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Nov. 17, 2020

Nearly four months after the earliest quarantine orders went into effect, 72 percent of Americans surveyed said the coronavirus pandemic has been the worst time of their lives. Without a doubt, this has been a uniquely challenging time for us all — and those challenges are only going to continue for employers as more companies begin to explore return-to-the-workplace scenarios.
 
While some of your employees are ready and willing to get back to the workplace, and others are going to be remote for several more months (Google announced its employees are working from home [WFH] until at least summer 2021, for example), there’s sure to be an uncommon level of stress on everyone in your organization. That’s why moving forward, we know recognizing and supporting the overall well-being of your people is job one.
 
“Now, more than ever, it is important for employers to help support their employees’ overall wellness,” says Carrie Shick, a wellness consultant with BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina.

man addresses employees wearing masks in office Hover image

The current state of things

Before COVID-19, only 15 percent of Americans had paid WFH days and just over 2 percent worked from home five days a week. During COVID-19, that number abruptly changed: 42 percent of U.S. employees are WFH and 33 percent are not working at all, meaning an astounding two-thirds of the U.S. GDP is being driven by those working remotely. Post COVID-19, U.S. firms are forecasting WFH days to be about 20 percent of all working days. 
 
Based on a study conducted earlier this year by Professor Nicholas Bloom, Department of Economics at Stanford University, employees on average want to work from home about 50 percent of the time, with the other half of their days spent in the office. So, when it comes to WFH, there seems to be a disconnect between what firms are forecasting and employee preferences.  
 
Bloom’s research has shown, as many employers have seen in their own workforce, that WFH increases productivity for most workers. He highlights the presence of a “honeymoon” period where these figures peak for the first three or so months before leveling off. However, WFH does have its downfalls, such as isolation, hours creep, decreased creativity, and fewer career development or growth opportunities. 
 
WFH during the COVID-19 pandemic has also created additional challenges, particularly for caregivers, who are struggling with balancing their jobs and the need to look after children while providing remote learning support or caring for parents — the list goes on. Plus, being apart has made it more difficult to engage with others and identify when team members may need additional support for both their mental and physical well-being. 
 
In a recent Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) National Generation Survey, 19 percent of people said they’re speaking more to a therapist, counselor or mental health professional. Some contributing factors could include:

  • Social isolation as a result of quarantine and being confined to small spaces
  • Having to manage taking care of children and work
  • Taking care of older or ill family members — e.g., millennials may have to take care of their parents and their children 
  • Financial concerns, such as losing a job, family members losing their jobs, being furloughed, salary reductions, etc.
  • Taking less time off (vacation and sick days) to get a mental break
  • Dealing with losing friends/relatives to COVID-19
  • Added anxiety that comes with uncertainty 

A new kind of stress

Whether you’re planning on bringing your workforce back full time, part time or in shifts, returning to the workplace could add another source of stress and anxiety for your employees. Before we can explore ways to address their concerns, let’s talk about some of the things your employees may be worried about as they return to the workplace in the COVID-19 era.
 
New sources of stress and anxiety for your employees could include:

  • Being exposed to and contracting COVID-19, concerns for bringing it home to their families and not knowing if symptoms are just a common cold, flu or allergies 
  • Adjusting to the new work environment:
    • Having to wear a mask while working
    • Worrying about social distancing at the office
    • Using public spaces like breakrooms, elevators, restrooms, cafeterias
  • Commuting and taking public transportation
  • Arranging for childcare, as many schools are moving to remote learning
  • Being tested for COVID-19
  • How employees who test positive will be treated by others

 
There’s a lot to consider and opportunities for you as an employer to create a culture of health that goes well beyond providing personal protective equipment and promoting social distancing. 
 
“Focusing on employees’ mental well-being is also an important and crucial priority,” Shick says.
 
For example, when the Business Group on Health (BGH) surveyed large employers asking which factors they are including in their overall health and well-being strategy, here’s how they responded

  • 91 percent finances
  • 40 percent childcare
  • 24 percent transportation
  • 18 percent food access and insecurity
  • 7 percent housing

Promoting employee wellness

Regardless of what the future of your workplace may look like — on-site or remote — employers are becoming more mindful of the overall wellness of their staff, ensuring they feel cared for, engaged and empowered. 
 
“As we all deal with the uncertainties of COVID-19, companies are getting creative by offering virtual wellness offerings and gatherings, drive-thru flu shot clinics and at-home biometric screening kits,” Shick says.
 
Taking another look at the survey conducted by BGH, we see some of the ways large employers are supporting, or planning to support, the full health of their workforce: 

  • 36 percent indicate they will implement and/or expand their access to mental health services in 2021.
  • 43 percent added new mental health benefits or offerings to support employees WFH to ease the burden of COVID-19.
  • 88 percent offered virtual “telemental” health services in 2020, with an additional 3 percent planning to add them in 2021.
  • 61 percent of large employers offered virtual emotional well-being/resilience services in 2020, with an additional 4 percent planning to add them in 2021. 

 
Overall employee well-being is about a positive physical state as well as having a positive state of mind. Here are some things your organization can do to help achieve a healthy workplace culture:

Impact on physical health

A recent Blue Cross Blue Shield Association National Generation Survey asked people how their activities have changed since coronavirus, and here’s what they said:

  • 50 percent are eating more food and/or eating more often.
  • 30 percent are exercising less often.
  • 28 percent are drinking more alcohol and/or drinking alcohol more often.
  • 27 percent are sleeping less.
  • 15 percent are smoking cigarettes more often or started smoking.
  • 14 percent are taking more drugs for something other than a required medical reason.

(Source: BCBSA National Generation Survey, 2020)

People work remotely via virtual call Hover image

Connect with your employees

Understanding how your employees are feeling and what is on their mind is first and foremost. Consider creating regular, formal and informal opportunities for input. This could mean conducting surveys to get a pulse of the organization so you can develop initiatives accordingly. Company leaders and managers should also openly talk about mental health, provide options for encouragement and support, and routinely check in with employees.

Communicate early and often

Be proactive and transparent in communicating all the ways you’re prioritizing employee safety. Also be clear on your organization’s behavioral health benefits and Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), explaining what’s available and how to use all the resources with an emphasis on counseling and emotional support options. Sending periodic emails or posting reminders on your intranet can help keep everyone well informed. 

See the full picture

Expand non-medical benefits that promote your employees’ full health — from physical and behavioral to financial and beyond. Benefits include childcare, caregiving, financial coaching/planning and flexible schedules. If you have employees who used to take public transportation, parking benefits could also be examined. 

Re-evaluate benefits

Based on the challenges ahead, determine if you need to make any changes or enhancements to your organization’s benefit programs. Perhaps you’ll need to expand your EAP or include additional virtual care resources in your health plan.

Introduce new tools

Consider providing employees with free access to one of the many mindfulness apps or self-guided behavioral health apps on the market. Work with your health plan provider for ideas and potential partner discounts.

Take it slow and be flexible

Even when more folks start to return to the workplace, things won’t be the same. Be flexible and consider a hybrid on-site/at-home model for employees to ease back into the work environment. If only some employees are returning to the workplace, make sure you’re taking steps to keep remote employees connected through tools and technology, so they don’t feel isolated.

Embrace resilience training  

Consider conducting resilience training with your employees. Have an expert conduct a series of seminars or webinars and provide tools for employees to use on their own.
 
We all know the road ahead isn’t going to be easy. That’s why we’re sharing ideas, listening to employers and working with our partners to make the best of a difficult situation.

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