April 1, 2020
As the impact of COVID-19 is felt around the world and governments implement “physical distancing” and isolation measures to help stem the spread of the disease, concerns about the immediate and long-term effects of the virus – on both physical and mental wellbeing – are being raised.
The relationship between an individual’s mental health and other aspects of their wellbeing (whether physical or financial) has long been discussed. And as organizations are recognizing the tangible impact wellbeing can have on workplace performance and productivity, many employers have begun addressing employees’ mental health.
The impact of mental and emotional health on workers is significant. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression affects 264 million people and is one of the leading causes of disability. Meanwhile, the global economy loses $1 trillion annually due to depression and anxiety.
“Historically, organizations tend to pretend that an individual’s mental health issues aren’t a factor in the workplace,” notes Rod Hart, vice president of 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 their physical wellbeing.”
A broad range of issues could affect 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 at 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 their employees’ 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, training managers and supervisors to better respond,” observes Matthew Lawrence, chief broking officer for health solutions at Aon Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “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 manifest as many common symptoms. Each can have an impact on core business processes, compliance requirements and workplace safety.
“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,” states Violetta Ostafin, chief executive officer for health and retirement solutions for Aon Latin America.
Across Society, COVID-19 Means Increasing Isolation
One aspect of mental and emotional health getting attention recently is loneliness and isolation. “Isolation is a becoming a major factor,” says Stephanie Pronk, senior vice president and leader of the health transformation team at Aon U.S. “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 both our own and our communities’ physical wellbeing.”
A 2020 trends report from Ford Motor Company found that loneliness was becoming a global epidemic and that its impact on physical health was comparable to obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Ford’s report also found that 43 percent of millennials and Gen Zers reported that social media often makes them feel lonely.
A recent survey found that more than three in five Americans are lonely and that lonely workers are more likely to miss work due to illness or stress as well as question the quality of their work.
“Isolation can be both a perpetrator of mental health challenges and a byproduct,” adds 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
Although some aspects of technology may increase loneliness, others are helping to build communities that enable individuals and employers to make better decisions.
For example, some mHealth apps allow users to interact with not only medical professionals but also support groups of individuals with shared experiences and conditions. These social interactions can help keep individuals engaged.
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 at Aon South Asia and Aon Care.
“Counseling services are another area where mHealth apps and technology have gained momentum,” adds Max Maggio, chief commercial officer for health and retirement for Aon Latin America. “Employers can deploy the technology to give employees access to confidential counseling whenever and wherever they need it.”
Mental And Emotional Wellbeing’s Impact On The Workplace
For employers, the potential impact of including mental and emotional wellbeing in their 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 improving employee engagement was a major objective of their wellbeing strategy. Yet 80 percent said that while they believe in promoting emotional wellbeing, they don’t have the budget to invest in that area.
Employers have a role in providing education and support programs to employees. But a uniform approach won’t work across diverse workforces. Instead, organizations must customize their emotional and mental wellbeing programs based on what they’re experiencing, adds Pronk.
The effort should begin with data, according to Pronk. 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, employees’ 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 U.K. “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.”
Comprehensive Employer Wellbeing Plans Include Mental And Emotional Health
When employers embrace employee wellbeing, it’s critical that they include mental and emotional health in their efforts.
As with other aspects of wellbeing, the focus of employers’ efforts should be moving from reactive to preventive.
“Don’t let an acute mental health issue be the catalyst for considering this aspect of wellbeing,” Pronk stresses. “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?’”
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