Cheryl Brennan, Director of Corporate Consulting, Howden Employee Benefits and Wellbeing, considers the risks that employers must consider when facilitating home working
Despite the Chancellor urging people to return to the office, it looks like working from home may become the new norm for many businesses. Some of the largest firms in the City of London have said they will be bringing back less than half of their staff, as they will find it impossible to abide by social distancing rules with a full workforce.[i] They say working from home has been successful and is safer.
A recent report from O2[ii] also highlighted that nearly half the UK workforce think flexible working will increase, with a third (33%) of this group expecting to increase the amount they work from home by at least three days a week after lockdown – rising to 81% for those expecting to work at least one day a week from home.
Employers will of course benefit financially from the reduced need for costly office space and employees may enjoy a better work life balance, however, there are unforeseen health risks associated with more time working at home that also need to be considered.
Key health risks from lockdown
For some people, lockdown has resulted in a more sedentary lifestyle, especially since gyms and leisure facilities have been closed and exercise time outside was limited for several months.
A study from Yorkshire Cancer Research[iii] in May found that physical activity among adults had fallen by a quarter since the lockdown came into effect – leading to a third of people putting on weight. They found those who have increased in weight have put on an average of six pounds during recent weeks.
Coupled with this, the typical adult has gone from doing an average of two hours of physical activity a day prior to the restrictions to just one hour and 32 minutes now. This includes everything from a short walk to cleaning the home. People who would normally use public transport, which often includes a walk to the station, navigating the underground etc – not to mention popping out to get lunch from the office or going to meetings have probably noticed a quite significant decline in their step count. Workers are spending more time sitting and perhaps taking fewer breaks from their screens, especially since they no longer have interactions or meetings with colleagues away from their desks.
The NHS says there is increasing evidence that sitting down too much can be a risk to your health[iv] with some studies have even suggested that sitting is the new smoking.[v]. The risks include cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, such as lung cancer and premature death from all causes.
Sitting for prolonged periods can also cause musculoskeletal issues. One of the first surveys of employees working from home during lockdown from the Institute of Employment Studies[vi] found there had been a significant increase in musculoskeletal complaints. More than half of those surveyed reported new aches and pains, especially in the neck (58%) and back (55%).
The lockdown has also caused some people to make poorer diet choices and increase their snacking leading to weight gain. According to analyst HIM[vii], nearly half of UK consumers either ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ that they have snacked more in the past few weeks, with the trend particularly evident among younger and more-affluent consumers. The research shows that crisps, confectionary and biscuits are our favourite snacks of choice. Working at home may well become a growing trend but without adapting exercise and diet regimes there are clearly some ‘hidden’ health risks that workers and employers need to be aware of.
Factoring in these risks in your health and wellbeing programmes
Lockdown has changed many people’s views of home working and many expect home working to become much more commonplace in the future. Therefore, it is essential that employers now factor in the different health risks that come from working at home which could impact the health and wellbeing of their workforce in the future.
This will include tailoring benefits to suit employees’ individual circumstances. For instance, benefits such as season ticket loans may no longer be as popular if no one is travelling to the office but gym membership close to people’s homes may be.
Companies might want to introduce wellbeing programmes that encourage a healthier lifestyle including eating more healthily and exercising more, taking regular screen breaks, and encouraging social interaction with colleagues, both virtually and in person.
They may also consider taking out Private Medical Insurance (PMI) for their employees so if they do get sick, they can access medical treatment quickly. This is likely to be increasingly important as NHS waiting lists look set to get longer following the pandemic. As home working may reduce costs for companies, reinvesting this saving into PMI could be something businesses may now want to extend to a greater number of employees.
Given the major impact that Covid-19 has had on all companies, as well as the shifting patterns of working and the greater focus on health and healthcare, now is the ideal time for companies to review their employee health and benefits packages to ensure they are still fit for purpose and they provide the right kind of healthcare protection their employees want and need.