The Pandemic Showed the Importance of Investing in Employees’ Long Term Health
The Coronavirus has forced the business world to rethink everything it does. At the time of writing this piece, the economy is at a standstill. However, the voices screaming to ease social distancing restrictions and to put able-bodied people back to work are getting louder. With a new pandemic, there is not a blueprint for how to effectively implement this type of integration. There are preliminary ideas for how to ease businesses back open by first making sure all high-risk citizens continue to quarantine themselves, and lower risk populations of people can begin to slowly return to work. But there is no guarantee that it will be seamless or without incident.
One constant throughout the news coverage on the pandemic has been the focus on how a healthy lifestyle and strong immune system is one of the best lines of defense against the illness. For years it has been discussed that the sedentary nature of the daily workday adversely affected people’s health. People who work long hours and commute long distances are at a higher risk of obesity due to the nature of their work. Many offices have employed standing desks and walking breaks throughout the workday to combat this issue, but it hasn’t eliminated it. According to the CDC, 71.6 % of Americans are overweight, including obesity.
The Los Angeles Times reported, “America’s obesity epidemic appears to be making the coronavirus outbreak more dangerous — and potentially more deadly — in the United States, new research suggests. For younger and middle-aged adults, in particular, carrying excess weight may significantly boost the likelihood of becoming severely ill with COVID-19. The evidence for this comes from thousands of COVID-19 patients who sought treatment in emergency departments in New York, and it’s prompting alarm among doctors and other health experts. In the U.S., 42.4% of adults have obesity, which means their body-mass index or BMI is 30 or more.”
It has been speculated that we will see another round of the coronavirus again. With so much uncertainty about when that may happen, it is hard for businesses to prepare for what is next. However, what shouldn’t be hard to prepare for is the human defense against fighting off the virus by improving employee’s personal health. This can begin while employees are working remotely or when they return to work at the office. But the idea that health initiatives should be included in workdays should now be clearer than ever.
Most full-time employees spend at least eight hours a day at their job. That doesn’t account for commuting time. Performance-based metrics have been a measurement tool most industries have implemented to track efficiency and relied on as technology has evolved. Now it is time to use other technological advancements to improve how employees are improving their quality of lives in their workdays and enhancing their health where they can.
There are many variables to monitor and to modify when attempting to enhance employee health, but a few major ones would include.
Before the pandemic, many businesses offered reimbursement for gym memberships, as well as incentives for nutritional enhancement. Science has demonstrated that those who had healthier immune systems were less likely to require hospitalization, and it’s time for companies to invest in the lifestyle choices their employees make. The days of vending machines full of candy and soda should be gone. Water coolers and healthier options in the break room should be making a comeback. Having worked in a call center in my lifetime, I have seen from the inside some of the unfortunate meal offerings the most sedentary environments have to offer.
In a politically correct society, it is hard to address weight issues without someone getting offended. But it is time individuals start to evaluate their health in addition to their diet and activity level. Most offices offer microwaves to accommodate hot meals and ones that do not should consider doing so. Those who have used lunch breaks as a reason to run through a drive-through should consider saving the money and applying the finances to healthy meals made at home.
Gyms and exercise centers will be open when they are able, but even when the restrictions are lifted, many will remain skeptical and hesitant to enter. Fortunately, over this lockdown, most Americans have found ways to get outside and exercise or have gotten creative with their home workouts. Those home routines should continue, and when the economy gets rolling again, those working out at home may consider looking into adding some home exercise equipment.
When people begin to trust going to the gyms again, employers should consider using incentives to motivate employees to pursue memberships. Either partnering with a gym chain for complimentary memberships or reimbursing employees for their membership fees when they provide a receipt of payment. Besides cutting the unhealthy nutritional options from the break room, why not make that early year biggest loser challenges a year-round thing. Don’t limit getting excited about weight loss to after the new year. Many people use that as a trendy time to target their health, but many of those motivations fizzle out quickly, with most stressed from the financial burdens of the holidays. Employers may consider offering three hours paid time off for the winner of the contest at the end of each week. The goal could possibly be three days paid vacation for the overall winner if the winner can get to a specified criterion. Providing short term reinforcement weekly will keep motivation for the contestants to work toward the bigger prize, and offering paid time off is something employees really can use. Encourage paid time off to be used on self-care activities such as getting outside and enjoying the outdoors.
Walking groups are always a supportive way for co-workers to get their blood flowing during the day. Encourage colleagues to bring hand weights, and supervisors could allow lunch breaks to be flexible time to back up to a morning or afternoon break so employees could walk for long stretches of time. Workplaces will only benefit from human resources thinking outside the box to find new strategies to enhance work culture to allow for physical enhancement during the workday.
While businesses begin to modify plans to invite employees back to work, financial capital will be the determining factor for most decisions. Companies that were fortunate enough to stay open will be moving on skeleton budgets to try and recoup losses suffered during the shutdown. Many will have suffered massive layoffs and will be doing everything possible to retain staff. Social distancing will most likely be a part of our personal interactions for the immediate future, which will make companies get creative in remodeling floor plans.
The solution to social distancing in offices may be already in place. Customer service jobs in retail and healthcare have been trending to remote hires for previous years to cut down on the expense of staffing call centers. With more jobs getting trial runs at home, this may be a time to consider moving more jobs to a home-based model.
Moving jobs to home would reduce the number of employees in office locations at a specified time. One of the largest benefits would be the reduction in automobiles on the road. The benefits of fewer cars on the road range from a reduction in automobile accidents, environmental pollution, and reduced wear and tear to employees’ automobiles and local infrastructure. Additionally, it would improve the quality of life for most employees. In all cities across America, workers drive sometimes multiple hours each way to preserve gainful employment. Any amount of time in a car that is jarring back and forth in traffic will wear the body down and erode the mind.
Employees who often drive for work arrive to work often in a rush, or worse already stressed out. The financial cost of gasoline, parking, and maintenance for automobiles adds additional financial burden to a workforce that is already facing difficulties paying bills. Removing these additional costs and eliminating time in the car for traffic, could immensely reduce the amount of stress someone has when they arrive at work or at least provide some space to stress about something else. Trimming excess spending on work-related expenditures.
In fields such as construction, employees could be offered mileage reimbursement to drive directly to job sites if they don’t already. Businesses that require drivers to report to headquarters to check out hardware and tools for jobs may consider implementing systems that check out equipment to drivers under specified conditions. Companies may invest and provide lockboxes for materials, or offer reimbursement. Mental health and healthcare workers who provide residential services may adjust to operating from home and driving directly to client’s homes. HIPAA regulations have already been flexible in this regard to allow for more video conferencing for clients, which again benefits providers who can reduce the amount of drive time they are putting in, as well as exposure to illnesses.
The old school idea that you just power through stress because that is part of life has some merit. However, stress is, in so many ways, the ultimate silent assassin for which technology in all its advancements, still has not found a way to accurately measure its toll on human life. The Center for Disease Control reported on the subject of work stress and potential ties to a variety of health-related causes.
“Job Stress and Health:
What the Research Tells Us
Cardiovascular Disease: Many studies suggest that jobs that are psychologically demanding give employees less control over the work process thus increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Musculoskeletal Disorders: Based on research by NIOSH and many other organizations, it is widely believed that job stress increases the risk in the development of back and upper- extremity musculoskeletal disorders.
Psychological Disorders: Several studies suggest that differences in rates of mental health problems (such as depression and burnout) for various occupations are due partly to differences in job stress levels. (Economic and lifestyle differences between occupations may also contribute to some of these problems.)
Although more study is needed, there is a growing concern that stressful working conditions interfere with safe work practices and set the stage for injuries at work.
Suicide, Cancer, Ulcers, and Impaired Immune Function
Some studies suggest a relationship between stressful working conditions and these health problems. However, more research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn.
–Encyclopedia of Occupational Safety and Health”
Employers cannot fixate on the bottom line and expect to maintain a sustainable workforce without casualties. More money will be made by retaining the best workers and organizing workflow to accommodate strengths in their performance. Instead of a one size fits all approach to metrics, consider performance-based initiatives tailored to individual goals. The CDC recommends the following:
Allowing employees to flex their schedules to work four, ten-hour shifts rather than the ongoing standard of five days a week, eight hours a day can be an alternative to provide workers extra relief and days off to spend with family, or taking care of themselves. Those who work in mental health are aware of “Mental health days,” where employees are allowed to use a sick day to recharge for burnout and compassion fatigue. This is a great concept for other fields to incorporate to provide flexibility in high-stress jobs. Breaking the social stigma on mental health issues begins with understanding how stress accumulates, injects itself into our lives, and erodes our daily routines.
When employees are in the office, providing them the correct tools for the job is one of the good ways to relieve stress and increase productivity. Standing desks and individually modified workspaces shouldn’t require a doctor’s note. Providing these supports increasing healthy lifestyles in the office and reduces inflammation and other pain-related issues that plague sedentary positions.
For those who work remotely, incorporating standing desks and other aides can be as easy as working at the kitchen counter where it is often at a higher elevation or installing a standing desk in an old closet. There are easy designs online for how to maximize office space in a spare room, or using space currently used for other functions. Companies who hire employees to work remotely full time may invest in tabletop standing desk to be loaned out with computers and other equipment. Modifying chair height can also reduce hip impingement and lower back pain. Posture can affect the central nervous system, which impacts overall health and wellness.
A Forbes Magazine study revealed several details regarding how employees in various companies view their environment.
The environment is where so much of the difference could be made with improving health. We are already looking at reducing environmental proximity as a preventative measure. During the height of the pandemic, masks, face shields, and other environmental supplies was the barrier between those on the front line and illness. The distractions that detour our attention spans are in the environment. It is the place where the maximum impact could be felt with the proper amount of investment and planning.
If all early predictions are true, this type of illness will be around for a while in various forms and stages. If employers want to be prepared, they should continue to plan ahead and take all preemptive solutions seriously. When the pandemic was at full strength, even those with health insurance were helpless as they started closing the hospitals to everyone who was not directly infected. Overall, health may not be the definitive answer to fighting the illness. Still, outside of a vaccine and social distancing, it is the next best answer we have.
Austin Hill M.A MFA
April 25, 2020