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How employers can help manage productivity — and stress — during coronavirus

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Barking dogs. Children needing help with schoolwork. Kitchen tables turned into desks. With routines turned upside down from countless distractions throughout the day, many employees who are working at home during the coronavirus pandemic find it difficult to get their work done.

Even though some employees are starting to return to the office, others are either still weeks away or planning to work from home permanently. With this in mind, it’s important to understand what’s causing many people to report declining productivity in national surveys. Those insights, in turn, provide an opportunity for employers to best support their workers' physical, mental and financial well-being during this time and beyond.

In addition to daily distractions, social isolation and anxiety over the risk of exposure to the virus hinder productivity. Most adults — 84% — say their lives have been disrupted by the pandemic, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking poll.

Kaiser also found that 40% say that worry or stress has resulted in sleep problems, while one-third say they either have been eating too much or have a poor appetite. Other stress-related impacts include frequent headaches or stomachaches, increased drug or alcohol use and worsening chronic health conditions.

Financial concerns also loom large. The Federal Reserve Board recently reported that a larger percentage of Americans are facing financial hardship than they were last fall.

More than 40% of employees surveyed by Optum in late March admitted they were less productive during the pandemic. That figure dropped only slightly a month later when we conducted a second round of surveys. Clearly, employees are continuing to struggle with evolving work arrangements.

But there is a silver lining in this cloud. The relationship between perceived employer support and productivity is dramatic. Among employees who agree that their employer supports their physical and mental health needs, 39% reported being less productive. But among those who don’t feel that support from their employer, more than seven in ten admit their productivity is down.

Demographic differences
At the onset of COVID-19, millennials struggled the most with managing productivity, according to the Optum survey. However, as the crisis has evolved, baby boomers are now reporting the highest levels of worsening productivity.

Our survey also found a potential red flag: female workers have increased their productivity in recent weeks as they adapt to the new normal, but at the same time, report that their well-being is diminishing. For example, social well-being is now worse for nearly seven out of ten women, compared with slightly less than half of men reporting social well-being declines. For employers wanting to offer additional support, social well-being presents an opportunity to identify any gaps in benefits and promote existing services to employees and their families.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some home-based employees report difficulty in separating their work and home lives. As a result, they are working harder than ever. Unable to set limits, they spend several hours at a time at their desks without a break, answer emails late into the night, wake up early to start working again and forgo exercise. While these employees may be more productive, that routine can take a toll on their physical, mental and social health.

Employer support
If they haven’t already, employers should embrace their critical role in stemming productivity loss. Start by taking a fresh look at your benefit package to assess if it truly meets employees’ needs in these uncertain times.

Consider, for example, expanding childcare benefits. For employees working at home with children, this is a top concern. Subsidizing the cost of childcare, providing back-up childcare assistance and offering flexible work schedules are just a few ways to support working parents.

Many employers are extending paid sick leave, promoting round-the-clock mental health support through employee assistance programs, expanding wellness coaching visits, and waiving fees for telehealth visits with providers. Others are offering full coverage of COVID-19 testing and related treatment.

Employers can also promote ergonomically sound practices. For many employees, working at the kitchen or dining room table in a chair lacking adequate lumbar support, with poor lighting and inadequate ventilation is less than ideal.

Such conditions can lead to backaches, neck pain, arm and wrist discomfort, vision strain and headaches. According to an American Chiropractic Association survey of its members, 90% said their patients were experiencing increased pain since working from home.

Employers can educate home-bound employees on the importance of suitable back support and how to set up workstations to minimize musculoskeletal issues. Some companies are supplying workers with ergonomic keyboards and laptop computers and tips on proper lighting. Other employers are expanding their benefits packages by offering virtual visits with an ergonomist and virtual physical therapy visits to help address those aching muscles.

As states begin to open their economies and workers start returning to their offices, many will likely still have the opportunity to work from home. Regardless of where they are located, however, employees will continue placing a premium on feeling supported by their employers which in turn, engenders employee loyalty.

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Employee productivity Stress management Mental health Work from home
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