiatrist. He then moved into the corporate healthcare sector 20 years ago, working as a clinical director for an employee assistance programme. A decade ago he moved to Mercer Marsh Benefits, where he now heads up their Workplace Health Consulting practice.
Throughout his career Seidl has been focused on data-driven strategies that seek to measure and evaluate outcomes. “Wellbeing strategies need to be evidence- based,” he says. “This is one of the biggest changes I’ve seen in the industry across the last 10 years or so. When I started as clinical director of an EAP I wanted to ensure outcomes were measured and assessed. I had a competitor pleading with me not to introduce this, as they would have to follow suit and this could cost them more. But it is the only way to ensure you are delivering positive results.”
He says this focus on measurable outcomes is now standard across the healthcare industry, from NICE guidelines within the NHS, to systems that evaluate the return on investment (ROI) of various health and wellbeing propositions.
He describes the nation’s mental health crisis a “an epidemic” and argues tackling these problems within the workplace remain key. Seidl says it is important to look at the problem as an epidemiologist might — a term we are all now far more familiar with thanks to the coronavirus outbreak.
“There has been a lot of good work done to help raise awareness of mental illness and de-stigmatise the condition for sufferers. But while this changes the background it does not feed through to the numbers being affected, and isn’t reducing the numbers suffering from mental health issues in the workplace.
“A comprehensive wellbeing strategy should look at why cases are happening, what are the factors in the environment contributing to this, and what can be done to change this environment.”
Seidl also warns against medicalising conditions that may not merit it. “There is the tendency to compartmentalise things. Doctors are not trained necessarily on legal, moral or ethical issues, but this may be the cause of some problems. For example an employee may look like they have depression, but there could be underlying issues — such as a difficult boss, a lack of control over their workflow or bullying in the workplace.”
Seidl believes wellbeing will increasingly embrace tech-focused solutions and AI-driven data. Seidl says this smart technology can play a major role in helping manage and prevent non-communicable diseases, for example heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
However he says for this to be successful this technology needs to go hand in hand with a human touch.
For example he says apps which monitor diet or fitness can be demoralising if they simply reinforce people are not doing enough exercise or eating the wrong foods. Encouragement, engagement and human interaction are more likely to bring about positive change within the workplace — again with a focus from the start on the measurable outcomes sought.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown the effectiveness of this approach, he says. “Business that reacted quickly to the crisis, and centred the needs of their employees have tended to fare better.”
He cites Britain’s Healthiest Workplace, a study run by Vitality Health and Mercer as an example of the benefits of taking a more strategic, rather than tactical approach.
The most recent study shows marked differences in productivity between the top- performing companies and those deemed ‘average’ when it comes to wellbeing. Those in the top cohort gained an average of 11 days of productivity a year.
Wellbeing needs a personalised approach, with programmes designed around a company’s workforce, he says.
“When building a healthcare dashboard there are a whole host of factors to consider. This work often crosses over with lots of other issues in the workplace, including diversity and inclusion. In the pandemic we have seen the issues of BAME employees being more significantly affected by this particular disease.
“But the evidence shows this reflects inequalities within many working and living environments. These need to be looked at as part of a wellbeing strategy.
“In the same way there can be gender differences. With everyone working from home I had, wrongly, assumed, that this might increase equality between the sexes, but the research is unequivocal: woman are taking on a lot of additional household and childcare duties. This can all increase gender pay gaps, and lead to wider wellbeing and other mental health issues.”
For someone who is keen on data and evidence, the term ‘wellbeing’ can seem somewhat vague. But Seidl says that to him it relates back to ideas expressed by his fellow Austrian, Sigmund Freud.
“He said that the goal of life was to be able to work and love. Everything comes back to that. We need to be creating environments that enable people to do work effectively and to promote contentment in their life outside of work.”
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