Like everything else, COVID-19 has impacted benefits strategies and employee wellness programs. Wellness initiatives that once took place at work or at the gym are largely on pause for now, with the end date unclear in many areas around the U.S.

Of course, social distancing restrictions are designed to protect employee health. But working from home can bring its own physical and mental risks. As employees work from home, HR also has a role to play in promoting remote work wellness, including both physical and mental health.

Initiatives as simple as encouraging boundaries around working hours and sharing tips on ergonomic workspaces can make a difference for employee mental health and wellness. HR leaders can also consider adding on additional wellness benefits to address ongoing and emerging problems, like increased back pain from our sedentary lifestyles.

Whether you’re sending out a supportive email or rolling out a new wellness program, empathize with your employees and the unique challenges they’re dealing with. From those on the leadership team to remote interns, we’re all in uncharted territory.

How to promote remote work wellness with your teams

1. Share resources on creating a healthy workspace at home.

Many people don’t have a home office or chair comfortable enough for a full day of work. HR managers can help by sharing out advice, such as our work from home ergonomics infographic, via email or messaging platforms. Even if their space isn’t ideal, workers can still make any setup more safe and comfortable with a few adjustments.

Another simple adjustment to make workspaces healthier? Incorporate natural light. Vitamin D from sunlight boosts your immune system, helps ward off seasonal depression, and improves sleep by keeping your circadian rhythm in balance. Adding mirrors to your space can also reflect light and increase the sunny feeling of a room.

2. Offer musculoskeletal digital health programs

Working eight hours from the couch, combined with the stress of COVID-19 and lack of access to care, have created a recipe for back pain. The Journal of Orthopedics expects a spike in spinal and other surgeries in Q4: 120% of their average volume. Spinal surgery costs $100,000 on average – and is effective only around 50% of the time.

Non-invasive, conservative options are just as effective – sometimes more so. As employees put off regular care, employers have an opportunity to offer an at-home solution to help. A robust remote back pain program addresses both the physical and mental side of back pain, which is particularly important for those experiencing chronic back pain.

3. Remember that social interaction is important to wellbeing, too.

Social isolation is linked with poor mental health outcomes. Forty-seven percent of those sheltering in place report that the coronavirus has had a negative impact on their mental health. A few remote work wellness ideas that can help employees feel more connected include:

  • Provide employees with a positive, non-work related way for them to engage with each other online. For example, you could give employees a way to share wellness resources they’ve found useful with each other through Slack or a messaging platform of your choice. Users can share how they’re using employee benefits, or other self-care strategies that have worked well for them. Encourage participation in the channel by sharing resources yourself.
  • Host virtual happy hours. When planning them, it’s important to be respectful of those with family responsibilities or prefer not to socialize with coworkers after hours – just like when we’re at the office. Consider hosting a virtual happy hour at the end of the workday, for example at 4:30, to encourage as much participation as possible.
  • Understand the difference between loneliness and isolation. Loneliness is a feeling, while isolation is structural, explains Gallup research. When an employee feels isolated, they can’t access the materials they need, or they think their achievements are being ignored. They feel cut off from the business. Managers should ask their teams regularly if they have everything they need to meet their goals, and if there’s any software or documentation they need to get their jobs done.
  1. Be aware of burnout.

Research shows that burnout is common for remote workers. Without a daily commute, barriers between the workday and time off can easily blur.

Especially under COVID-19 restrictions, when it’s clear that most people are home for almost all of the day, it’s easy to reach out and expect a response outside of working hours. Encourage managers to respect their team’s time, and expect replies within business hours except in case of emergency. If an email doesn’t require a response right away, say so. Employees often feel pressured to respond, even if the email isn’t urgent, surveys find.

  1. Maintain your employee recognition program.

If you already have an employee recognition program in place, continue to use it, while acknowledging that what amounts to going “above and beyond” may look different under COVID-19 restrictions. Your reward system may need an adjustment, too. For example, gift cards to coffee shops or restaurants may not be as useful with many people still largely staying at home.

No matter your recognition structure, celebrate small wins – the confidence boost could mean more than ever to someone struggling with stress during this time.

  1. Conduct a wellness survey.

Some employees may not feel comfortable being open about what they need during this time. Consider sharing an anonymous remote work wellness survey with both open-ended and multiple choice questions about how employees would feel better supported.

It’s important that employees feel that they’re truly anonymous in these types of surveys, so avoid asking identifying questions like department. Those on smaller teams may feel less inclined to respond if they suspect their identity will be obvious.

Ask questions that are specific to remote work, such as what employees find challenging, and what they like about their new setup. You can also ask about their workspace – and potentially find ideas for how you can help employees improve their arrangements.

  1. Lead by example.

HR leaders play an important role in promoting remote employee wellness. Set an example by respecting your team’s work hour boundaries and taking care of your own mental and physical health, too. As a human resources team, lead the charge in sharing valuable resources around wellness with your team. If employees see senior leadership sharing wellness-related content and setting boundaries, they’ll feel more comfortable doing the same.

Interested in helping employees with one of the most common health issues? Get in touch with Fern to learn about our 100% remote program for chronic back pain. We’re looking forward to sharing more.

Learn how Fern Health can reduce musculoskeletal pain costs at your company.

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