Emerging from lockdown – supporting your employees as they prepare for the challenges ahead
With restrictions easing across the UK, we held a webinar panel discussion with clinical and industry experts to discuss the complex challenges organisations face surrounding the health and wellbeing of their employees as we emerge from lockdown.
The panel discussed their key learnings from the past twelve months, before looking forward to embracing the roadmap out of lockdown and the challenges this presents.
To effectively support your employees during this time it’s important to understand the health and wellbeing risks that are in play, given how the pandemic has exacerbated existing health inequalities. Your workforce will have been impacted in one way or another over the past twelve months, whether directly impacted by Covid-19 or not. In addition to the potential strain of losing loved ones, there are health, behavioural and on-going considerations.
Public Health England’s report into the disparities in risk and outcomes of Covid-19 revealed that working age males diagnosed with Covid were twice as likely to die as working age females. Furthermore, death rates from Covid were highest among people of Black and Asian ethnic groups. Comorbidities also significantly increased the risk of Covid, particularly obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, lung and kidney disease.
Aside from Covid itself, the working-from-home drive which saw almost 50% of the UK workforce convert dining tables, sofas or even beds into makeshift desks, with little warning or training, led to a big increase in musculoskeletal issues, with neck and shoulder pain particularly problematic.
Behaviourally the pandemic has impacted different people in different ways. For some, alcohol consumption has dropped, due to their favourite watering holes being closed for much of the past 12 months, and this is particularly true for your younger colleagues. However, for those whose usual intake was a dinnertime glass of wine, or those who were already heavy drinkers, there are some suggestions that consumption for them may have increased.
Perhaps most concerningly, 2020 saw a 20% increase in alcohol-specific deaths compared to 2019. Whilst most deaths were attributed to long-term misuse of alcohol, and therefore not attributed to the pandemic itself, the disruption to services, added stress, isolation and changes in habits and routine are potential contributing factors. Mirroring the disparities seen for Covid deaths, males were twice as likely to die than females and those in the most deprived areas were also at greatest risk.
A polarised picture can also be seen for exercise. For those who were already in good habits, the pandemic may have increased the opportunity to be active. Some of us exercised more out of boredom, given it was one of the few reasons we were permitted to leave the house. However, for many the pandemic has led to less exercise – perhaps due to gyms being closed, children being at home or the anxiety of leaving the house. Fewer opportunities to be active has led to a reduction in motivation to stay active.
Even those exercising daily are likely to have been less active throughout the day as the daily commute, walking between meetings or popping to the printer throughout the day has all but disappeared. Whilst the minimum exercise recommendations of 150 minutes per week are a great target to aim for, big improvements in health are also gained at the lower end of the spectrum – getting those who are doing nothing at all, to doing something. The key is to sit down less tomorrow than you did yesterday. Sedentary behaviour in itself is a risk factor for a multitude of health conditions and is associated with more severe Covid outcomes, according to a recent study.
Sleep has also taken a hit due to many of the reasons already mentioned, plus the added anxiety which the pandemic has brought to many. Research from the Royal Society for Public Health revealed that one in three (37%) reported having less sleep, or increasingly disturbed sleep, due to working from home. Furthermore, individuals working from their bedroom or sofa were more likely to report disturbed sleep, and musculoskeletal issues, than those who worked from a desk, table, or home office. In addition to lowering productivity, poor sleep also impacts cardiovascular health, cognitive functioning and even immunity.
There are on-going issues which will be with us for some time to come. Long Covid is perhaps more prevalent than you think. Office for National Statistics data revealed that 1.1m people reported experiencing long Covid throughout February and early March, with prevalence being higher amongst females than males. Over half of those were finding it was limiting their day-to-day activities with symptoms including fatigue, muscle pain and difficulty in concentrating.
The lockdown also saw an increase in reports of domestic abuse, although it must be noted that this was already on the rise. The past year has seen a gradual reduction in life satisfaction, feelings of a worthwhile life and happiness, with levels of anxiety remaining above pre-pandemic levels. Disparities amongst males and females exist, with females more likely to be furloughed, spending more time on unpaid household work and unpaid childcare. Furthermore, females reported higher anxiety, depression and loneliness than men.
There have been encouraging signs of improvements in these measures over the past couple of months, but the strain of the past 12 months has led to an estimated 10 million people needing new or additional mental health support as a direct consequence of the crisis.
A lot has changed since the start of the pandemic, and just as it took time to adapt to the “new normal” it will take time to break some of the habits and routines which have formed during that time.
With all this change and uncertainty, it’s hardly surprising that some of us may feel unsettled, potentially even experiencing re-entry anxiety. Our webinar panel discussion provides clinical and industry insights into what organisations are doing to support their people during this transition.
The author is Justin Jones, professional head of physiology at Nuffield Health.
This article is provided by Nuffield Health.
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