Strategy&: Well-being programs to stem impact of COVID-19

By Janet Brice
Effective mental health initiatives to ease employee stress triggered by global pandemic explored by Strategy, PwC...

Mental health in the workplace and how the well-being of employees has been impacted by the global pandemic is explored in a new report from Strategy&, PwC.

The heightened emphasis on mental health will now mean companies must focus on the social factors that can influence employee performance, highlights the report. Employers are now being urged to implement mental health programs.

A survey conducted in March and April by the US firm Qualtrics of 2,000 employees in Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK and US found 41.6% believed their mental health had declined since the COVID-19 outbreak.

According to the report the cost of inaction is high unless organisations adopt effective mental health initiatives, warn Strategy& - financial-service firms could expect up to a $3.60 return on investment (ROI) for every $1 spent for each employee.

Strategy& comment that increased anxiety is hurting employee performance. In the US sustained attention among workers dropped 31% by August, compared with the pre-pandemic February levels, according to findings from the Mental Health Index: US Worker Edition.

“Employers are rethinking and reconfiguring their organisations to succeed in a post-pandemic future, comment Strategy&.

“They can take a fresh look at the intersection of social problems and their businesses, reflecting the increased focus on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues and develop new strategies that benefit their employees, their communities and their bottom line.”

The COVID-19 outbreak intensified the urgency for employers to address these issues. “The mental health and well-being of whole societies have been severely impacted by this crisis and are a priority to be addressed urgently,” stated the United Nations’ policy brief on the issue.

Well-being initiatives

Given the magnitude of the pandemic’s mental health impact, employers are now embarking on new initiatives or strengthening existing programs. 

“Companies have used a variety of approaches, including encouraging employees to take time off for their mental health, holding virtual town halls to address employees’ worries, and expanding workers’ health benefits and programs (especially digital ones),” says the report.

Practical examples of this include Starbucks who offered its US employees access to 20 free sessions a year through California-based mental health benefits provider Lyra Health, which offers virtual appointments and digital lessons.

PwC US introduced new benefits to address the well-being of employees with coaching sessions and chief people officer Michael Fenlon noted in a recent blog post that PwC UK made Garmin watches available to 1,000 employees to track how they are coping with stress during the pandemic.

Remote working has also blurred the lines between professional and personal boundaries. In response to this change, PwC India instituted a firm-wide “Pens Down Day,” in which employees were urged to take a Friday off and cancel all meetings.

“Of course, employer efforts to address mental health issues among their employees, or address them more broadly, cost money. But they should be regarded as investments companies must make to operate safely in this new environment, much like providing masks or testing, or revamping office space.

“The cost of inaction - lower productivity, increased employee turnover, and employee absenteeism - is high. Businesses can expect to receive, on average, $2.30 for every $1 spent on effective mental health initiatives for employees, according to a report prepared by PwC Australia. The return jumps to $3.60 for financial-services firms,” comment Strategy&.

Stark statistics from the report include:

  • In a survey of 1,210 people from 194 cities in China early in the pandemic, 54% rated the psychological impact of the outbreak as moderate or severe 
  • The UK’s Office for National Statistics found nearly 20% of adults were experiencing depression in June - nearly double the pre-pandemic level 
  • Prior to COVID-19, 1 billion people had a mental disorder according to World Health Organisation
  • Countries, on average, spend only 2% of their health budget on mental health
  • US$1 trillion is lost annually in productivity worldwide due to depression and anxiety, according to the World Bank
  • 95% of employers now include emotional and mental health programs in their corporate well-being platforms, according to Fidelity Investments
  • In 2020, 69% of the 152 responding businesses planned to provide mental health tele-therapy and 50% planned to offer stress management assistance
  • 78% of employers include work–life balance within their well-being platforms in the form of caregiver support (46%) programs and tools for new parents (36%), and child-care support (35%)
  • 12% of US consumers with employer-based insurance said they sought help for their mental health as a result of the pandemic

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For more information on business topics in Asia Pacific, Australia and New Zealand, please take a look at the latest edition of Business Chief APAC.

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