What Will It Take to Preserve Today’s Workforce? Implementing Occupational Health Practices Could Be Part of the Equation

By: | May 16, 2022

John R. Anderson, DO, FACOEM, is the executive vice president and chief medical officer at Concentra, one of the nation’s largest providers of occupational health care. He oversees the overall delivery of care for more than 2,000 clinicians nationwide. He also oversees the clinical analytics and quality aspects of the company’s medical practice, ensuring Concentra’s value-based medicine standards and early intervention model for rapid, sustainable recovery are consistently practiced. He can be reached at [email protected].

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, companies across all industries were competing for job candidates. But as the world contended with a global pandemic, the labor market took a serious hit, and many businesses were forced to reduce their workforce or close altogether.

As businesses began to recover in 2021, the labor market rebounded steadily. Yet, with an abundance of current job openings, businesses still face the same problem that existed before daily life consisted of shelter-in-place orders, COVID-19 testing, and vaccine mandates.

Despite job openings available at various skill and salary levels and low unemployment rates, there is still a significant labor shortage. What’s keeping people from applying to these jobs?

And what about the segment of the population who was laid off or furloughed during the early days of the pandemic — what’s causing so many to remain unemployed?

Bringing Personal Health to the Forefront

A recent McKinsey survey revealed that a significant number of Americans are choosing not to return to work for specific reasons, including:

  • Need more/different experience, relevant skills, credentials, and/or education
  • Need to take care of family or other dependents
  • Need better access to transportation

However, that research also revealed another source of the “Great Resignation,” and it’s related to the health and well-being of many individuals who remain jobless by choice.

According to a survey conducted by McKinsey & Company, 30% of jobless responders cited physical health as a cause for unemployment, while 15% cited mental health reasons for being unemployed.

Collectively, almost half of the 5,000 Americans who were surveyed cited health concerns as the driving force behind their employment status.

Longer hours with higher work volume can cause fatigue and frustration as well as true burnout, which can lead to employees voluntarily leaving their place of employment citing personal health reasons.

Mental Health and Depression

Similar to its effect on the labor shortage crisis, the pandemic also exacerbated the existing problem of depression.

Mental Health America reports that depression is listed as one of the top three workplace issues for employee assistance program (EAP) professionals.

There was a high rate of depression to begin with in society, but the pandemic created more stressors. From isolation and changes in the workplace to serious illness or death to family, friends, and coworkers, the pandemic has contributed to more employees suffering from depression.

Another contributor to depression is the amount of time an employee spends working. With fewer employees available to do more, there is mounting pressure to perform.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, full-time employees spend an average of 8.5 hours each weekday and 5.5 hours over the weekend working. And when remote working accelerated during the first year of the pandemic, a survey revealed that employees were working even longer hours.

When workforces are depleted and business demands require extended work hours, some employees suffering from workplace depression — both clinically diagnosed and undiagnosed — enter a danger zone.

Whether it’s a higher incidence of workplace injuries or the onset of other serious health conditions such as hypertension and heart disease, the factors that trigger depression can be overwhelming. Feeling overburdened, an employee may view resigning as a necessary step to improve their health and well-being.

Applying Occupational Health Best Practices to Sustain a Workforce

Employers must embrace the mental health aspect of workforce health and safety. Many employers with group health plans offer employee assistance program (EAP) services, which can provide confidential counseling and support to employees for a wide range of personal matters.

Now would be a good time to remind employees of the various services available through their employer-sponsored EAP. For companies without an EAP, there are other options.

Employers of all sizes and industries can apply some basic, occupational health best practices to improve employee morale and preserve their workforce:

  • Be mindful of work hours. Longer shifts and overtime can cause fatigue, and fatigue can lead to burnout, job dissatisfaction, injuries, and productivity losses.
  • Implement a stretching and conditioning program. This is critical to new employees in manual jobs and those returning to work following an extended leave of absence. It can also help to reduce injury risks.
  • Encourage employees to take breaks. Don’t just consider the length of their shifts, but also consider the scope of their work. Is it difficult? Physically demanding? Tedious? Consider job rotations (if possible) to reduce the possibility of overuse syndrome and boredom.
  • Do something unexpected to make work more interesting. A break from the norm can go a long way toward preserving employee relationships and morale.
  • Rebalance work duties. Keep employees engaged while reducing their risk of injury.

Finally — and this cannot be overstated — remember that employee recognition matters. Showing gratitude toward employees can sometimes mean the difference between them staying or leaving. A sincere “thank you” simply for showing up to work can make a huge difference. &

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