Employers will need to adapt to long-term behavioural changes in how employees access health and wellbeing support because of the pandemic, argues Brett Hill.
Employees have had to engage with health and wellbeing in a different way during the pandemic, and this has enlightened many about the variety of wellbeing services that are available remotely and digitally.
Some of this has been better for employees, and so is likely to create long-term behavioural change, which will bring a number of positive benefits. The industry, occupational healthcare professionals, health and wellbeing providers and employers all have an opportunity to capitalise on this.
The pandemic has fundamentally altered the attitude of many employees towards health and wellbeing, as they now fully understand the extent to which it can be engaged with remotely.”
Many health and wellbeing benefits had a digital element prior to the pandemic, such as the ability to access doctors virtually. Others have been enhanced as a result of the crisis, such as virtual physiotherapy appointments.
However, a significant change is that there is now greater awareness of remote and digital wellbeing benefits, as staff have engaged with healthcare in this new way to a far greater extent – either out of necessity or increased awareness as a result of the pandemic. The ramifications of which, on the healthcare industry and employees, are set to be felt long term as preferences, expectations and delivery methods have shifted.
Remote support for physical health
The pandemic has fundamentally altered the attitude of many employees towards health and wellbeing, as they now fully understand the extent to which it can be engaged with remotely. In fact, a survey of physicians found that remote patient consultations had increased up to six-fold in Europe, representing a game-changer in how employees access healthcare services.
Many medical professionals are now increasingly providing consultations virtually, including advising on appropriate self-care, diagnostics, treatment and recommending if further investigation into a concern is required.
Although borne out of necessity for some employees, accessing services virtually is likely to become a preference for others – it helps decrease the risk of the virus spreading – but is also more convenient for many. There’s less travel time involved, less waiting, less time away from work, and it is much easier which a lot of people prefer.
Many employers are now exploring health and wellbeing options that include access to digital and remote healthcare such as virtual GPs and online rehabilitation, not as a fall-back option but as a go-to.
Remote support isn’t confined to diagnosing and treating ailments, it’s also being used proactively, to help improve health, wellbeing and fitness too.
The pandemic has triggered employees to engage with benefits that support fitness in a way they never had before. The concept of exercising at home is new for some, but as gyms closed, healthcare benefits adapted.
This has included offering enhanced benefits that incorporate remote support, such as discounted or free access to online workouts.
This shift in habit will have created long-term change with how many people improve fitness and maintain their health. And some employees that didn’t feel comfortable in a gym now have a viable alternative, so this can potentially increase the number of employees who will engage with improving their fitness, and introduce a new tranche who enjoy working out in a way that suits them.
There is an opportunity for businesses to capitalise on this momentum. This is a chance to encourage enthusiasm for keeping fit and make benefits available that facilitate this.
Now is a good time to remind all staff about benefits available that encourage fitness, such as discounts on trackers, and schemes that offer rewards for workouts, such as earning points that can be redeemed on everyday items such as coffee, grocery shopping and cinema tickets.
As prevention is better than cure, this can be a real boon for employers. Sedentary lifestyles, unergonomic home workstations and changes and disruptions to usual activities are all taking their toll on physical wellbeing.
High employee engagement in improving physical resilience can help mitigate the likelihood of ailments, and make recovery quicker. Employers that offer access to such resources are likely to be protecting themselves from both the number and length of absences related to musculoskeletal issues.
Supporting mental health
Accessing support digitally isn’t restricted to supporting physical health, it’s also been reflected in how people access support for mental health.
Employee assistance programme (EAP) providers report that, immediately post lockdown, their traditional face-to-face counselling appointments took place by telephone instead, but gradually online video counselling sessions became more popular as users became more familiar and comfortable with the technology.
Where face-to-face support for mental wellbeing has been viewed by many as the panacea, there’s a lot that can be said for remote support. When leaving the house can be a challenge, making a phone call or using video-link can be far easier for some than physically attending an appointment. The human interaction is still provided which can be so important, but at a comfortable distance.
When leaving the house can be a challenge, making a phone call or using video-link can be far easier for some than physically attending an appointment.”
Many providers and suppliers of mental wellbeing care have been preparing for this shift in behaviour and approach for some time, and there are a wealth of apps, hubs and online resources to support people.
The more sophisticated resources are personalised specifically for an employee’s individual needs. Sometimes this can provide enough support on its own, but if it can be backed up by access to a professional when needed, so much the better.
Mental health apps have seen a surge in engagement during lockdown. While this may reflect the increased need for emotional support during a period of heightened anxiety for many, some employees have also had more time and inclination to explore such services. For others, it has become second nature to reach out to people from a phone, and accessing support remotely is a natural extension.
As more people now feel comfortable accessing mental wellbeing support via technology, it is expected to continue to be a preference for many in the future. This is likely to mean more investment in ever-more sophisticated and better digital technology, more choice, more competition, and ultimately a better service for employees.
Employers need to keep on top of the changing landscape and the options that are available so they can support their workforce in a way that suits them best. This means increased engagement, utilisation and, ultimately, better support.
There are some silver linings to be gleaned from the Covid-19 crisis and one is increased awareness around the effectiveness of remote and virtual healthcare solutions. Whilst face-to-face support remains important, the pandemic has encouraged employees to experience remote wellbeing services first-hand. This has fundamentally changed how staff access support for health and wellbeing and is likely to lead to lasting behaviour change in healthcare management.
Remote services can make healthcare more efficient and effective, for employee and employer alike; this has been realised during the pandemic and is set to continue.
“Understanding and managing the hidden health crisis of Covid-19 in Europe”, McKinsey, June 2020, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/understanding-and-managing-the-hidden-health-crisis-of-covid-19-in-europe