Occupational Health Can Assist with These Five Societal Shifts
Businesses and employees moving forward
If you find yourself referring to life – certainly work life – as pre-COVID or post-COVID, you are not alone.1,2 The coronavirus pandemic has become a natural division of time for employers and employees everywhere. One employee told the Los Angeles Times, “Maybe it’s like Stockholm syndrome, except our captor is the coronavirus. We’re all so used to the mental and physical havoc it wreaked upon us that any sense of normalcy feels wrong.” The same article reports that 46 percent of people surveyed by the American Psychiatric Association don’t feel comfortable going back to their pre-pandemic life.3,4
The ground has shifted. While major change or a rapid onslaught of many changes can be like a roller coaster – a thrill ride combined with a visceral sensation of fear – employers can find a center of gravity for themselves and their employees as close as their neighborhood occupational health provider. Occupational health expertise can help adapt to and navigate the pandemic-related societal shifts discussed in this article.
While some societal shifts may be out of an individual’s control, employers and employees can ease their transition to post-pandemic life by returning to the routines that were so familiar before the world confronted COVID-19. One health care network based in Georgia says, “Predictable, repetitive routines are calming and help reduce anxiety. They’ll also help you take control of your day and, subsequently, your life.”5
Five societal shifts and ways occupational health can help
The first three societal shifts have obvious implications for employee health while the last two involve strategies to help employers adjust to business conditions currently and as anticipated for the future.
1. Making work accommodations for employees with Post-Acute Sequelae of COVID-19 (PASC or “long COVID”). Clearing the coronavirus is a milestone for anyone who contracted COVID-19, but not everyone celebrates that event equally. Some employees will experience symptoms over weeks or months that may include fatigue, shortness of breath, headache, rapid heartbeat, and difficulty concentrating or remembering. This is PASC or long COVID, addressed in a previous Concentra® article, “Vital Support for Employers Addressing Long COVID in the Workplace.
Employees with persistent symptoms may need job accommodations to return to the workplace. The Job Accommodation Network’s (JAN) website is useful for employers who are confronting this need. It offers a tip sheet and a blog post, with the latter resource providing accommodation ideas for employees with shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, brain fog, tachycardia (rapid heart rate), and aches affecting the joints, head, and body in general. Employers who need more ideas for a specific situation or need can contact JAN directly.
Concentra clinicians at nearly 520 medical centers nationwide are available to provide occupational health expertise to monitor and address PASC symptoms employees experience and to consult with employers on job accommodations to promote productivity in a healthy manner.
2. Sustained anxiety and long-term mental health repercussions of the pandemic may continue for months or years. “While most people, including most children, will likely adapt and recover well as we emerge from the pandemic, we know from previous research that for some, the mental health impacts of this trauma and distress will continue to have repercussions into the future,” says Saul Levin, MD, MPA, chief executive officer and medical director of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Upon the release in May 2021 of an APA survey showing that 41 percent of Americans feel anxious, Dr. Levin acknowledged that while this is down from 60 percent one year ago, it shows that sustained anxiety is still a concern.6
Risk&Insurance reported on a mental health presentation at the 2021 annual conference of the Risk and Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS). Taking care of employee mental health isn’t just the right thing to do. It can increase company value, the speaker said.7 Risk&Insurance added, “Companies that support their employees’ mental health are more productive. Those that do not, expose themselves at least to lower productivity and higher turnover, as well as higher health-care costs.” The article cited research showing that, “With proper care, including therapy, skill building, and medication, 80 percent of employees treated for mental illness report improved levels of work effectiveness and satisfaction.”8
Concentra reported on employee mental health and anxiety in the November 25, 2020 article, “In 2021, Workplace Attention Likely Will Turn to Behavioral Health.” This article linked readers to a mental health guide from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The guide included case studies to inspire employers in their own approaches to addressing behavioral health. Employers who have been reticent to venture into behavioral health should be encouraged by research that shows employees now between the ages of 25 to 40 (so-called millennials), the largest generation in the workforce, are substantially comfortable (62 percent) discussing their mental health with their coworkers and supervisors.9 Occupational health and safety experts were engaged in efforts to address workplace mental and behavioral health long before the coronavirus pandemic.10
3. Continued work from home and hybrid work arrangements are popular. Employees may need to take more ownership of their musculoskeletal health if they abandon employer-provided ergonomic work stations and facilities, even partially. Leading global business analysts have identified hybrid work arrangements as a prominent aspect of pandemic-driven workplace reinvention, as discussed in a Concentra webinar in March 2021.
In a National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference digital session on April 7, 2021, Chris Studebaker, national director of onsite therapy and athletic trainers for Concentra, and Shelby Mendez, director of therapy operations in east Florida for Concentra, explained that musculoskeletal injuries are already costly – representing 30 percent of total workers compensation costs – and that contributors to musculoskeletal incidents include poor ergonomics and movement that leads to injuries, as well as certain physical conditioning and health conditions of the employee.11
4. Changes in geographic proximity of employees and workforce composition accelerated in 2020 and this is continuing in 2021, a trend that was highlighted in the Concentra white paper, “Onsite Care in a Working World of Pandemic-driven Change.” The World Economic Forum reported that Americans are losing affection for large cities and, as a result, are interested in moving. In a recent survey nearly half of all U.S. adults said they would have preferred to live in a small town or rural area in 2020 – up nine percent from 2018.12
Workforce composition is shifting for many reasons, making it difficult for employers to hire skilled employees. Expanded unemployment benefits and continuing concerns about health, such as exposing self or others to COVID-19, are two reasons for employees staying out of the workforce.13 Employees who remain in the workforce may see this as a time to get the fulltime remote work they want, if their employer doesn’t provide it, or as an opportunity for increased professional development. Prudential’s Pulse of the American Worker Survey reported 1 in 4 employees (26 percent) plan to look for a different job post-pandemic. In particular, high-performing employees overall and millennials are eager to seek career advancement, and they are not feeling as geographically tied to their employers as, perhaps, they were before the pandemic.14,15
Two other groups exiting the workforce – either during the pandemic or as it winds down – are women and older employees (over 65). Participation in the workforce by women has dropped to the lowest level since 1988, and McKinsey and Oxford Economics estimate employment of women may not return to pre-pandemic levels for two years.16
From February 2020 to February 2021, employees age 65 and older withdrew from the workforce – by choice or job loss – at their highest 12-month rate in 60 years – 11.1 percent, compared to two to three percent for other age groups, according to the Urban Institute. Making workplaces safer for older employees through ergonomics and safe work practice training and rooting out ageism are centerpieces of the Urban Institute’s recommendations to lure older employees back into the workplace.17
As employers confront vastly different workforces post-pandemic, they can better understand the capabilities of their employees through the use of pre-placement occupational health services, such as DOT and drug testing and human performance evaluations.
5. Prepare for perpetual disruption; empower employees and better understand and nurture their well-being. This is a post-pandemic business recommendation arising from research by Deloitte, a global business analyst. Deloitte encourages businesses to permanently capture performance strengths that emerged during the pandemic when employees were “propelled into cross-functional task teams and tiger teams to solve challenging problems to keep their organizations afloat.”18
Occupational health services promote workforce health for optimal productivity and business performance, while also helping employers measure and manage the effects of work on the individual and the workforce.19
Get ready for the workforce that will take your business into the post-pandemic future. Get started by contacting Concentra to learn more about occupational health services.
- “For some of us, returning to pre-COVID life is turning out to be harder than we expected.” Los Angeles Times. April 21, 2021.
- “COVID Killed the Traditional Workplace. What Should Companies Do Now?” Harvard Business School. Working Knowledge. March 2021.
- Los Angeles Times.
- “Coronavirus stress: Majority of Americans never imagined pandemic would last this long.” American Psychological Association. March 11, 2021.
- “Why routines are good for your health.” Piedmont Healthcare.
- “New APA Poll Shows Sustained Anxiety Among Americans; More than Half of Parents Are Concerned About the Mental Well-being of Their Children.” American Psychiatric Association news release. May 2, 2021.
- “Employee Mental Health Floundered During the Pandemic. Now’s the Time to Build It Back Up.” Risk&Insurance. May 18, 2021.
- What Employers Need to Know About Mental Health in the Workplace. McLean Harvard Medical School Affiliate. September 1, 2020.
- “In 2021, Workplace Attention Likely Will Turn to Behavioral Health.” Concentra.com.
- Goetzel RZ, et al. Mental Health in the Workplace: A Call to Action Proceedings from the Mental Health in the Workplace Public Health Summit. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. April 2018; 60(4): 322-330.
- NWCDC Ongoing Digital Session Series. National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference.
- COVID-19 is pushing Americans out of cities and into the country. World Economic Forum. January 19, 2021.
- “Unemployment is High. Why Are Businesses Struggling to Hire?” New York Times. May 11, 2021.
- "1 in 4 plan to bolt job post-pandemic.” Axios. April 6, 2021.
- Pulse of the American Worker Survey. Prudential.
- "COVID-19 has driven millions of women out of the workforce. Here’s how to help them come back.” Fortune. February 12, 2021.
- “Will Older Adults Return to the Workforce?” Urban Institute. March 12, 2021.
- First comes the workforce: The human-centric future of work. January 15, 2021. Deloitte.
- “Onsite Employee Health Services Fit Every Need and Budget.” Concentra.com. March 7, 2019.