Prioritise health in future hybrid work model, says RSA report

A new UK report commissioned by insurer Vitality proposes a ‘healthy hybrid’ approach to managing physical and mental health in the workforce after the ravages of the global pandemic

With hybrid working set to become a reality for millions of employees around the world, a new UK report from health and life insurance business Vitality and the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) has warned of crippling impacts on the future physical and mental health of employees.

The report, ‘Healthy Hybrid, a Blueprint for Business’, shines a light on the health impact of successive lockdowns. Homeworking has reinforced sedentary lifestyles, the report finds, leading to an ‘ergonomic timebomb’ risking increased back and shoulder injuries and pain. Alongside this, there has been a reported 28-per-cent plunge in physical activity.

Anxious about return

Half of homeworkers are thought to be anxious about a return to the office. As a result, 85 per cent of homeworkers believe that taking employee health and wellbeing seriously will be important when considering their career prospects. The report also finds a hybrid working expectation gap. Only 16 per cent of homeworkers would prefer to be in a physical work location full time, but one in three anticipate this will be their employer’s expectation when lockdown rules allow.

The findings have led Vitality to put forward a number of recommendations. Key proposals include:

  • health and wellbeing needs to be included in company risk registers and prioritised at board level
  • 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.

A practical blueprint

The report builds on Vitality’s ‘Britain’s Healthiest Workplace’ survey, which has been produced for the past nine years. The latest survey is based on new research with insights from more than 1,000 homeworkers conducted during the third UK national lockdown in January 2021; wellbeing data from the Vitality Programme; interviews with chief executives and business leaders; and RSA analysis of 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 transition to a ‘healthy hybrid’ approach, delivering both inclusive productivity gains and a healthier, happier workforce.

‘The healthy hybrid approach delivers inclusive productivity gains and a happier workforce…’

With lockdowns and homeworking influencing a fall in employee physical activity levels, businesses must enable their workforce to take time to exercise and move, says the report. The benefits of movement can have a direct impact on health – data from Vitality found that among 1.3m members last year, those who participated in regular exercise had a 28-per-cent reduced risk of admission to hospital from Covid-19.

Nuffield Health found that seven in ten remote workers said they were experiencing more aches and pains in the back, neck, shoulders, legs and joints, more eye strain, and more headaches. And research from the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey showed that more than half of the UK workforce suffered from two or more musculoskeletal conditions, such as lower back pain (45 per cent), neck pain (34 per cent) and shoulder pain (34 per cent) in 2019, prior to the pandemic.

Long lockdown challenge

Mental health will remain the ‘long lockdown’ challenge, the report warns, with employers obliged to manage anxiety linked to a return to the office. In the short-term, returning to physical workplaces needs careful management – the study shows that 44 per cent of remote workers have found it ‘much’ or ‘somewhat’ easier to manage their mental health and wellbeing as a result of remote working. But 50 per cent of all homeworkers feel anxious about the return.

The pandemic experience has fundamentally changed homeworkers’ expectations, the report finds, arguing that the hybrid work that 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 (48 per cent hybrid and 36 per cent at home permanently). Eight in ten also say they are looking for a better work-life; and seven in ten want work to allow for a fit and healthy lifestyle.

Diverse needs

Women and young people are among groups that have suffered disproportionately, the report finds, illustrating that hybrid working must be tailored to the diverse needs of different groups.

Four in ten mothers working from home report losing productivity versus a third of fathers. And a third of women report worse concentration than usual compared with one in five men. Research by the Mental Health Foundation shows that 56 per cent of people said they were more stressed and anxious about work than before the pandemic, but this rose to 72 per cent and 64 per cent for the 18-24 and 24-35 age groups, respectively.

While productivity has improved, employers need to plan for a ‘healthy hybrid’ that monitors outcomes, not hours, and guards against burnout, says the report. On average, homeworkers have been working three hours extra per week.

Neville Koopowitz, chief executive 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.’

‘Wellbeing and productivity are two sides of the same coin…’

Koopowitz added: ‘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.’

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA said: ‘This blueprint shows unequivocally that 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.’

Andrew Sansom is editorial director of SALUS Global Knowledge Exchange. Salus is a content partner with WORKTECH Academy
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