As the impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus is felt around the world and governments implement “social distancing” and quarantine measures to help stem the spread of the disease, concerns about the long-term effects of the virus - on both physical and mental wellbeing - are being raised.
The link between an individual’s mental health and every other aspect of their wellbeing, from physical to financial, has long been discussed. Organizations are recognizing the very real impact wellbeing can have on health as well as workplace performance and productivity. As they do so, many employers are coming to understand the importance of addressing employees’ mental health alongside other aspects of wellbeing.
The impact of mental and emotional health is significant. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is one of the leading causes of disability, affecting 264 million people. Meanwhile, the global economy loses $1 trillion annually due to depression and anxiety, according to WHO.
“Historically, organizations have tended to pretend that an individual’s mental health issues aren’t a factor in the workplace,” says Rod Hart, vice president Health Transformation at Aon. “Now people are becoming more aware of the need to provide some form of intervention much sooner. And lately, with the added demand that we self-isolate by sheltering and working in place, COVID-19 has pushed employees’ mental wellbeing to the forefront for employers – along with the physical.”
There is a broad range of issues that can have an impact on a person’s mental health. These can include: divorce and separation, the 24/7 “always on” culture and its effect on sleep, the need to juggle multiple responsibilities and roles in addition to work, financial pressures, and, for many, the despair of isolation and loneliness.
Aon’s 2019 Emotional Health Survey found that 86 percent of employers surveyed rated emotional health as one of the top three drivers of overall employee wellbeing, while 85 percent believe the employer plays a key role in supporting employee emotional health.
“We’re seeing more and more employers paying attention to mental health, whether it’s increasing awareness, anti-stigma campaigns or, on the other side of that, better training managers and supervisors to respond,” says Matthew Lawrence, chief broking officer for health solutions in Europe, Middle East and Africa at Aon. “And given mental health’s impact on our overall wellbeing, there’s a lot more work to be done.”
Bringing Our Whole, Emotional Selves to Work
Employees’ emotional distress can be reflected in a number of common symptoms. Each can have an impact on core business processes, compliance requirements and workplace safety.
- Sleep problems can result in safety-related mishaps or tardiness.
- Lack of concentration can result in procrastination and distraction.
- Slowed cognition can lead to indecision and project delays.
- Aches and pains can result in more frequent trips to the doctor and increased health care costs.
- Forgetfulness can cause errors and omissions.
- Self-medication can result in missed deadlines and absenteeism.
- Irritability and tearfulness can strain work relationships with colleagues, supervisors and clients.
- Low motivation or morale can result in reduced productivity.
“All dimensions of wellbeing – financial, social, physical – as well as how employees experience their roles, will be affected by issues involving emotional or mental health,” says Violetta Ostafin, chief executive officer for health and retirement solutions, Latin America, at Aon.
Across Society, COVID-19 Means Increasing Isolation
One aspect of mental and emotional health getting particular attention recently is loneliness and isolation. “Isolation is a becoming a major factor,” says Stephanie Pronk, senior vice president and leader of the U.S. Health Transformation Team at Aon. “It’s especially apparent now, when the COVID-19 outbreak means we must intentionally distance ourselves from our communities. It’s an unusual but important choice we’re making for the benefit of our own and our communities’ physical wellbeing.”
A 2020 Trends Report from U.S. automaker Ford found that loneliness was becoming a global epidemic, and that its impact on physical health were comparable to obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The Ford report also found that 43 percent of Gen Z and millennials reported that social media often makes them feel lonely.
Further, the report found that loneliness increases the risk of death by 26 percent, with lonely individuals more likely to suffer from dementia, depression and heart disease.
A recent survey found that 60 percent of Americans are lonely, and that lonely workers are more likely to miss work due to illness or stress, or to question the quality of their work.
“Isolation can be both a perpetrator of mental health challenges and a by-product,” says Hart. “Someone may isolate themselves as a way of coping with other issues. The same is true of addictions. Substance use can be a coping mechanism.”
Deploying Technology For Better Mental Health
Though some aspects of technology may increase loneliness, others are helping to build communities and enabling individuals and employers to make better decisions.
For example, some mHealth apps allow users to interact not only with medical professionals but also support groups of individuals with shared experiences and conditions. These social interactions can help keep individuals engaged and feel supported to better encourage behavioral change.
In the Asia Pacific region, technology already plays an important part in employers’ wellbeing efforts. “From access to user experience to analytics, technology has revolutionized the way employers approach preventive health care and wellbeing,” says Dr. Amitabh Deka, head of Wellbeing Solutions, South Asia and Aon Care at Aon.
“Counseling services is another area where mHealth apps and technology have gained momentum,” adds Max Maggio, chief commercial officer for health and retirement solutions, Latin America, at Aon. “Employers can deploy the technology to give employees access to confidential counseling whenever and wherever they need it.”
The Workplace Impact Of Mental And Emotional Wellbeing
For employers, the potential impact of including mental and emotional wellbeing as part of broader wellbeing initiatives is significant.
“Many employers spend time training people on safety hazards or data privacy,” says Pronk. “Mental health deserves the same level of thoughtfulness and strategy.”
Of the companies participating in Aon’s Emotional Health Survey, 91 percent indicated that a major objective of their wellbeing strategy was improving employee engagement. Yet 80 percent said that while they believe in emotional wellbeing, they don’t have the budget to make investments in the area.
There’s a role for employers in providing education and support programs to employees. But a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work across diverse workforces. Instead organizations must customize their emotional and mental wellbeing programs based on what they’re experiencing, says Pronk.
The effort should begin with data, Pronk says. And while claims data is a start, there’s also a need for qualitative data from employees and leaders within the organization collected through interviews or similar techniques to help the organization truly understand employees’ mental and emotional wellbeing.
Mental health becomes even more important in an era of constant change. As businesses undertake broader transformation initiatives, an employee’s wellbeing, including how valued they feel, is critical in helping achieve an organization’s broader change objectives.
“An individual’s experience at work can have a big impact on their emotional wellbeing and quality of life,” says Amber Harris, senior relationship manager for talent consulting at Aon in the United Kingdom. “If employers can help employees feel valued and align their work with the right roles that suit their personalities and life objectives, that could have a positive impact on their performance, lower risk and attrition – which is critical during times of significant organizational change.”
Holistic Employer Wellbeing Plans Include Mental and Emotional Health
As employers embrace employee wellbeing, it’s critical that they include the mental and emotional health piece in their efforts.
As with other aspects of wellbeing, the focus of employers’ efforts should be to move from reactive to preventive.
“Don’t let an acute mental health issue be the catalyst for considering this aspect of wellbeing,” says Pronk. “Employers should ask themselves, ‘What do we need to do differently to make sure that our employees and their family members have access to the right types of solutions?’”
This article originally appeared on Aon’s The One Brief