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The workplace of the future

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The workplace of the future

The coronavirus crisis caused a seismic shift in working life, which had an inevitable knock-on effect on employee health, with existing issues becoming more prevalent and new challenges coming to the fore.

Though the grip of the pandemic is easing, with the vaccination roll-out and lifting of restrictions signalling a ‘return to normal’, the blueprint of the modern workplace has changed.

Just like the virus, the issues created – or aggravated – by the pandemic will not disappear with the passing of milestones.

From mental health concerns to unhealthy behaviours, businesses expect to be dealing with the fallout of the pandemic for years to come.

Against this backdrop is increasing pressure on the overly-strained and under-resourced NHS and growing expectations for employers to step in and fill the ‘gap’.

Furthermore, businesses are having to meet these new challenges with limited visibility of employees and their health issues, due to widespread home-working.

Here, we examine emerging key priorities in employee health and the steps businesses are taking to navigate the post-pandemic world.

A perfect storm

Employees should be applauded for their resilience in the face of great adversity during the coronavirus crisis but it was inevitable that this period of change would take its eventual toll.

Employee mental health, and its associated issues of isolation, loneliness, health anxiety, burnout and stress, is now a top concern for employers, according to the Willis Towers Watson (WTW) Emerging Trends in Delivering Healthcare survey.

Though mental health was a key priority for employers prior to the pandemic, it has now become a board level concern, with nine in ten organisations worried about an increase in mental health issues.

The rise in musculoskeletal issues, driven by poor working set-ups in the home, is a worry for more than half of companies (59 per cent), as is the long-term impact that late diagnosis and missed treatments will have on employees’ health and wellbeing (54 per cent).

The increase in concern around unhealthy lifestyle habits (39 per cent) further compounds the issues and all point to a build-up of problems employers may encounter over the next two to three years.

Add in the burgeoning pressures on the NHS, and employers face somewhat of a perfect storm.

Indeed, organisations expect they will face a greater burden, with almost half intending to expand health care coverage as a result of pressures on the NHS (46 per cent), and two in three expecting employees to look to them to take a more active role in addressing their broader wellbeing (64 per cent) (WTW Emerging Trends in Delivering Healthcare survey).

The digital antidote

So how are employers tackling these issues?

Employers are looking to expand their role to meet the broader health, lifestyle and wellbeing needs of employees and technology will be fundamental to achieving this goal.

The pandemic may have accelerated the digital healthcare trend but the success of remote, virtual care delivery will be the driving force behind future demand and will be central in addressing the health concerns of the wider employee population.

By the beginning of 2021, nearly 70 per cent of employers reported having remote access to a GP or online mental health services, with these figures growing to 80 per cent and 90 per cent respectively in the next two years, according to the WTW Emerging Trends in Healthcare Delivery survey.

With the infrastructure for digital health now in place, and the era of home-working set to continue, it is the new goal of employers to leverage these solutions.

Complementing the growth in digital health delivery, employers are developing their digital wellbeing strategy, with many supporting physical and emotional wellbeing via apps, virtual classes and online lifestyle coaching.

Growth is expected across a range of areas of wellbeing but is most strongly seen around online health and lifestyle coaching, healthy eating and exercise and addiction support.
Furthermore, companies are intending to expand the definition of digital health delivery, with online support for chronic condition management and musculoskeletal issues an emerging focus.

A significant increase in screening tools, particularly online tools, is also expected.

Mental health risk assessments and online health risk assessments could potentially more than double in use in the next two years, from around 30 per cent to 70 per cent, whilst remote health tests could see even more growth, from 13 per cent today to 30 per cent planning or considering adoption.

There is also increasing interest in supporting online dental or optical health services with around one in seven companies planning or considering doing so.

A look to the future

The future of employee health is not limited to tackling pandemic-related issues.

Diversity and inclusion is an emerging focus for employers and is informing benefits priorities.

For example, reproductive and family health is expected to play a much larger role in organisations’ policies and benefit programmes in the future.

Over half of organisations are expecting to have enhanced support in place for pregnancy, surrogacy and adoption within two years, according to the WTW Emerging Trends in Healthcare Delivery survey.

Many employers are also looking to go a step further and enhance support for employees in the process of fertility treatment, with around one in four organisations saying they will enhance support or benefits here.

Companies have also pledged increased support in the area of menopause, while other female health issues, such as endometriosis, female specific cancers, and male health issues, for example, prostate and testicular cancer, are also focus areas for employers, with around a quarter to a third of organisations intending to enhance provision.

Finally, gender transition is also moving up the agenda, with employers now taking steps to formalise how they support an employee who decides to transition to their preferred gender. While 12 per cent state they have policies in place, 28 per cent are planning or considering doing so.

Moving forward

Uncertainty was the hallmark of 2020, and many of us have been faced unprecedented challenges.

What is certain, however, is employers’ commitment to improving the wellbeing of their employees and taking a more holistic approach to health and benefits provision to ensure that the diverse needs of employees are being met.

After all, companies that look to enhance, rather than withdraw support, will not only retain their valued staff but benefit from a healthy, thriving and resilient workforce in the post-pandemic world.