The way we work has undergone rapid transformation in the past year as a result of the covid-19 pandemic, forcing employees around the world to quickly adapt to a new remote-working culture. While necessary to restrict social contact, these unprecedented ways of working are taking a considerable, detrimental toll on employee mental health and negatively impacting productivity as a result. Aetna's Damian Lenihan reports.

In a recent survey Aetna conducted with over 4,000 office workers from across the globe, three quarters (74%) reported that their work performance and productivity had suffered due to mental health pressures related to the covid-19 pandemic.

This is a concerning statistic; not only because of the long-term implications for people's overall health, but also because - according to Deloitte - poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45bn each year. The good news is that for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions, they get back £5 in reduced absence, presenteeism, and staff turnover.

Looking to the year ahead, the future of how and where we will work is still uncertain, but six in 10 (63%) employees agree their employer should invest more in health and wellness benefits to help them stay healthy and productive - regardless of where they work.

Businesses have an opportunity to transform their approach to mental and physical well-being, to ensure their people are effectively supported. Before businesses act, however, they must first understand the unique pressures employees are under.

Blurred lines between work and home life 
Since the beginning of the pandemic, lockdown restrictions and remote working have meant that finding a balance between work and home life has become more difficult than ever before. 

For many, we are now working where we live, possibly with friends or family members, without an appropriate working set up, while trying to juggle work with homeschooling or supporting vulnerable family members. In fact, our survey shows that 6 out of 10 workers feel that blurred lines between work and home life has negatively impacted their work performance since the start of the outbreak.

In addition, with no commute and less defined stop and start times for work, many people have been working longer hours since the start of the pandemic. Our survey shows that 64% of UK workers reported that working longer hours over the last year had a detrimental impact on their performance.

Having no clear boundary to separate our personal and working lives has the potential to reinforce a harmful ‘always-on' work culture. This in turn can lead to feelings of lethargy and a decrease in motivation, with workers who are not able to mentally ‘switch off' increasing their risk of burnout.

Young workers are struggling the most
Our findings also highlight that young workers in particular have been struggling as a result of the pandemic. We found that those aged 18-24 were the most likely out of any age group (88%) to say their mental health has negatively impacted their work performance since the outbreak of covid-19.

This was compared to just over half (55%) of those aged 55 or older. Furthermore, nearly eight in ten (77%) workers globally aged 18-24 said that anxiety over furloughs, pay cuts or losing their job had negatively impacted their performance, compared to a much lower (though still significant) 52% of those aged over 55.

This suggests that younger employees could be more susceptible to the impact of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, meaning they may benefit from additional support. More broadly, this also demonstrates why a one-size-fits all approach to mental health is likely to fall short of employee expectations and needs.  

Tackling mental health together: Five steps for HR and business leaders
As we begin another unpredictable year, it is an opportune time for business leaders and HR to reconsider how they structure, promote and measure utilisation of a well-rounded benefits strategy. To help people and their organisations to survive, it is vital that employers take a long-term view and create strategies that meet the visible needs of employees, as well as those that are less obvious.

With that in mind, here are five steps HR and business leaders can take:

Listen - just because people aren't telling you, it doesn't mean they aren't struggling. Try to create opportunities for employees to proactively share how they're feeling. At Aetna International, we've introduced ‘let's get talking sessions' every two weeks to encourage employees from across the organisation to come together and talk about a range of topics. This can also help employers to understand the issues facing different demographics, or those in different situations.

Communicate - it is vital that employees are aware of what support is available to them. Our survey found that close to a quarter (24%) of employees felt their productivity had suffered recently because senior leadership did not communicate about the health support on offer. This suggests that the way businesses communicate and engage with employees plays a key role in alleviating pressures such as stress and anxiety.

Provide support - make sure that as an employer, you are working with a benefits provider that has a comprehensive range of services. This can take the form of in-person or digital tools. For example, one of the benefits we introduced recently at Aetna (for our members and our own people) is access to the Wysa mental health app, which provides tools and coaching opportunities to help people manage their own mental health.

Step back - it's also important to take a step back to allow your employees to access services confidentially. People don't necessarily want their employer to know every intimate detail about their life or health.

Finally, be vigilant - as employees continue to face challenges in their work and personal lives, it is essential that employers remain vigilant around deteriorating mental well-being. It is up to HR to ensure managers are able to identify those who might be struggling and that they are able to select the right types of interventions.

Damian Lenihan is executive director for Europe at Aetna International

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