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, many countries have closed borders, banned flights, barred visitors from affected countries, as well as issued mandated quarantines orders to residents. People who are affected have found themselves thrown into an isolated world full of uncertainties.
The uncertainty of not knowing when the outbreak will end, coupled with a constant stream of unfavorable and conflicting news from both mainstream and social media, will inevitably take a heavy toll on people’s wellbeing, psychologically and emotionally.
Stress at the workplace
COVID-19 has also caused work disruption on an unprecedented scale. Many organizations in the region swiftly activated their business continuity plans (BCP) to minimise the impact to their business and ensure that they can continue to effectively operate their businesses and provide necessary services.
Across Asia, many employers implemented remote working arrangements, established split teams for critical operational functions, as well as granting other mutually agreeable work and leave agreements. In many countries, companies came up with policies suspending business travel to affected areas, providing personal protection supplies such as surgical masks and hand disinfectant for employees who need to return to the office to perform their job duties. Organizations have also asked employees to work from home and/or limit travels.
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 has driven many people to turn to helplines 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 are avoiding contact with others as the number of infected increases. Many countries have also experienced a run on essential items (e.g. rice, canned food) as people embarked on panic buying out of fear and anxiety, aggravated by the social media.
A culture of health can make a difference
Organizations who have over the years built a culture of health and wellbeing in their workplace will be better equipped to help their employees better cope in light of the current pandemic. In these organizations, thanks to on-going 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 business continuity planning 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.
The findings from our 2020 Global Medical Trends Survey underlines 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.
At its core, BCP must balance business needs with people's 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. 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 digitalized economy comes with a surge of technology providers that offer a variety of technological tools and platforms that employers can leverage to provide the necessary support and assistance for employees’ mental wellbeing. Among these are mobile apps that have interesting features for users to have mental wellbeing tools at their fingertips, very much catered for busy professionals.
One example is a mobile app that can facilitate various mindfulness exercises on the go for employees to encourage usage. A simple yet practical tool surprises us in how much it can benefit employees. 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. We have seen how such a tool can become a companion for employees in some organizations in the region.
This entire initiative not only builds up the resiliency of the employees, 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 end in sight.
The COVID-19 situation has highlighted the value of comprehensive BCPs, especially those that can be adjusted quickly to unforeseen situation and keep organizations moving forward. While factors such as technology and physical wellbeing are important elements in a successful BCP, employers in Asia Pacific 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 like this and that they can bounce back faster when organizations return to business as usual.
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