The Growing Importance of Employee Health and Well-Being in Healthcare
Employee health and well-being took center stage for many workplaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers faced difficult decisions regarding remote work, use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and time off for employees who needed to quarantine after falling ill or being exposed to the novel coronavirus. Employees struggled with concerns about viral exposure in the workplace. In addition, employees often experienced high stress from increased workloads or financial uncertainty, as more workplaces had to furlough or terminate employees due to financial difficulties.
Healthcare workplaces have been at the frontline of these workplace challenges. In particular, these concerns have highlighted the importance of supporting health and wellness among employees. Here are a few things you should consider as we continue to battle this ongoing pandemic.
Employee Health in a Post-COVID Healthcare Workforce
Healthcare employees saw many wellness-related challenges in the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic. Frontline workers often experienced heavy workloads, PPE shortages, and high stress associated with caring for patients diagnosed with COVID-19. In other health specialties, stay-at-home orders and restrictions on elective procedures left many providers with fewer patients, and thus lower revenue.
The pandemic brought increased awareness to the many wellness concerns that healthcare employees face. These include:
- Exposure to infections;
- Needle injuries;
- Back and other physical injuries from lifting and turning patients;
- Exposure to allergens and toxic chemicals, including latex gloves and strong cleaning chemicals; and
- Stress and anxiety from long shifts, heavy workloads, pressures of life-or-death situations, and emotional patient care.
The COVID-19 pandemic also exacerbated some of the common hazards for healthcare workers. Supply-chain disruptions limited supplies of PPE and other equipment. Quarantine requirements after viral exposure reduced available staff.
Stress in particular brings its own risks. Not only is stress a risk to physical health, but it can also contribute to medical errors. An unhealthy workplace can lead to high turnover, which not only puts patient safety in jeopardy, but it creates financial losses for a facility.
Supporting Employee Health and Wellness
One of the biggest lessons that healthcare employers can take from the pandemic is to be proactive in making employee wellness a priority. This has numerous benefits beyond preventing many of the issues we saw in 2020. When a workplace supports employee wellness:
- Employees are more efficient and motivated;
- Job satisfaction and morale increase;
- Staff turnover and absenteeism decrease;
- Patients receive better care; and
- More people want to work there.
There are many ways that workplaces can support the health of their employees. One common option is an employee wellness program. Employers may offer these programs as a benefit separate from health insurance, or the insurance company may offer it as part of their coverage.
These workplace wellness programs may target specific health concerns, such as smoking cessation, weight loss, preventative health screenings, healthier eating, good sleep, or increased physical exercise. Some programs cover all these and more. As mental health is gaining more attention in the wake of the pandemic, employee wellness programs are increasingly including mental health resources as well.
Workplaces can also make employee health a priority without creating a full program. Some options include:
- Making sure executives and management are on board with any wellness-related policy or facility changes;
- Providing educational materials, from simple brochures to seminars, on relevant health topics;
- Encouraging physical activity, such as organizing exercise groups or offering gym memberships;
- Making sure employees have appropriate space and equipment, including lots of natural light, chairs that support good posture, and sufficient PPE;
- Providing mental health resources, such as regular breaks and vacations to mental health coverage and counseling options;
- Offering only healthy snacks in vending machines; and
- Ensuring that employees receive relevant, thorough safety training.
By supporting employee wellness, healthcare organizations can protect their patients, improve health outcomes, increase employee engagement, and lower costs. Not only that, but both employers and employees will be better prepared and resilient if/when another crisis occurs.