The traditional focus of worksite wellness programs is likely not top-of-mind during the immediate threat of COVID-19. Rather employers are focused on tackling the rising cost related to the pandemic and preventing the ravaging effects on their employees’ quality of life. The current pandemic has highlighted the need to take a more global approach to employee well-being starting now and into the future.
What do employees feel is most essential to thriving in life, both at work and at home? After years of international research, Gallup found five universal elements of well-being: 1) physical/mental, 2) social, 3) career, 4) financial and 5) community. At first glance, it’s clear to see that COVID-19 has affected each of these elements.
Pre-COVID, only seven percent of those surveyed were found to be thriving in all five areas. When any one element is lacking or strained, overall quality of life and the ability to thrive at work suffers (9). At a time when so many of us feel powerless, employers can sustain employee morale and provide support with intentional focus on workplace wellness.
The effects on Employees Wellbeing
The physical effects of COVID-19 are no doubt devastating with a daily increases in infections rates and mortality, but the effects on mental health are also staggering and will stay with our collective psyche well past the introduction of a vaccine. A recent study conducted at the end of March 2020 indicated that in the past week, 23 percent of those surveyed felt anxious, five percent depressed and 35 percent of respondents felt both anxious and depressed. All of these proportions increased when looking at just the respondents who had recently experienced a job reduction or loss. In addition, 80 percent of all respondents had reported moderate to high levels of distress.
And how are respondents coping? Not well. One out of four reported binge drinking in the past week, one out of five is taking prescription drugs for non-medical reasons and one out of seven reported using illicit drugs (5). Add to the mix that sleep has taken a hit as evidenced by a nearly 15 percent increase in prescriptions for sleep disorders and the UCLA Sleep Disorder Center even coining the term, “Covid-somnia” (4,7). But is an investment in employee mental health worth the time and attention at a time when precious resources, both financial and human, are strained? A recent analysis of national insurance claims data by McKinsey and Company would say yes, most definitely. In fact, 60 percent of overall medical expenditures are driven by just 23 percent of members with mental or substance abuse disorders (5).
And the other four areas of well-being are undoubtedly contributing to the emotional toll of COVID-19. Social distancing impacts social well-being and our sense of community as we know it. It contributes to a feeling of isolation as families, friends and co-workers make tough choices every day to protect their health and safety by forgoing social gatherings and transitioning quickly to remote work when it is an option. The overwhelming 30.3 million Americans seeking aid for unemployment as we enter May 2020 speaks volumes for career and financial well-being during this unprecedented time (1).
Incorporate the five areas of wellbeing into your workplace wellness program.
For example, with fear and anxiety associated with contracting the virus at the forefront of employees’ minds, a Total Worker Health® approach that deploys not only traditional injury and illness prevention efforts, but also employee protection from safety and health hazards is a model to consider (10). In the height of an active virus without a vaccine available to protect workers, put in place plans and policies for engineering controls to prevent the spread of infection via health screenings and temperature checks, manage precautions at building entrances/exits and institute measures for ongoing social distancing during the workday to keep employees safe.
Support mental health and self-care.
Reduce the stigma and start the dialogue around mental health in the workplace to ensure employees feel comfortable seeking the help they need and prepared to support their family and friends who are struggling. One way of doing that is offering all-employee or manager trainings on Mental Health First Aid, newly available online as a COVID-19 accommodation. Providing accessible counseling benefits, including Employee Assistance Programs and telemental health, supports employees who may be in crisis. In addition, educate and give access to resources designed to calm nerves like yoga, meditation, fitness, breathing exercises, getting outside, sleep hygiene and nutritious foods. At an organizational level, opportunities for frequent leadership, manager and employee-to-employee communication in the virtual work environment and check-ins with employees’ perceived work/life balance and workloads while also incorporating flexible work schedules, paid time off and recognition programs are key to reducing employee stress levels. All of these options will help increase employee resilience and help them to thrive through this difficult time.
Provide chronic disease prevention support.
While the more detailed trends on the epidemiology of the disease will continue to emerge in the months and years to come, some emerging risk factors have already appeared. A March study looking at patients hospitalized with COVID-19 found that nearly 90 percent had one or more pre-existing conditions, including hypertension (49.7%), obesity (48.3%) and diabetes (28.3%). Among working age hospitalized patients (50- to 64-year-olds), obesity was the most prevalent pre-existing condition (3). With about one in 10 Americans living with diabetes, approximately 90 to 95 percent of those have the highly preventable type 2 diabetes, and an additional one in three adults living with highly reversible prediabetes, there’s an opportunity to act (2). Lifestyle change programs aimed at helping employees to maintain or lose weight such as a diabetes prevention program, health coaching or nutrition counseling, education campaigns and modifications to the physical workplace (both onsite and for remote workers) to support healthy choices are crucial. With nationwide fitness center closures, pivoting to virtual offerings to keep employees active will be key for the foreseeable future.
Focus on financial well-being. When surveyed at the start of COVID-19, employees’ top financial well-being concerns included everyday cost of living (41%), followed by stock market declines (34%), debt (32%), job security (30%) and lack of emergency funds (28%) (6). Offering employees tools and strategies for budgeting, creating emergency funds, saving for retirement and not only offering but also educating on voluntary benefits such as health savings accounts, flexible savings accounts and defined contribution plans will go a long way in helping employees to feel more secure.
Create a culture of well-being. As Paul Wellstone once famously stated, “We all do better when we all do better.” Incorporating the five wellbeing elements into the fabric of your business, both from the top down and bottom up, has been shown to give back in employee engagement and productivity. In addition, a recent study found that employees who feel their employer offers programs and benefits to support their wellbeing are also more likely to feel successful, respected and valued compared with employees without access to such supports (6). Wellness committees and a network of employees championing such efforts (in person or virtual), can help spark that fire by empowering employees to take charge of their own health and can also give a boost to company well-being efforts by forging social connections and inclusion to motivate their colleagues to do the same.
Now is the time to step out front to build the foundation for employee well-being as we reconstruct and reimagine our workplaces and lives in the midst of a pandemic. The effects for both the health of employees and your business will persist for years to come. Reach out to your Marsh & McLennan Agency representative for assistance with your wellbeing initiatives or for ideas on ways to get started.
- Associated Press. (2020, April 30). 30 million have sought U.S. unemployment aid since COVID-19 hit. Marketplace. Retrieved online from https://www.marketplace.org/2020/04/30/covid-19-us-unemployment-state-benefits/
- Centers for Disease Control. (2019, May 30). Type 2 diabetes. Centers for Disease Control. Retrieved online at https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/type2.html
- Garg, S., et al. (2020, Hospitalization Rates and Characteristics of Patients Hospitalized with Laboratory-Confirmed Coronavirus Disease 2019 — COVID-NET, 14 States, March 1–30, 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved online from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6915e3.htm
- Goldfarb, A. (2020, April 24). Considering Melatonin for Sleep? Here’s a Guide to Help. The New York Times. Retrieved online from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/24/well/melatonin-sleep-aid-coronavirus.html
- Hutchins Coe, E. and Enomoto, K. (n.d.). Returning to resilience: the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and substance use. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved online at https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/returning-to-resilience-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-behavioral-health?cid=soc-web
- MetLife. (2020). 2020 Employee Benefits Trends Study. Navigating together: supporting employee well-being in uncertain times.
- N.a. (2020, April 16). America’s State of Mind Report. Express Scripts. https://www.express-scripts.com/corporate/americas-state-of-mind-report
- National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD). (2020, April 17).
Groups at higher risk for severe illness. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved online from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/groups-at-higher-risk.html
- Rath, T. & Harter, J. (2010, May 4). The five essential elements of well-being. Gallup. Retrieved online at https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237020/five-essential-elements.aspx
- The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (2018, December 18). Total worker health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved online from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/twh/totalhealth.html