Health & Your People

Has the pandemic changed workplace health and wellness forever?

by RaeAnne Marsh

“The COVID pandemic has turned the healthcare industry upside down,” says Brian Riveland, M.D., Arizona medical director at Devoted Health. That’s true of every aspect of life as we’ve experienced it, of course. In healthcare, delivery has had to rapidly adapt and change to meet the needs of patients with disparate income levels, social circumstances, and a wide range of chronic and acute medical conditions. “In many ways, it is remarkable what has been done. However, the healthcare system has also stumbled and not delivered,” he says. 

“It is hard to imagine had this happened 30 years ago how much more difficult it would have been,” Dr. Riveland continues. “In 1990 the world wide web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee, we did not have video conferencing, expansive e-commerce, email, smartphones, and many other abilities that we take for granted today.”

While many people enjoy the flexibility of working at home, and even say they’re more productive working at home than in the office, Cigna’s Arizona market president Kim Shepard notes that, at the same time, after a year at home people are feeling disconnected from their colleagues, and many suffer from “Zoom fatigue” – the exhaustion from videoconference overload. In fact, it is widely reported that the pandemic has led to higher levels of anxiety, depression, insomnia, feelings of isolation and other emotional issues. Shepard notes that parents have been working at home, educating their kids at home and maybe taking on more responsibility for aging parents while worrying about their own health. “People have had a lot on their plate over the past year. We help employers understand this, so they can help their employees cope and find balance. We encourage our employer clients to promote their employee assistance program and other resources available to their employees. We do that with our own employees,” Shepard says. As an employer herself, she says, “We encourage our employees to use their vacation time, take breaks, get exercise, go outside for fresh air and a change of scene, stay safely connected to friends and family. Our mental and physical health depend on our being kind to ourselves, and this is a message we reinforce with our own employees and our employer clients.”

Dr. Riveland shares that Devoted Health went from nearly 100% of its employees in the office to 100% working virtually at home. In the general workforce, 71% of employed adults are currently working from home, and Dr. Riveland observes that many companies are now finding this has not affected productivity and, in many circumstances, has enhanced employee satisfaction. “While this is a positive, the social isolation, demands of childcare with closing of schools and simply the worry of COVID-19 has created significant emotional stress for many employees. Studies have revealed in the general population, anxiety prevalence is three times that of 2019 and depressive disorders are four times that of 2019. This is magnified if the person is a caregiver in the household where anxiety and depression rates exceed 50%.”

Catching Up

“There is no question the onset of the pandemic caused disruption in the public’s health and wellness,” says Emun Abdu, M.D., F.A.A.N.S., medical director of Cerebrovascular and Endovascular Neurosurgery for Abrazo Health. She points out that hospitals quickly shifted focus to enhancing safety protocols to ensure COVID-19 and non-COVID patients could be safely and effectively treated. She believes the ability to collaborate with physicians, hospital staff, public health authorities and others helped foster creativity that to this day is helping contain the virus.

But she raises a red flag. “What has been concerning to all of us on the medical field is the number of people who have delayed routine screenings and preventive care, as well as hesitation to seek care in an emergency. In fact, a recent Harvard study found that one in five adults in the U.S. had delayed or were unable to get needed care during the pandemic. Some reports have placed the number even higher. The American College of Cardiology noted that patients experiencing a heart attack or stroke are delaying care, leading to a new public health crisis.”

COVID is not the direct culprit; rather, it’s fear of being exposed to COVID. So, Dr. Riveland explains, patients are not getting their needed blood work or imaging studies that keep their chronic illnesses under control. In addition, many are dismissing symptoms for which they would ordinarily seek out medical advice. Patients may not get their cancer therapy putting them at significant risk. There are studies that reveal in certain age groups there is a 15-20% increase in non-covid death rates compared to the previous year. “While there is much more to be learned,” he says, “it is believed that avoidance of needed care due to the pandemic is a significant factor.”

This affects employers of all sizes, Dr. Abdu points out. “The impact of more people working from home may lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, causing its own set of physical problems. In concert with delays in care, that impacts employee wellness and productivity, key contributors to a healthy bottom line.”

She emphasizes that hospitals, ERs and doctors’ offices are safe places to receive care, and notes that Abrazo Health hospitals are open and caring for patients, including inpatient and outpatient elective procedures, as the number of COVID-19 diagnoses continue trending downward.

“It is important to understand that elective procedures are medically necessary to help provide relief from things like knee or hip pain, cancer, cardiovascular, neurological or other conditions,” says Dr. Abdu, noting that “elective” is still essential care that can be lifesaving and life-altering treatment. “Waiting to see a doctor or go to the ER can result in a greater risk of complications, disability and lengthier recovery times. Don’t let ‘COVID fatigue’ cause complacency. Continue to wash your hands, wear a face mask, maintain social distancing and get the COVID vaccine when it’s your turn. A healthy work force helps our economy and supports a healthier Arizona.”

Healthcare insurers are addressing this. Paige Rothermel, chief operating officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona says BCBSAZ is working with provider partners to increase awareness of this risk, partnering with community organizations, like the American Heart Association, to do outreach and is also leveraging its customer service teams in addition to its care management nurses to make proactive outreach. And Shepard notes that Cigna advises employers to emphasize the importance of preventive care and encourage their employees to get their annual wellness exams, as well as mammograms, cancer screenings, dental care, eye exams, and other screenings and care they need based on their age and health status.

Shepard also notes that Cigna customers are now scheduling the appointments they put off in 2020 and are addressing their neglected health issues. She says the company anticipates some decline in overall health as a result of customers deferring care, which could increase healthcare costs for Cigna’s employer clients. “Now is the time for people to set up wellness exams and address the care they deferred last year,” she says. “It’s more important than ever to take a proactive approach, protect your health, and detect issues early so they can be treated and monitored.”

Moving Forward

“Maintaining a vibrant and resilient workforce can be difficult. Offering dynamic tools to help employees manage their health is an increasing value in today’s job market,” Rothermel says. One way BCBSAZ is helping is offering services to its members through its Wellness Platform, Sharecare, which includes meditation and mindfulness, offers practical tips for healthy habits for those working from home and also tips on how to manage COVID-related risk and exposure. “Additionally,” she says, “we are partnering with testing organizations to provide practical and cost-effective testing solutions that can be deployed in the worksite or at home.”

“Phoenix has seen some of the highest COVID-19 rates in the U.S., and many of our local businesses employ large numbers of people who need to sit and work in close proximity to others,” says Tyler Southwell, M.D., a nationally recognized COVID expert, citing warehouses, hotels, restaurants, sales centers and other service occupations. 

At his concierge medical practice, Dr. Southwell says, “We became the “go-to” resource in Phoenix and were even called upon by physicians and companies in other states to share our knowledge and protocols.

“A year ago, I saw a need for a new type of medicine. Not only were my patients looking to get tested for COVID-19, but they were asking lots of questions about how to prevent it and how to deal with the symptoms when they had it.”

That was the impetus for him to found Southwellness COVID Solutions,‌ which opened in early February in Paradise Valley, the first-ever all-inclusive COVID-only prevention, testing and therapy practice in the area. Beyond testing, the focus is also on prevention and therapy – so, unlike “swab and go” locations, if a patient tests positive, the practice can consult on therapies. And SCS has special offers for populations that are underserved by other practitioners, such as teachers and frontline workers.

“Although the vaccines have given many people a sense of relief, only a small percent of our population has been vaccinated so far and others have refused to take this important step,” says Dr. Southwell, noting the continued need to remain vigilant, especially as schools re-open and people return to places of business. “Masks and hand sanitizer are essential, even for those who have been vaccinated, as is regular testing. Keeping workers’ immune systems healthy has also become a priority. Regular testing is essential. We know that even one asymptotic carrier can infect an entire family, office, or other workplaces.”

And he notes an important point that is sometimes overlooked: “People who have had COVID-19 are now reporting after-effects.”

“Having a dedicated ‘safe haven’ ensures that businesses have a go-to source to keep their employees healthy and their businesses thriving,” says Dr. Southwell. 

In working with its clients, Cigna takes a “very consultative approach,” Shepard says, that starts with listening to its clients, learning their business needs and analyzing the health profile of their employee population, then developing a health engagement program that’s tailored to them. “We have been consulting with our employer clients throughout the pandemic, making sure they had the latest clinical information about COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccination.” 

Noting that top of mind for employers is knowing when it will be right to return to the worksite, and how a return can be accomplished safely, Shepard says, “We are working closely with clients to address this and to help them understand workplace readiness issues, such as physical distancing, personal protective equipment for employees, and ongoing health monitoring. We offer a number of resources to help employers get started in our “Returning to the Worksite” section on Cigna.com.”

Safety

As Shepard points up, the worksite must be part of employee health and wellness considerations.

Which is where another industry provides additional expertise in addressing health and wellness. 

As familiar scenes begin to emerge across the Valley business community, with vaccination rates steadily climbing and office building beginning to fill with people, employers are facing new challenges: “Employees are concerned about their safety, and they need assurances that new protocols are in place to protect their health at work,” says Liz Caracciolo, chief operating officer of OpenWorks, a national commercial cleaning and facility services provider, headquartered in Phoenix that helps all kinds of facilities manage their cleaning and disinfecting efforts and reduce the spread of germs.

“The importance of a clean, well-disinfected workplace is universal,” she says, observing that a robust cleaning program provides physical protection. while giving employees reassurance that their concerns are being heard. A recent survey conducted by OpenWorks, however, found employees’ confidence in workplace safety and cleanliness is lagging — and this despite the majority of businesses expanding their cleaning programs over the past year and vaccines offering greater peace of mind.

The study compared employees’ sentiments about workplace cleaning early in the pandemic to their views nearly a year after COVID made its appearance. Employers should take note that, while an expectation for cleanliness hasn’t changed, thoughts on what constitutes “clean” have evolved.

The study found that employees are increasingly emphatic that buildings need an extra layer of defense through daily cleaning and disinfecting (62% in December vs. 56% in May) — but at least one-third of employees lack confidence that their employer is having their workplace properly disinfected on a regular basis. “Employees expressed that they want to know more about the work being done to protect their health and safety, underscoring the extreme importance of transparent communication in this COVID age,” Caracciolo says. 

To address the essential role clear and direct communication plays in boosting employee confidence, Caracciolo says her company is working closely with employers to develop plans that explain the preventive measures taking place in the building, often after-hours when employees are less likely to witness them first-hand. 

“Effective communication plans are highly transparent about both the what and how behind your organization’s health and safety measures,” Caracciolo states. Employees are more informed than ever regarding the options that exist, she explains, and they therefore want to know what the frequency is and the type of cleaning and disinfecting; how the work is being done, such as with EPA approved products and electrostatic spraying; whether those performing the work are certified professionals in disinfection; and what expectations are being set around the protocols that each and every team member is expected to follow when in the office environment. 

And, as the latest study demonstrates, employees expect to see evidence that reinforces their employer’s workplace safety strategy. Says Caracciolo, “Companies can amplify the message through visual methods such as signage regarding social distance guidelines and displaying certifications. For example, companies that utilize any of OpenWorks’ TotalWorks services receive a Certified Disinfection certificate for display that affirms the facility has been deep cleaned, sanitized, and disinfected.” 

She adds that seeing a professional cleaner disinfect high-touch surfaces frequently is a strong visual indicator that meets the needs of 50% of employees, who want to see the work being performed in front of them, according to a recent report by YouGov, Barclays Research. “As a society, we’re more aware of the importance of cleanliness than ever before, so it’s natural that employees want assurances that the environment where they spend a large part of every day is safe. Signage and communication about safety measures are just part of the equation, however.”

Employers must also engage the employees in the effort complementing their rigorous cleaning protocols with policies that convey expectations for employees doing their own part to protect their safety, from wearing masks and washing hands to practicing social distancing. “A collaborative approach is necessary for the workforce to collectively benefit from efforts to protect employee safety,” Caracciolo says.

Ongoing Wellness

Keeping Physically Fit

At the onset of COVID-19, chiropractic care was deemed an essential healthcare service. In that disrupted environment, The Joint Chiropractic remained resilient, relates Peter Holt, president and CEO of the Scottsdale-headquartered franchisor. “We even continued to grow.” In fact, noting that chiropractic is very hands-on healthcare, Holt says, “This past year has been an opportunity for all chiropractors to stand tall during the pandemic to serve their patients seeking pain relief and wellness.” 

Holt points out that working from home, which has become the norm for many industries, has forced more Americans into a sedentary lifestyle. Only about 20% of Americans reach the 150-minute-per-week minimum of movement or exercise recommended by experts. “Lack of physical activity throughout the day is a risk factor for many different chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension, to name a few,” Holt points out. 

To address this, Holt suggests employers consider additional incentives or benefits to employees to allow for more healthy activity during the day, such as offering virtual fitness memberships, a stipend for healthcare services like chiropractic care or massage services, or providing compatible workspaces in the home like stand-up desks. 

“We know many people delayed healthcare needs throughout the pandemic. However, as an essential healthcare provider, The Joint has continued to offer accessible chiropractic care for patients to maintain their healthcare routines,” Holt says. “We have taken every precaution necessary to ensure the health and safety of our patients and staff, and the results have been tremendously positive.”

Keeping Mentally Fit

“Prior to COVID-19, the negative impacts of chronic stress on employee mental and physical health and productivity were already known to employers,” says Kathleen Gramzay, CEO of locally based Kinessage L.L.C., who is a body/mind resilience expert providing resilience leadership training to organizations. Observing that Meditation and Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs had become more valued in workplaces for their documented benefits on reducing anxiety and depression, and pain scores, she says, “With the added pandemic stresses of working from home, isolation or concerns over returning to a safe work environment, it’s more important than ever business leaders provide effective, self-directed stress reduction programs.”

Mindfulness meditation is the conscious focusing of one’s attention on an object such as the breath, a sound, or a word. Purposely focusing the mind removes its attention from reaction to a perceived threat and the correlated flow of stress hormones. Mindfulness meditation and MBSR programs work, Gramzay explains, because they shift the nervous system’s flow of stress hormones to neurotransmitters that support immune system function, cellular repair, better cognitive function and mood.

“The relationship between how we think and feel and the physiological effects has been widely studied,” Gramzay says. She describes some of the benefits meditation/mindfulness practices have demonstrated that are particularly relevant to life and business during a pandemic:

  • Reduced stress and anxiety disorders. Meditation reduces stress neurotransmitters such as cortisol and norepinephrine that contribute to high blood pressure, heart attack, neurological and anxiety disorders.
  • Rejuvenation. Meditation produces increased flow of neurotransmitters that support immune function, cellular repair and better sleep, all critical aspects to ward off infection.
  • Improved decision-making and problem-solving. Studies of longtime meditators show higher function in the pre-frontal cortex where decision making and problem-solving happen as well as higher levels of concentration and alertness. This function goes off-line when perceived threat directs the body to survival mode. Having a way to reset the brain back to creative problem solving is critical in business today.
  • Increased sense of well-being. Perceived threat neurologically produces a sense of distrust of others. Meditation and mindfulness practices demonstrated the production of higher levels of serotonin and dopamine, chemicals that increase our sense of well-being and social engagement. The greater we can work together to address today’s challenges the better we’ll come through the pandemic.

Gramzay suggests businesses consider offering meditation or MBSR programs as a cost-effective solution to support the current and long-term health of their employees and business. 

Beyond stress, behavioral health conditions (mental health problems and substance use disorders) are highly prevalent in our community and, points out licensed psychologist Tasneem Doctor, Ed.D., vice president of Behavioral Health at Equality Health, these negatively impact the ability to manage chronic medical conditions in a cost-effective manner. “Individuals with behavioral health conditions often have healthcare costs that are two to three times higher than patients without these conditions due to increased emergency department utilization, hospital readmission rates and occupational disability,” she says. 

There is a gaping disparity between need and providers to serve the need. According to Dr. Doctor, one in five individuals have a behavioral health condition, yet psychiatrists and licensed therapists are scarce and it is not uncommon for a patient to wait 90 to 180 days to obtain an appointment. Additionally, such care is expensive, and many therapists and psychiatrists do not accept insurance, leaving many individuals without the inability to obtain necessary treatment.

Noting that lack of treatment only increases the healthcare system’s inability to manage costs associated with unmanaged behavioral health conditions, Dr. Doctor says Equality Health is changing the game by making behavioral healthcare more accessible and affordable through a partnership with Concert Health. “Concert Health offers a turn-key behavioral health solution to Equality Health’s network of 1,500-plus primary care physicians (PCPs) in the Phoenix area, allowing practices to offer behavioral health treatment as part of their regular services. Concert Health utilizes the Collaborative Care Model, which arms the primary care office with additional behavioral health resources that include a care manager who is also a licensed therapist and a consulting psychiatrist who provides the PCP with medication support. This team-based approach can be virtual, allowing more patients to conveniently access same- or next-day behavioral healthcare. The PCP prescribes medication based on recommendations by the psychiatrist, and the therapist interacts with patients regularly using evidenced-based approaches such as motivational interviewing, cognitive behavioral therapy, problem-solving therapy and behavior activation to move patients toward better health outcomes.”

Dr. Doctor believes this model is ideal for primary care given that PCPs are the de-facto behavioral health system in this country, with PCPs prescribing 80% of all antidepressants. “Adding a team of behavioral health professionals to the PCP practice allows patients to improve more quickly, with most seeing a 50% drop in behavioral health symptoms within 90 days.” Citing randomized controlled studies on Collaborative Care that indicate every $1 spent on collaborative care produces a $6 return, she holds this out as “an attractive ROI for our expensive healthcare system.”

Staying on Top of Oral Healthcare

Oral health is a significant part of a person’s overall health in any case, but Heather Schneider, D.M.D., dental director at Delta Dental of Arizona, emphasizes that now especially is not a time for individuals to neglect that aspect of their healthcare. “Poor oral health — particularly gum disease — has been associated with unfavorable COVID-19 outcomes,” she says. “This means it’s particularly important to not only offer dental insurance benefits to your employees but to encourage them to use their benefits and engage in good oral health practices at home.

Dr. Schneider notes that, since the pandemic started, dentists have noticed more stress-related tooth damage. “Over time, clenching your jaw, grinding your teeth or chewing on ice and pen caps can do significant harm to the enamel,” she explains. “Dentists can spot these signs and help mitigate the damage to your mouth, either by giving you stress-relief techniques, a mouthguard or, in severe cases, by coordinating a plan for care with an oral facial pain specialist who addresses TMJ dysfunction and stress specifically.”

The pandemic also has us spending so much time at home, where it’s easy to grab a bag of chips or cookies when we’re hungry, bored or stressed. Combine that tendency with the forced isolation, and Dr. Schneider notes these habits are happening in the presence of less brushing, rinsing and flossing. “People joke about the COVID 15 — the weight gained from unhealthy eating and habits during the pandemic — but those changes in lifestyle habits can also have a real impact on your employees’ oral health and increase their risk for cavities,” she says. “Employers can help by encouraging their employees to be more mindful of their snacking habits and recommending a diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products, maybe even sharing healthy recipes monthly to everyone in the company.”

Even more worrisome, she says, is that people are delaying routine dental care, like cleanings and exams. Pointing out that dental health directly impacts heart health, the immune system and whole body health — and that much of dental health is about preventive care — she emphasizes that gum disease, cavities and even issues like crowns or root canals can be avoided by proper brushing and flossing and regular visits to the dentist for exams and cleanings. “I cannot stress this enough: Dental offices are open and are taking extra measures to keep your employees and their families safe,” she says. This may include pre-appointment screenings to gauge potential exposure to COVID-19, temperature checks, changes to check-in and waiting room procedures, extra cleaning and sanitation measures and additional PPE for patients and staff, including face shields, face masks and gowns. Offering resources and information on Delta Dental’s website, she urges employers to educate their employees about these safety measures and encourage them to visit the dentist.

Healthcare Delivered Virtually

“In the first few weeks of the pandemic, healthcare became almost entirely virtual, fueling a massive increase in telehealth across nearly every aspect of medicine, from emergency and urgent care to primary and specialty visits,” says Bill Goodwin, CEO of MeMD, a national telehealth provider based in Scottsdale that offers on-demand, online care for common illnesses, injuries, primary care and behavioral health issues. “By the end of 2020, nearly everyone had used telehealth in some form — many of them for the first time.”

In fact, Cigna’s data shows that the use of virtual care surged in 2020 at the same time many people were deferring preventive and other care, according to Kim Shepard, president of Cigna’s Arizona market. “People saw it as a safe and convenient way to access care during the pandemic.” Now that people are getting used to virtual care, and see its benefits, we believe this trend will continue and grow, for both medical and behavioral healthcare.” Cigna expects this trend to continue as people are getting used to virtual care, and its Evernorth division recently announced it will purchase MDLIVE, a national telehealth company that Cigna has partnered with for a number of years, because of the growing importance of telehealth.

Observing that the surge was fueled by the immediate goal to avoid exposure to a novel virus, Goodwin notes it quickly became clear that telehealth is more than a stop-gap solution. “It has now become an indispensable part of the U.S. healthcare system. This creates many new considerations for employers and how they structure benefits packages,” he says.

Dr. Riveland characterizes the increased use of telehealth as an explosion, observing that prior to the pandemic, telehealth was typically used in rural areas with limited access to medical offices and that, while certain specialties had higher users of telehealth, most primary care services continued to be delivered in person. “Since the pandemic, this has dramatically increased facilitated by the loosening of regulatory requirements during this state of emergency,” he says. “While telehealth was on the rise, the pandemic has accelerated the adoption likely by five years.”

Putting it in the context of the workplace, Goodwin observes that employees want more virtual options. “With remote work the new norm, they have considerably more control and flexibility over when and how they do their jobs. They want the same thing from their healthcare,” he says. “To put a finer point on it, 75% of patients surveyed by Kyruus said they expect virtual care to be a standard part of their care moving forward. A full 50% of respondents said they would switch providers to have regular access to virtual care.

“This probably isn’t a surprise to benefits managers,” Goodwin continues. “Even before COVID-19, companies were seeking new ways to meet employees’ needs and expectations by increasing convenience, choice, personalization and simplicity in their healthcare plans, but the pandemic has expedited this shift in health benefit plan design. In fact, exponential growth in virtual care across the healthcare continuum is one of the major trends that surfaced in the Business Group on Health’s 2021 Large Employers’ Healthcare Strategy and Plan Design Survey.” 

Rothermel sees it similarly. “The rise of telemedicine during COVID has made healthcare more accessible and more convenient,” she says. “We can leverage this momentum to build solutions that help our providers engage digitally and allow our members to maintain relationships with their own providers. As our Blue Care Anywhere platform continues to develop we can accommodate greater capacity and expand our breadth of services, including behavioral health.”

Behavioral health, indeed, is one of two areas in which Goodwin believes telehealth is particularly promising. He notes the pandemic has spotlighted and amplified America’s mental health crisis, yet a chronic shortage of providers, extremely narrow provider networks, long wait times and high out-of-pocket costs create major barriers to care. “Telebehavioral health has emerged as a solution. Not only does the virtual model overcome these barriers, but the medical literature has proven its efficacy in treating common issues like depression and anxiety — issues that pummel employee productivity and often lead to physical health problems.”

The other area in which Goodwin believes virtual will lead is primary care. “Like behavioral health, the U.S. is facing a looming shortage of primary care doctors that makes it difficult to access routine healthcare in a timely fashion,” he says, noting that primary care is directly tied to health status and spending – particularly in the management of costly chronic conditions – but even the most robust insurance plans do not guarantee easy and convenient access to primary care. “The good news is that adding more virtual options benefits employers and workers alike. It’s well-reported that telehealth is considerably less expensive than in-person care, so businesses may finally get relief from ever-increasing health insurance costs. For employees, it means access to the care they want and need – when and how they need it.” In a nutshell, he believes, “All signs indicate the future of healthcare is virtual.”

HR and Benefits

The voluntary benefits market has been growing steadily over the years and Casey Strunk, president of Phoenix-based Strunk Insurance Group, expects it will continue to do so in 2021. “More employers are understanding their employees’ desire for benefits options beyond healthcare,” he says. He’s seen voluntary benefits that may have once been disregarded being used now by employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Employees want personalized benefit options so they can pick and choose what is best for them,” he says. “Traditional voluntary offerings like dental, life and disability have always been there, but the next generation of employees are asking for things like pet insurance, identity theft, and student loan services. Perks like elder care and critical illness insurance could also be of particular importance amid the pandemic.” 

Strunk points to voluntary benefits as a great value-add for employees during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, noting also that, since employees cover a significant portion of the costs, they can also help free up employer budgets.

As benefits go, though healthcare has the highest profile and is, arguable, the highest priority.

Looking at healthcare as an employee benefit, Kishlay Anand, M.D., M.S., F.H.R.S., founder and CEO of Akos, points out median healthcare cost increases are a major concern of U.S. employers. “Cost management strategies to reduce projected health plan cost increases in order to attract top talent and keep all employees healthy and safe are a top priority,” he says, pointing to employee medical benefits and workers’ compensation as two of the primary healthcare spends for employers. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, around 49% of the country’s total population receives employer-sponsored health insurance and workers’ compensation — and the premiums for employer-sponsored benefits are witnessing a steep growth due to various government policies and significant lifestyle changes. 

“To address these issues, Akos is changing the healthcare delivery model by providing affordable access to telemedicine and onsite technology-enabled medical clinics 24/7,” says Dr. Anand. By integrating employee medical benefits and workers’ compensation for all 50 states into one AI-powered, connected HIPAA-compliant platform, Akos is offering a low-cost telemedicine solution that eliminates the need for commutes and waiting rooms, and help prevent employees from neglecting routine and vital healthcare. Akos has also established Akos Med Clinics inside select Safeway stores across Arizona. These future-forward walk-in medical centers bring the nurse triage process closer to the employees. 

“Affordable healthcare plagues most employees, and when their physical and mental health declines, so does their productivity and morale. Companies can address these stressors and work to better retain employees by broadening their healthcare options,” Dr. Anand says.

This is Rothermel’s point as well, as she notes that employers continue to struggle with attracting and keeping top talent in a competitive workforce landscape. “Healthcare benefits are a high value to many employees and can help employers retain that top talent,” she says. 

As an HR issue, workers stress has long been an obstacle to a healthy workplace, especially when it builds up to the point of burnout – increased mental detachment from the job and reduced effectiveness. Travis Laird, senior regional vice president at professional staffing company Robert Half, reports that a recent survey by Robert Half found 40% of Phoenix workers surveyed said they are more burned out on the job today than a year ago (6 points above the national average of 34%). “The top reasons for worker burnout in Phoenix were heavy workloads and being unable to separate work and personal life since working remotely,” Laird says. 

“Employers need to consider how remote work affects an employee’s overall health and wellness,” says Strunk. He contrasts employees who consider it a dream to avoid a long commute and save on gas expense with others for whom the office may have been their “refuge” from the challenges of home life. Consider also the stress on working parents to juggle home-schooling, meetings, loud pets, et cetera, which may occur at home. “Employers should check in with their employees to see what they need,” he says. One suggestion he offers is an “Employee Assistance Program” to provide counseling support for employees. And he points out that virtual meetings are taking a toll on some employees. “Has your company gone overboard with the Zoom?,” he asks, sharing that some companies are promoting “No Meeting Days” when employees are not to schedule any meetings on Friday (internal or client facing), and instead use that day to complete the tasks they need to accomplish to feel good moving into the weekend (and be fresh for Monday).

This goes directly to a key point in Robert Half’s survey, which found 88% of senior managers are worried about staff retention. “Of those respondents, 47% said the reason for their concern is that employees are managing heavy workloads and on the brink of burnout,” Laird explains. 

Laird offers these suggestions to help managers get more involved with health and wellness among their teams:

Empathy goes a long way. In the new COVID-19 era, managers who promote healthy discussions around employee well-being and set time aside to truly listen to their staff can help employees avoid the burnout that is often a result. By being empathetic, managers can persuade employees to come forward and share their stories about what they are going through on the job. Many managers have recently shown a willingness to share their own stories and are recognizing the payoff is high.

Communicate twice as much. Whenever feasible, managers should use video calls when talking with their team. By listening carefully, they may get an authentic sense of how the employees are feeling and coping with such new pandemic stressors as a limit on socializing with others, fewer outlets for rest and relaxation and virtual schooling. 

Give them workload relief. People having too much work to get through the day is partly the result of staff cuts companies have had to make because of the pandemic’s economic effects. Even if the company is not in a position to hire additional workers, it may be able to take some of the pressures off employees by bringing in skilled consultants to help out in the most bottlenecked areas.

“You can also give your team more flexibility by suggesting windowed working: allowing them to break down their workday into smaller units of time, or ‘windows,’ separated by personal breaks. Encouraging staff to take the time off they’ve earned is also key. Even at a time when vacation travel is limited, time off to re-energize can allow them to simply take it easy for a while to avoid burnout,” says Laird.

Hiring and recruiting also face new challenges in the current environment. Strunk observes, “Employers need ways to promote the culture of their company without a physical location to visit. Do you provide short videos on your career page about who you are and what you do? Give employees a virtual tour of the facility they might eventually return to?” He finds more virtual Zoom interviews are occurring as the employee’s initial contact with the company. Zoom fatigue notwithstanding, Strunk says some hiring managers have praised this “new process” in their hiring as it easier to schedule applicants without worrying about their travel needs to the building.

“Recruitment of employees during this time has its challenges, particularly if they start employment from home,” says Riveland, who shares, “I have hired many employees that I have not met in person yet! 

“We certainly do look forward to the time that this is not the case,” Riveland says, “but it can work for many.”


This article is part of the cover story section, which includes the main story:

Health & Your People

And three accompanying articles:

The Ongoing Role of COVID-19 Testing

Reduce Healthcare Disparities among Employees

Arizona’s Surge Line – A Case Study of Success

Speak Your Mind

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