COVID-19 is quickly changing the way people work. Where they can, employees are remote working, staying in touch with colleagues by phone and new technologies, combining home and work life, and trying to find new routines.
There are also profound anxieties in households around job and financial security, their own health and that of loved ones, and in some cases social isolation. Some people may not be able to work at all, losing wages and a sense of purpose.
Our work on Britain's and Asia's Healthiest Workplaces suggests how people's productivity may be affected because of suboptimal health and wellbeing in the coming months. In our analysis we focus on productivity loss—the sum of people being absent from work or off sick because of poor health, and presenteeism, when people are less productive at work while unwell.
In the UK, there was a rise in productivity loss among the 200-plus UK employers that we surveyed, from 9.3 per cent of working days lost per employee per year in 2013 to about 14.7 per cent of working days lost in 2019. The latter is equivalent to about 36.5 working days lost per employee per year across the UK employers surveyed. Most of this productivity loss is presenteeism.
In some Asian countries such as Hong Kong and Malaysia, these numbers are even more substantial, with losses closer to 70 working days lost per worker per year in our latest surveys in 2019.
Across the countries surveyed, the main reasons for people's productivity loss are poor mental health, lack of sleep, financial concerns and musculoskeletal conditions. For instance, a person in the UK at risk of poor mental health will lose on average of about 48 days of productivity per year. Having financial concerns in and by itself accounts for 10 working days lost per year. Such issues are prevalent in the research, with 9 per cent of UK employees surveyed at risk of poor mental health and 50 per cent having financial concerns.
It is important that employers continue to focus on the health and wellbeing of staff.Share on Twitter
While many employers responding to the COVID-19 crisis have understandably been concerned with business resilience, processes, and performance, it is important that they also continue to focus on the health and wellbeing of staff.
It stands to reason that some of the main drivers of productivity loss may worsen, owing to the new realities and anxieties that employees and households face. In particular, COVID-19 is likely to present new challenges around mental health and financial wellbeing.
Fortunately, there is help for employers to support their staff's health and wellbeing. A RAND Europe study for Public Health England highlights a range of promising practices that employers can adopt, and the What Works Centre on Wellbeing in the UK has just published new resources for employers. These include interventions delivered remotely and virtually.
However, the challenge will be whether employers have the capacity to deliver programmes and interventions to a wide group of employees. Some of the more at-risk groups may also be less aware of the offer and less willing to engage with such programmes. There is also a wider societal challenge in whether we have the resources and mechanisms to support the health and wellbeing of employees in smaller companies, the self-employed and those in the gig economy.
COVID-19 will likely have a direct effect on the health and wellbeing of employees. This in turn will impact the bottom line of businesses across countries, which may face additional working days lost at a time when they have other obvious pressures. We know that there are effective ways for employers to support the health and wellbeing of employees. These will be needed more than ever in the testing times to come.
Christian van Stolk is executive vice president and director of the innovation, health and science research group at RAND Europe.
Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.