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Lancashire Times
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5:00 AM 24th October 2020

The Saturday Essay: How Covid Has Changed Our Attitude To Employee & Health Wellbeing

Photo by XPS on Unsplash
Photo by XPS on Unsplash
Benenden Health CEO, Bob Andrews, discusses the state of the nation and changing attitudes to employee health & wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic.


When the COVID-19 UK lockdown was first announced in March, many aspects of our everyday lives were disrupted, with our homes becoming offices, colleagues placed on furlough, meetings all virtual and our social lives were moved online too.

Bob Andrews
Bob Andrews
Almost seven months on, we are still far from back to ‘normal’ life with the recent introduction of the new three-tier restriction system, hospitality curfews and ‘the rule of six’ still in place across the country.

Despite this new experience, this difficult time has also brought about a surge of community spirit in Britain and individuals across the country are looking out for each other more than ever, from clapping for key workers in the Spring to the emergence of street WhatsApp Groups.

This culture of appreciation, kindness and support shows the nation at its best and I think it’s important that this continues to play a pivotal part in our relationships and decisions moving forward.

Despite having significant challenges of their own, businesses across Yorkshire and the rest of the UK can have a huge part to play in achieving this, by supporting employees through these uncertain and challenging times and continuing to do so once we come through the other side.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash
Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash
Working in the ‘new normal’

Whilst many of us are still working remotely, employers have also had to consider how to balance productivity and business performance with the wellbeing of their employees, with many workers having to face new challenges of their own.

Reports suggest that working from home is here to stay, with three-quarters of office-based businesses planning to maintain policies introduced during the pandemic, even after the threat of COVID-19 has passed. The circumstances surrounding the coronavirus have shown the true benefits of flexible working. This crisis has encouraged conversations about ways of working and our mental wellbeing, and it’s important that we continue this dialogue going and nurture this culture in a ‘post-pandemic’ world.

I’m proud of how my team have continued to work so effectively in such different circumstances, continuing to achieve all our goals while working remotely. For many, this has also been positive in terms of improving work-life balance which is crucial to our mental wellbeing and something we will continue going forward for those that want it.

With many businesses continuing to work remotely, it’s important that employers take steps to minimise employees’ stress and encourage a positive working mindset – whether this is by encouraging more downtime or introducing more flexible hours to allow employees to find their own coping strategy. Personally,

I have continued my London Marathon training, and I also enjoy looking after the sheep in my smallholding before I start my work each day!

While there will be no one-size-fits-all solution, businesses must identify the best way of working for them and their operations – crucially, employees should be involved in this process.

I genuinely believe that staff wellbeing should underpin every action that a business takes, and it must be considered in every decision. It is important that this is embraced from the ‘top-down’, as senior advocacy of a wellbeing strategy will have a huge impact to support change in a business. At Benenden Health, we have increased flexible working and encouraged the team to block time out in their diary to do something to help boosts their own mental wellbeing – whether that’s exercise or an extra coffee break. It is important that employees can do what they need to stay healthy.

With less stigma and better support, employees often feel more comfortable coming forward about their mental health. This culture of openness simply will not occur naturally. Leadership taking action to remove this stigma in the workplace is a vital step to addressing what is a significant issue in businesses up and down the country.

Employer support in the workplace

The conversation around employee wellbeing is nothing particularly new, but this has only been highlighted further by the stresses and strains placed on workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Yorkshire and the Humber alone, as many as 43% employees in Yorkshire took time off due to poor mental health last year, compared to 35% across the UK, with workers absent for between two and five days on average, costing UK businesses an estimated 40 million individual days of work across all regions.

In fact, a recent Benenden Health report found that a third of employees would leave their job if their employer wasn’t adequately looking after their mental wellbeing, and more than a fifth have previously done so.

This trend is only likely to continue with the youngest generations – rather than their older counterparts – placing the most value on effective wellbeing support at work.

The pandemic has provided an opportunity for businesses to consider how they operate and also represents an opportunity for them to re-evaluate how they support employees in the long term.

A failing on the side of employers to adequately provide healthcare support for workers not only has an impact on their personal health, but relying on lengthy wait times or failing to address issues such as poor mental wellbeing, can have an even larger effect on the health of a business through absence and poor productivity.

Image by PANKAJ YADAV from Pixabay
Image by PANKAJ YADAV from Pixabay
In the workplace, healthcare can be perceived as a ‘nice-to-have’ rather than a must-have and is often seen to be a benefit only available for more senior members of staff. This should not, and need not, be the case. A holistic healthcare offering for all employees is a very achievable, cost-effective, and valuable option for businesses to ensure they have a healthy workforce.

While there is no guarantee that an employee will want to, or ever need to, use these services, it is still important that they know what resources are available to them and for these individuals to know where to turn if they are struggling.

By providing greater support to employees, employers will benefit from fewer lost hours and a happier and more productive workforce that is attractive to both current and prospective employees.

The opportunity of private healthcare
According to recent data from NHS England, the number of people waiting more than a year for treatment on the NHS in England has doubled in just two months to more than 100,000 people. With more than 7,000 people in York alone expected to wait up to 12 months for NHS treatment this winter and hospitals forced to run at 60 percent capacity due to the coronavirus pandemic, many individuals are facing significant delays in the diagnosis and treatment of other illnesses, adding to the ongoing public health crisis.

Thankfully, there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the lives of everyone in the UK, on a more general level, I firmly believe there’s a role for affordable private healthcare in improving the nation’s health and reducing perhaps the greatest strain the NHS has ever felt.

There is a view that private healthcare is insidiously undermining the integrity of the principle of universal healthcare for all and is frequently a football used in discussion topics such as Brexit. This is one view, perhaps a simplistic one, and tends to forget the role that mutual societies like Benenden Health have played in the provision of healthcare since before the NHS was founded. This view also fails to recognise changing demographics and the havoc that the cyclical nature of Government investment can have on public healthcare provision. Ethically sound private healthcare provision can play an extremely beneficial role in a mixed economy.

Private healthcare packages not only offer great support to families and businesses but our NHS too, and the provision of private healthcare should not be seen as direct competition with the NHS or an expensive luxury as it is often perceived. A privately-provided health package could significantly help people in a time of need, providing a safety blanket – rather than a competing service - for when the NHS is under strain. To be most effective, the NHS and private healthcare should work harmoniously together to the benefit of the nation’s health.

At Benenden Health, we want everyone to have the opportunity to be as healthy as they can be and to have access to affordable healthcare. That’s why we provide our services for a small monthly fee under a mutual-run, not-for-profit business model, a small price to pay for access to medical support and treatment at a time when through no fault of its own, capacity within the NHS is under strain.

We are extremely fortunate in this country to have the NHS and Benenden Health is proud to support it wherever we can and we recently made a significant donation to the Royal Brompton Hospital, to pioneer research into the cause and effects of COVID-19.
The grant will fund an expert researcher post in the NHS hospital to examine information, data and other findings that have emerged so far to discover more about this virus and will be particularly valuable as NHS and private hospitals all over the UK prepare for the challenges of a potential second COVID-19 wave, alongside winter flu.

If there is one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has proven, it’s that collaboration like this is priceless. People have come together to help each other with great results and businesses now have the opportunity do the same.

By investing in the personal wellbeing of ourselves, our loved ones, and our employees, together we can help take the strain off the NHS and improve the nation’s health.

About Benenden Health
Benenden Health offers affordable, high quality, discretionary private healthcare to both its consumer and corporate members. This includes round the clock care such as 24/7 GP and Mental Health helplines, plus speedy access to services such as physiotherapy and medical treatment so individuals can have peace of mind that they can ask for help whenever they need it. As a not-for-profit organisation, Benenden Health offers support to its 800,000+ members at the same affordable cost of just £11.50 per member, per month.