Expert article by Marco Cereghetti, November 2020

Coronavirus: Underestimated physical and psychological consequences in the workplace

The coronavirus has resulted in consequences in the workplace that have thus far received little attention. Surveys show that the coronavirus crisis has led to an increase in back pain and mental health problems. Employee health represents the core capital of every enterprise. Employers can support their workforce in significant ways during this phase and thus bring about improvements in the areas of employer branding, employee retention and employee motivation.

The coronavirus has transformed the (working) world in many ways. New burdens threaten to undermine the well-being of every individual. An example of this is digital stress: the attention people pay to the news has increased dramatically, but too much information often leads to uncertainty and fear. Or the continuing dearth in personal contact: most people compensate for this by maintaining contact online, such as through the use of video telephony, which can never completely take the place of personal contact, however.

Back problems and mental illness have long been among the most widespread diseases affecting our society. Some 18% of people working in Switzerland complain of back pain caused by their work – and 29% of the working population feels exhausted. Such complaints very often lead to absences from work due to illness. These absences result in direct costs for employers, such as sick pay, as well as indirect costs, such as production downtime. All of these costs have the potential to rise significantly due to the impact of the coronavirus. 

The causes of the increase in back pain complaints can be a lack of exercise and/or workstations that are not designed ergonomically. Due to the increasing flexibility of work, many employees are continuing to work from home in whole or in part. In many cases they are working at the kitchen or living room table or even from the couch – with detrimental effects on the back in particular. The coronavirus crisis and its consequences, such as social isolation during the lockdown earlier this year, have also had a negative impact on many people’s mental health. The ongoing pandemic is often perceived as a stressor – also because many fear for their livelihoods. However, the attention of the public is primarily focused on the virus due to its physical effects, with less concern for the psychological repercussions associated with it. The latter should not be underestimated, as mental illnesses were often leading to premature retirement even before the coronavirus came onto the scene, with 48% of today’s disability pensions being based on mental illness.

Employee health represents the core capital of every enterprise. Employers should therefore take targeted measures to counteract the increase in employee medical conditions relating to the back and mental health. This is necessary also in view of the fact that the world of work has changed rapidly in many areas in recent months. These are changes that will be lasting, as many employees will also want to be able to work from home or in other non-workplace settings in the post-coronavirus era. This has consequences for employers, as they are obliged to fulfil their duty to exercise due care for their employees even under such wildly different circumstances.

On the one hand, employers are faced with obligations ...
The changes that have occurred also affect employee management – an important point to remember, especially when you consider that management that is perceived as bad can make people mentally ill. Six months into the pandemic, employers and employees have now returned to a new normal, but managers are facing challenges that are greater than ever before. The impression managers make is of key importance because they need to set a good example of the conduct they want to encourage. This also applies to the way they deal with psychological stress. It is important that managers, employees and teams remain in touch with each other, and this requires the selection of appropriate communication channels. It certainly makes more sense to use the phone or hold video conferences with employees rather than to communicate exclusively by e-mail or not at all. Direct contact makes it possible for managers to find out more quickly whether an employee is suffering from psychological strain, allowing them to respond faster and better. 

To prevent back problems, employers should support their employees in setting up their home workstation to be ergonomic. This can be done in various ways, such as by defraying the cost of the purchase of office chairs or desks, or by providing instructions for office exercises that strengthen the back muscles. It is also helpful if employers provide their employees with specific tips for mobile work and working from home. Maintaining healthy routines, getting sufficient exercise, eating nutritious food and taking breaks in the fresh air are of central importance here.

... and on the other hand, opportunities are presenting themselves
Particularly in these trying times, employers need to demonstrate that they care about the health of their employees. They should actively support their employees in maintaining and improving their health. In view of current demographic trends and the shortage of skilled workers, there is an opportunity to emerge from the coronavirus crisis in a better position than before. Targeted measures can enable employers to prevent a rise in absences due to illness or to even see a reduction. At the same time, they have the opportunity to strengthen employer branding as well as employee retention and motivation. Investing in the health of your employees is worthwhile in many different ways – and not just when a pandemic is raging. 

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Marco Cereghetti
Corporate Health & Case Manager elipsLife CH/LI