The Long Lockdown Effect – Impacts on Future Physical & Mental Health

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Vitality, in partnership with the RSA, is launching a new study that warns of the crippling impact of successive lockdowns on the future physical and mental health of employees, and calls for UK businesses to urgently incorporate health and wellbeing into the Company Risk Register.

The report’s key findings and recommendations include:

  • Worsening physical health – homeworking has reinforced sedentary lifestyles leading to an ‘ergonomic timebomb’ risking increased back and shoulder injuries and pain. This has been coupled with a reduction in physical activity of 28%[1].
  • Increased anxiety: 50% of homeworkers are anxious about a return to the office. As a result, 85% of homeworkers say taking employee health and wellbeing seriously will be important when thinking about their future career prospects.
  • Hybrid working expectation gap: Only 16% of homeworkers would prefer to be in a physical work location full time, yet 1 in 3 anticipate this will be their employer’s expectation when lockdown rules allow.

As a result, three of the 10 solutions Vitality propose are:

  • Health and wellbeing needs to be included in company risk registers and prioritised at board level. Ignoring it has the capacity to further impact workforces across the UK.
  • Organisations should schedule 30 minutes a day for exercise to protect musculoskeletal health.
  • Mandatory breaks and ‘right to disconnect’ policies are needed to protect hybrid workers from burnout and physical health issues.

Neville Koopowitz, CEO of Vitality UK said: “Now is the time for businesses to reset their approach to health and wellbeing and set themselves up for a ‘healthy hybrid’ future. Our report shows that wellbeing and productivity – health and economic competitiveness – are two sides of the same coin. Corporate Britain needs both in order to recover and flourish.  This builds on our shared value philosophy of a way of working that delivers for people, society and for the economy. A healthy workforce is so critical for businesses that employee health and wellbeing should be on the company risk register. In the same way organisations plan for pandemics, climate change and market fluctuations, the last 12 months have taught us that the health of our people is the most valuable asset to recovery and growth.”

How to healthy hybrid – the report in further detail

With hybrid working set to become a reality for millions of employees, ‘Healthy Hybrid, a Blueprint for Business’, shines a light on the health impact of successive lockdowns on homeworkers.

The report, produced in partnership with the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), builds on Vitality’s heritage of running Britain’s Healthiest Workplace report for the last nine years – the UK’s largest workplace wellbeing survey. It is based on new research among more than 1,000 homeworkers conducted during the third lockdown in January; wellbeing data from the Vitality Programme; a series of interviews with leading CEOs and business leaders; and extensive RSA analysis of key research relating to workplace trends.  As debates intensify around how to reorganise working life around home and the office, the report concludes by offering a practical blueprint to help businesses close this expectation gap. Incorporating the best of working from home and office life: a ‘healthy hybrid’, delivering inclusive productivity gains and a healthier, happier workforce.

  • Lockdowns have worsened long-standing physical health issues creating an ‘ergonomic timebomb’– daily movement must become mandatory: this becomes more important as figures released by the NHS found that the majority of adults are overweight or obese; 67% of men and 60% of women[2]. With activity levels at a low, businesses must enable their workforce to take time to exercise and move. The benefits of movement can have a direct impact on health – data from Vitality found that amongst 1.3m Vitality members last year, those who participated in regular exercise had a 28% reduced risk of admission to hospital from Covid-19[3].
  • As life became more sedentary at the start of the first lockdown in March 2020, Vitality members recorded a 28% drop in physical activity events predominantly driven by marked reductions in the number of people achieving their daily step count goals[4].
  • Additionally, Nuffield Health found that 7 in 10 remote workers said they were experiencing more aches and pains in the back, neck, shoulders, legs and joints, more eye strain, and more headaches; this is despite employees valuing the opportunity to incorporate physical activity working from home. Research from Vitality’s Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey showed more than half of the UK workforce suffered from two or more musculoskeletal conditions, such as lower back pain (45%), neck pain (34%) and shoulder pain (34%) pre pandemic in 2019.
  • Mental health will remain the ‘long lockdown’ challenge – employers must manage anxiety linked to a return to the office: Britain’s homeworkers may have been shielded from some of the more immediate and obvious impacts of the virus, but the toll upon their mental health has been high. As a result of this decline in mental health, 85% of homeworkers say taking employee health and wellbeing seriously will be important when thinking about their future career prospects. In the short-term, returning to physical workplaces needs careful management – our study shows that 44% of remote workers have found it “much” or “somewhat” easier to manage their mental health and wellbeing as a result of remote working. However, 50% of all homeworkers and 58% of female homeworkers feel anxious about the return.
  • The pandemic experience has fundamentally changed homeworkers’ expectations – businesses must embrace a ‘demand for different’: The hybrid work people want is not just a simple shift in workplace location, but a shift in possibilities towards a new ‘healthy hybrid’. More than eight in ten would prefer to work at home for either part of the week or in full (just under half 48% hybrid; 36% at home permanently). The same number again say they are looking for a better work-life balance (80%); 7 in 10 want work to allow for a fit and healthy lifestyle (71%).
  • Women and young people are among groups that have suffered disproportionately – hybrid working must be tailored to the diverse needs of different groups: Four in 10 mothers working from home report losing productivity (42.8%) versus a third of fathers (33.8%). 33% of women report worse concentration than usual compared to one in five men (22.3%). Young people have also been adversely affected, research by the Mental Health Foundation shows that 56% of people said they were more stressed and anxious about work than before the pandemic, but this rose to 72% and 64% for the 18-24 and 24-35 age groups, respectively.
  • Productivity has improved but at a significant cost – employers need to plan for a ‘healthy hybrid’ that monitors outcomes not hours and guards against burnout: 55% of home workers said working from home meant they had found it easier to get more work done, however, on average homeworkers have been working three hours extra per week. Vitality data shows that 40% of people are replacing the time that is gained from their commute – one hour on average – with extra time working.
  • Vitality’s CEO Neville Koopowitz is calling for businesses to integrate employee health and wellbeing into company risk registers – the first point in a 10-point ‘healthy hybrid’ blueprint for business:  Practical steps leadership teams can take to place a commitment to the health and wellbeing of all at the heart of plans for hybrid working –  delivering deep behaviour change.

Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA said: “This blueprint shows unequivocally that Britain’s homeworkers want better work; work that makes them healthier, happier and allows the pursuit of a larger life. The idea of a “healthy hybrid” embodies the argument at the heart of the good work movement – that good work helps make healthier, happier workers; and healthier, happier workers help create good, productive work. This blueprint lays down a gauntlet to employers to deliver on the hopes so many homeworkers now hold for the future of work.”

Healthy Hybrid recommendations

Establishing a ‘Healthy Hybrid’ culture requires driving inclusive engagement from the top-down.

  1. Close the expectation gap with new mandates on health and wellbeing that are integrated into company risk registers and prioritised at board level.
  2. Senior leaders must practice, reinforce, and normalise healthy hybrid behaviours.
  3. Create ‘healthy hybrid’ feedback loops between employees and leaders.

Driving ‘Healthy Hybrid’ behaviour change through practical interventions

  1. Promote inclusive productivity gains by assessing performance based on outcomes not hours.
  2. Mandatory breaks and a ‘right to disconnect’ policies are needed to protect hybrid workers from burnout and level up inequalities.
  3. New health and wellbeing policies must be inclusive across all work environments and focus on workers not workplaces.
  4. Organisations should schedule 30 minutes a day for all employees to protect musculoskeletal health.

Sustaining ‘Healthy Hybrid’ values requires consistent reporting and accountability:

  1. Effective and consistent wellbeing measurement is needed to sustain ‘healthy hybrid’ behaviours and culture.
  2. Organisational structures must make it clear who is accountable for new health and wellbeing mandates, and this must be reflected in management training.
  3. Organisations should track and publish data on hybrid workers’ pay and progression to prevent digital disadvantage
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