NEWS OPINION

4 Ways Companies Will Improve Employee Wellness in 2022

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Robert L. Quigley, MD, DPhil, is the Senior Vice President and Global Medical Director, Corporate Health Solutions at International SOS & MedAire. After 25 years working in surgery, critical care, and immunology, he's using his expertise to advise on crisis management, infectious disease, and health care. Here, he shares his thoughts on how—and why—employers must support employee wellness.

As we enter our third year of the pandemic, employee wellness is still a major topic of discussion. Companies have rolled out support that was never considered—let alone offered—before, yet workplaces are still far from perfect. Will 2022 bring stability in the workplace? What does the “new normal” look like? Are you being supported by employers the way you need to be? 

In collaboration with Ipsos MORI, International SOS, the world’s largest medical assistance organization, recently published results of its annual 2022 Risk Outlook Survey. The survey unveils the top threats to the global workforce in the next year. The global data was collected from nearly 1,000 senior risk decision makers across 75 countries and most industry sectors. The top risks predicted for 2022 all are expected to negatively impact employee wellness, and in turn, productivity.

Decreased productivity is certainly a manifestation of an emotionally unwell workforce, but so is resignation. What commonly drives workers to leave organizations is lack of support. Since both decreased productivity and resignation impact the “bottom line,” many organizations are implementing different initiatives to support employees with a safe return to normal.

For example, the Risk Outlook report revealed that for home-based, office-based, and site-based workers, organizations are prioritizing access to emotional support services and Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), while simultaneously stepping up their ability to communicate.

However, are initiatives implemented as a result of COVID-19 enough to combat the threats that most companies will face in the next year? 

Prediction 1: Companies Will Need to Respond to Long COVID

Sixty-seven percent of survey respondents acknowledged the need to have adequate resources and intelligence to deal with COVID-19 into 2022, including long COVID. International SOS predicts a shift in organizations' acceptance and understanding of long COVID as new research becomes available.

What Is Long COVID?

Long COVID is a systemic, enduring result of a SARS-CoV-2 infection. The varied and often debilitating symptoms persist for weeks or even months after recovery from acute illness. Up to a third of people who have just a mild case of COVID-19 are still experiencing symptoms three months after initial infection.

Long-term COVID-19 symptoms, like fatigue and brain fog, will impact the ability of affected employees to work at their previous pace. Unfortunately, a stigma may be attached to this. Organizations need to make sure their employees' emotional needs are addressed by dedicated HR members or independent experts well versed in the cognitive impacts of COVID-19.

Prediction 2: Employers Will Invest in Mental Health Resources

In addition to COVID-19 related issues, mental health will also be a primary productivity disruptor for the workforce in 2022. In our survey, a decline in mental or emotional wellness is ranked as the second most likely cause (36%) for decreased employee productivity.

Feelings of isolation due to long-term remote working, combined with the potential stress of working alongside non-vaccinated colleagues, could create complex challenges for those managing the return to operations plans. Workforce wellbeing is a key component of ensuring a resilient and sustainable business.

Businesses should consider it best practice to have a mental health first aider(s) on-site to support employees in any sort of a crisis. A mental health first aider is someone that employees can go to if they’re experiencing a mental health issue and looking to speak to someone for immediate support. Department managers/leaders can be trained and offer training to fellow employees through the Mental Health First Aid program either online or in-person. The goal of this program is to teach employers and employees how to recognize the signs and symptoms of someone experiencing a mental health or substance abuse issue in the workplace and how and when to intervene.

Prediction 3: Planning for Natural Disasters Will Be the Norm

Climate change concern is growing. Twenty-one percent of survey respondents predict that natural disasters, including extreme weather, will be disruptive to businesses in 2022. Climate change will increase the frequency and impact of climate-sensitive hazards, such as infectious diseases, extreme weather events, and socioeconomic tensions.

But what role does an organization play in providing employee support around natural disasters?

Businesses should be proactive in disaster planning. Creating a robust, flexible plan that identifies the key threats to your workforce—both while working from an office or while traveling—is step one. Step two is communicating that plan to staff so they’re confident in the support being offered. This is essential to creating a resilient work environment.

Prediction 4: Travel Policies Will Become More Nuanced

Travel has undoubtedly become more complicated in the COVID-19 era, and more company support is required than ever. In Europe alone, International SOS has seen a 60% increase in the number of COVID-19 cases per 100 business trips. In fact, business trips are now nine times more likely to result in a medical evacuation partly due to the strain placed on many countries’ healthcare services.

Still, the survey shows businesses and employees are eager to travel. As business travel, and travel in general, continues to ramp back up, organizations need to ask themselves questions like, “Is this trip business-critical? What is the individual risk for the traveler? What is the COVID-19 risk at their destination?”

Key steps to take before traveling for business include:

  1. Reviewing your travel policy. Does your organization have procedures in place to manage a COVID-19 travel environment and are they aware of them? Different countries are experiencing surges at different times, so decisions cannot be based on policies in the U.S.
  2. Considering travel restrictions and border controls. The travel environment is fragile. Stay ahead of the latest restrictions and review crucial information about your key destinations before departing for a trip. 
  3. Discussing COVID-19 vaccination requirements. As vaccine rollouts continue, some countries may ask for proof of vaccination to reduce isolation and quarantine times. Information on this is crucial before embarking on a trip. 

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Ramakrishnan A, Zreloff J, Moore MA, et al. Prolonged symptoms after covid-19 infection in outpatientsOpen Forum Infectious Diseases. 2021;8(3):ofab060. doi:10.1093/ofid/ofab060