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China Daily Global / 2020-10 / 19 / Page012

Four ways firms can combat pandemic

By Sunshine Farzan | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-10-19 00:00

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted careers, personal finances, family life and most significantly mental health. It's no surprise that nearly 70 percent of workers cite COVID-19 as the most distressful moment of their career, according to a survey by global mental health provider Ginger.

The pandemic is exponentially amplifying stress and taking a toll on workers' mental health and physical well-being. Although flexible work-from-home policies and digital technology platforms have helped us stay connected, many are struggling to unplug and find respite.

The Ginger survey also found that stress is compromising overall productivity despite workers logging substantially longer hours. Accelerated connectivity certainly has its advantages and digitalization is helping businesses circumvent some COVID-19 quarantine woes. But the "always on" new normal is wreaking havoc on people's personal lives. It compromises business productivity and subjects employees to information overload, constant distraction, strained personal relations and burnout.

Recognizing the need for "collective well-being" and looking to preempt burnout, Google recently announced an extra day of paid time off for full-time employees and interns. More employers must recognize the potential consequences of COVID-19 on employees' lives and adapt accordingly. Given the circumstances, employers need to take four steps to protect the long-term health of their employees.

Medical insurance for mental health

As the stigma around mental health gradually fades, its link to employees' performance and productivity becomes increasingly evident. For example, in the United States, where the bulk of research on workers' mental health has been conducted, it is estimated by the American Psychiatric Association that depression alone costs American businesses more than $44 billion annually in lost productivity. So, like physical health, it's beneficial for businesses and workers both to track and promote mental well-being, especially in the time of COVID-19.

"Studies consistently show that when employees are healthy and happy, they are more engaged and productive at work," says Tricor Group CEO Lennard Yong.

Employers' mental health plans vary by geographic region and capacity, but they should provide critical mental health services such as counselling, medication and both outpatient and inpatient treatment.

In the Asia-Pacific region, AXA insurance company has gone a step further by integrating an AI-driven chatbot into its "Emma" digital platform to advise users on how to deal with issues like stress. AXA Asia CEO Gordon Watson says: "As mental health is still taboo in many of the markets AXA serves, Emma provides a discreet channel for customers to receive support."

No one is completely immune to the pressures of COVID-19 and, what is happening at home could affect professional performance.

Work-based intervention programs such as employee assistance programs (EAP) can help employees manage their well-being. The most effective programs cover personal relationships, finance, substance abuse and mental health concerns. Because of the long-term benefits they create, companies usually offer EAPs at no cost to their staff. But to ensure privacy and confidentiality, EAPs should be operated through a third-party administrator.

EAPs could become a mainstay in the world of employee benefits, especially as young adults face mounting pressures and the value proposition for employers to support employees in their personal lives continues to grow.

"Young adults are among one of the most vulnerable demographic groups in the workplace. There is research evidence of the consistent 'scarring effect' on the career trajectories and earning ability of graduates in times of crisis," says Olya Zayts-Spence, director of Research and Impact Initiative for Communication in Healthcare at the University of Hong Kong. "Young adults deserve special attention from prospective employers to ensure successful transition from universities to workplaces during this challenging time."

Need for networks for virtual support

Work has literally come home, with employers playing a greater role in employees' personal lives today. So companies should promote their employees' personal well-being and self-care to build trust with them.

In fact, some forward-thinking employers are creating support networks and encouraging employers-led initiatives such as offering weekly self-care videos, well-being calls, group meditation sessions, activity breaks and mandated personal time off.

Virtual caregiver support groups are also growing in popularity, as professionals juggle new responsibilities of caring for loved ones in quarantine and helping their children with virtual schooling. Large companies should consider forming virtual groups designed specifically for their organizations while small and medium-sized enterprises should consider pointing employees to already existing groups and resources. Both approaches can help retain talent and drive employee satisfaction.

"Nothing replaces human interactions, especially in the era of COVID-19. It's human relations that help us combat depression, loneliness and boredom," says Samantha Ghiotti, deputy CEO at Singlife, the fastest growing digitally native insurer in Singapore.

Employees should also be encouraged to access mental health resources via their smartphones.

Mobile apps, such as MoodKit and Happify, can help them to independently identify and improve their mental health status.

Many of these apps offer premium features on a subscription basis, which employers can subsidize.

We rise by lifting others. Giving to others helps support both mental and physical health, according to mental health service HelpGuide, as it reduces stress, combats depression, keeps us mentally stimulated and provides a sense of purpose.

By encouraging volunteerism, employers can fulfil two needs with one deed: improve employees' mental health and uplift employee morale and engagement. And it is needed now more than ever before.

Volunteering time off (VTO) has become increasingly popular in workplaces, a trend that was building momentum even before the pandemic broke out.

According to data from Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose, about 65 percent of companies offer VTO as an employee benefit. And it is not just beneficial to employees alone as software company Atlassian, recognized among the Great Place to Work Institute's Best Workplaces in the Asia-Pacific, has found that VTO is a powerful tool for recruitment, engagement and retention.

The key for employers is to make volunteering more accessible to employees and their families by offering a diverse set of volunteer opportunities, both virtual and, if safe, in-person. Especially in this challenging environment, a purpose-driven corporate culture can benefit both the well-being and mental health of employees and the community. Employers may not be able to control COVID-19, but they can certainly help their employees and society at large to adapt to the circumstances.

The author is the Group Head of Marketing& Communications for Tricor Group, Asia's leading business expansion specialist. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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