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Employers should integrate mental wellbeing into business continuity planning

Health and Benefits|Integrated Wellbeing
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By David Rowell | April 7, 2020

The uncertainty of not knowing when the coronavirus outbreak will end will inevitably take a heavy toll on people’s wellbeing, psychologically and emotionally.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has placed tremendous pressure on countries to deal with both the public safety aspects of the outbreak, as well as its associated economic impact.

To mitigate the spread of the virus, lockdown measures in Australia are being upgraded regularly at an enormous cost to affected businesses such as tourism, travel and hospitality. The New Zealand Government moved to lockdown even sooner with only essential services remaining operational. The people affected have found themselves thrown into an isolated world full of uncertainties.

Not knowing when the outbreak will end, coupled with a constant stream of unfavourable and sometimes conflicting news from both mainstream and social media, will inevitably take a heavy toll on people’s wellbeing, psychologically and emotionally.

Stress in the workplace

COVID-19 has caused work disruption on an unprecedented scale. Many organisations have swiftly activated their business continuity plans (BCP) to minimise the impact to their business, ensuring that they can continue to effectively operate and provide necessary services.

Across Australia and New Zealand, many employers implemented remote working arrangements, used split teams for critical operational functions while government directives allowed them to do so, as well as granting other mutually agreeable work and leave agreements. Some employers have had to lay off vast numbers of their people.

While the priorities are to safeguard employee health and ensure business continuity, many employers may not have given due thought to the potential emotional impact to employees. Those who are not accustomed to working remotely, do not have the necessary infrastructure at home to work productively, or simply miss having a team to interact with, could find themselves demotivated and anxious.

A pandemic situation can lead to fear and anxiety, compounded by the effects of social media. In China, the stress and anxiety of the outbreak earlier drove many people to turn to help lines for mental and emotional support, straining the small population of mental health professionals in the country. In South Korea, those living in special management zones avoided contact with others as the number of infected increases. Many countries have also experienced a run on essential items (e.g. toilet paper, canned food and pasta) as people embarked on panic buying out of fear and anxiety, aggravated by social media.

A culture of health can make a difference

Organisations who have built a culture of health and wellbeing in their workplace prior to COVID-19 will be better equipped to help their employees cope in light of the current pandemic. In these organisations, thanks to ongoing education and awareness efforts, employees would already be aware of how to cope with stressors and have the necessary resources to be able to manage them. Managers are also more assured that their employees’ wellbeing is taken care of and they can focus on ways to ensure their team’s day-to-day work continues as usual or with minimal disruption.

In 2018, the International Organization for Standardization released guidelines for a people-focused approach to BCPs in the event of a disaster, outlining the role of an employer in ensuring the wellbeing of the workforce during and after a period of crisis. These guidelines include analysing the needs of employees beforehand, providing support through learning and development, providing support during the disruption and assistance thereafter to handle stress or trauma. These guidelines can be a starting point to help employers form their own plans and mental health initiatives, as part of their wellbeing package and as a component of their BCP.

Mental wellbeing – a key consideration to business continuity

While these broader health and wellbeing concerns are taken into consideration, safeguarding employees’ mental wellbeing isn’t always factored in as part of the key considerations to a BCP.

Findings from our 2020 Global Medical Trends Survey underline the importance of mental wellbeing. Insurance providers in Asia Pacific predicted that mental and behavioural conditions will be among the three most common and most expensive conditions within the next five years. This topic of mental wellbeing certainly should not be neglected.

Mental health professionals have spoken out in support of integrating emotional wellbeing with BCPs. Their suggestions highlight the need for proactive measures and early interventions to build mental resilience.

Our research found that mental health disorders could cause US$16.3 trillion in economic losses by 2030 if they remain unaddressed.

At its core, a BCP must balance business needs with people needs. It must, firstly, reassure employees that they are safe and healthy while fulfilling their work. The negative impact of stress, anxiety and mental illness on productivity is well-documented. Our research found these could cause US$16.3 trillion in economic losses by 2030 if they remain unaddressed.1 A holistic approach to wellbeing amidst a stressful and uncontrollable environment can greatly reduce long-term distress for employees and the rising healthcare costs for employers.

Taking a proactive approach to employee mental resilience

Today’s digitalised economy comes with a surge of technology providers that offer technological tools and platforms employers can leverage to provide the necessary support and assistance for employees’ mental wellbeing.

One example is mobile apps (such as Calm or MindFi) that can facilitate various mindfulness exercises on the go for employees; a simple yet practical tool which can provide great benefit. These include various ways for employees to de-stress, reduce distraction and impart them with knowledge and skills to better cope with anxiety and anger.

This entire initiative not only builds up employee resiliency, it also supports their emotional and psychological wellbeing in difficult times. We know that they are better prepared with more self-awareness, especially at this junction of vulnerability where we are facing a pandemic that has no clear end in sight.

The COVID-19 situation has highlighted the value of comprehensive BCPs, especially those that can be adjusted quickly to unforeseen situations and keep organisations moving forward. While factors such as technology and physical wellbeing are important elements in a successful BCP, employers need to understand that employee mental wellbeing is also a crucial component to ensure business activities continue with minimal disruption.

It is important to keep employees mentally resilient during a crisis period so that they can bounce back faster when organisations return to business as usual.

Footnote

1 Willis Towers Watson 2020 Global Medical Trends survey

Author

Managing Director, Health and Benefits, Australasia

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