Health and the return to work



13 April 2021

The opening-up of further sections of the UK economy this week represents another important milestone on the roadmap to post-COVID-19 normality.  And the continued progress of the UKs vaccination programme suggests that the lifting of all restrictions by the 21st June (as was originally suggested by the Prime Minister in February) might indeed be an achievable target for the nation.

This news is of course very welcome to employers and employees alike.  Yet the very action of returning employees to the physical workspace might well serve to highlight some hidden issues that few organisations might be expecting or prepared for. 

And one such concern is the health of everyone within the workforce to make that return to work. 

For the truth is that many employees have not been in physical attendance at a place of work since December, and some have worked exclusively from home since March 2020.  And then we have the millions of workers that have been placed on furlough (some for well over a year).

So are employers sure that all their employees are physically and mentally able to return to the routine of contracted working hours and a daily commute?

The health of your workforce

Because the truth is that at least some employees might not be well enough to return at this time.

For starters we have the new - and still not yet fully understood - challenges of Long Covid.  A recent Office for National Statistic (ONS) report suggested that 1.1 million people reported experiencing Long Covid in the four week period ending 6th March 2021.  That’s a huge number, and many of this grouping will be from the working age population.

Now it’s difficult to define Long Covid, not least because there have been no less than 205 different symptoms associated with the condition, and the further complication that the symptoms can morph over time too.  But it is clear that Long Covid can impact anyone - regardless of age - and can be extremely debilitating. 

The national media have already reported on several cases of young and previously extremely healthy people who are now unable to walk a short distance or climb a flight of stairs.  These people would clearly struggle with a return to the physical workplace at this time.

But Long Covid is only part of the issue.  The usual mix of other medical conditions remain, but have been largely overshadowed by the more immediately apparent crisis of COVID-19.  Yet any of these conditions (for instance musculoskeletal, mental health, or undiagnosed and/or untreated conditions such as cancer) might have been made very much worse by the lockdowns and experiences of the last year.  So employees with such illnesses might also struggle to return to a physical place of work too.    

Out of sight, out of mind?

One of the problems here will be that many employers are currently unlikely to have an accurate understanding of which employees are experiencing such illness. 

After all it’s difficult to assess the health of an employee over a Zoom call, and many on furlough won’t have even had that basic level of interaction in recent months.  So the reality is that employers might only be aware of their workers experiencing a serious medical condition if the employee has volunteered that information to their employer. 

Some will have done so of course, but it would be entirely understandable if many others had not taken such steps.  After all, a continuation of full salary - or an 80% of pre-pandemic income via furlough - is often likely to be significantly more generous than many employer sick-pay policies.

And, during the recent turbulent and uncertain months, few employees would have wanted to unnecessarily flag a health condition if they thought it could count against them in any subsequent redundancy exercise.

All of the above suggests that many employers might well be unaware as to which employees are physically and mentally able to return to the workplace, or which workers might need help and assistance in order to do so.

Assess and support

The true scale of these issues won’t be known for a while yet, but I would suggest that the onus to investigate rests with employers and line managers at this time.

With the full return to normality beckoning again, now is the time to make contact with all workers to discuss their concerns, and assess if any support will be needed to enable a smooth return to the physical workplace. 

The good news is that often employers and employees already have access to tools that will assist in this process.  Early Intervention Services (often provided free of charge with Group Income Protection schemes), Employee Assistance Plans, online GP surgeries, and access to private health treatments can all help make a real difference.   

The bottom line is that most employers need their employees back at work and achieving maximum productivity just as soon the national and local restrictions allow.  And in many cases that might only be achieved if ill employees are supported on their journey back to the physical workplace at an early stage.   

For more information on any of the above topics, please speak to your usual Howden Consultant in the first instance, or visit our website for other contact options. For the latest details on COVID-19 & Employee Benefits provision please visit our coronavirus hub.

(Published 13/04/21)

Steve Herbert

Steve is Head of Benefits Strategy, Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing, and is an award-winning thought leader on Pensions, Employee Benefits, and Human Resources issues. He is occasionally accused of making Employee Benefits interesting.

Steve Herbert

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