Post-pandemic, there is still much that employers, big and small, have to do to ensure workplace health and care of the individual. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The pandemic has inarguably shone the spotlight on the importance of physical and mental health and access to quality healthcare. One issue that has risen to prominence lately is that of ‘comorbidities’ and how we address it in the context of our new normal.

A comorbidity describes the presence of multiple health conditions in a patient, either simultaneously or successively, and the term often refers to long-term, or chronic, conditions. Comorbidities extend to the physiological and psychological and can often result from a failure to address a single condition.

Simple considerations such as the ergonomics of the home office — the right equipment, chair, and desk — can have an impact on the muscles and skeleton. Lack of a healthy diet and exercise can lead to weight gain. And mental burnout can lead to other issues when the newly established ‘always available’ work culture is not addressed.

Uncertainties about one’s short-term health and economic future are not only further triggers for the onset of medical conditions, but may also act as strong deterrents against seeking advice or treatment. COVID-19 restrictions have created a base environment for the development of a range of afflictions and escalation in comorbidities. It is now incumbent on businesses to understand the issue and actively address it in the workplace.

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Fostering an always safe culture

Data from the past 18 months keep steering us back to the need for a more compassionate and open workplace culture as the first step in fostering better employee health. A culture where we encourage employees to talk about important issues, thereby easing the pressure to exude an aura of ‘never ill, always ready for more work, available 24/7’.

Nobody wants to be thought of as the weak link. But normalizing discussions around issues such as health, and particularly mental wellness, could become one of the most important requirements of a sound talent strategy and company culture in the post-pandemic economy.

Leaders need to adapt a more empathetic leadership style; one that allows them to connect more with employees and understand the challenges that some might be facing. If leaders do not learn how to present themselves as vulnerable and authentic - and therefore do not encourage others to do the same - then important issues will go unaddressed.

This could lead to productivity challenges or disengaged employees. We need to give everyone the tools to recognize the early warnings of comorbidities, especially when those signs have stigmas attached. Leaders must also go beyond telling their team that “My door is always open”; they must stand in the open doorway, be seen, and actively ask if anyone has any issues they want to raise.

Taking a cue

Beyond fostering a culture that removes the stigma associated with comorbidities, organizations need to rethink how they address health and well-being in the workplace. The need is an integrated approach to employee health, and this starts with data. Employers need to understand the demographics of their workforce.

A straight guiding principle may be to ‘consult the patients’ themselves and tailor approaches to their needs. A recent Aetna International study showed almost half of remote workers to be most worried about their weight and more than a third were worried about how their lack of physical activity could lead to afflictions of the bones, muscles, and joints.

Their office-based colleagues were more anxious about becoming infected with COVID (46 per cent) or flu and other seasonal diseases (27 per cent). But both remote and office workers had about the same level of concern around common stress (approximately 40 per cent each).

Businesses should consider tailoring their Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) and other health benefits to tackle some of these trends. Certain age groups may benefit more from routine checks for diabetes or access to physiotherapists. Other demographic groups may be seeing a huge spike in mental-health disorders and may benefit from more access to confidential telehealth consultations or access to mental well-being applications like Wysa.

Tackling with telehealth

During COVID-19, telehealth services were the bastion of primary care — they made access to primary care convenient, safe and confidential. Telehealth can also be used to check in with a physician on issues such as fatigue, weight gain, stress, insomnia, and a range of others that, if ignored or treated incorrectly, can lead to more complex and severe problems, including comorbidities.

Its efficacy, convenience and cost-effectiveness alone make it an ideal solution for the reduction in comorbidity incidence. But we also must consider the treatment of existing comorbidities. The pandemic made it harder for patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes to keep up with their medication and regular check-ups.

This had the potential to cause an escalation of symptoms, leading to further medical issues. Telehealth played a vital role in delivering uninterrupted care to comorbidity patients, including diagnosis, treatment, home blood-monitoring, delivery of prescriptions and, most importantly, consultation when needed.

Surveys show employees are looking to their employers for assurances on health issues. Comorbidities are an issue that organizations cannot afford to ignore. By building a more open culture that removes stigma associated with discussion around sensitive health issues and offering more personalized health and well-being benefits, regional organizations can make sure they do right by their employees. After all, happier, healthier employees, means more productive, engaged employees.