We Are Failing Our Employees During COVID-19

Photo credit: iStockphoto/tommaso79

Employees are under stress. The rise of Zoom parties, sharing latest virus reports gone viral, or posting of photos of new hobbies and silly antics are signs of coping.

But the facades hide a global call for better coping mechanisms as pandemic measures place a large swathe of the global workforce working at home. We can already see that in the latest UN Women’s report to end domestic violence.

Forgotten EAPs

Companies do have programs to help their employees cope with mental stress. Called employee assistance programs, these EAPs are designed to keep employees physically and mentally fit.

But EAPs are not wired for mass adoption, let alone focus on the entire employee base. Many fail in aligning actual health outcomes with business value creation, end up targeting only a small section of the employee base, and have an unequal focus on physical and mental health.

“We need to bring together mental and physical health together in a more holistic way, and have a way to engage and support all employees in a much more programmatic way,” argues Dr. Jeremy Ting, president and cofounder of Naluri.

Malaysia-based Naluri is forcing companies to rethink their EAPs. Dr. Ting and his team are exploring next-gen digital therapeutics using data and behavioral science, including artificial intelligence to better help employees with their mental stress.

The company claims that its digital treatment program for delivering quantifiable health outcomes can help employers and insurers save on avoidable healthcare costs. “In a way that is twice as effective as medication alone, ten times as cost-efficient and much more accessible,” says Dr. Ting.

Social stigma

The urgency in places like Malaysia is clear. “Between 30% to 50% of Malaysian employees are wrestling with elevated levels of depression, anxiety and stress,” Dr. Ting points out.

The biggest problem is not developing the right EAPs but getting employee to use them. Less than 4% do, says Dr. Ting.

“There’s clearly a disconnect: many employees are not willing to reach out to seek help when they feel overwhelmed, partly from the stigma of being seen to require mental health support, and partly lack of awareness for what they are experiencing or that the support is available.”

This disconnect is coming back to haunt many companies as pandemic measures kick in. Employees, who divided their lives neatly into work and home routines, are now suffering from the blurring of their lives.

Dr. Ting believes that EAPs and corporate wellness programs need to become more holistic as people are restricted from traveling. “There also needs to be more focus on preventive health instead of treatment of illness. Developing mental resilience to cope with isolation and improving nutrition can significantly boost our immune system that’s needed to battle the threat of viral attacks.”

Rewiring EAPs

Not all employees are wired to work from home. It requires discipline and focus, something that successful gig workers and freelancers learned on their own.

Office and field workers were not forced into such discipline. Corporate policies and community pressure enforced their behavior. So, when these controls go missing, mental anguish and depression sets in. A sense of losing yourself pervades, as can be seen by the constant complaints of doing too much work at home.

“The effect of working remotely depends on the individual’s routine—some may be accustomed to the current working arrangement while others may find it difficult to adapt. The sense of depression, loneliness and uncertainty are much likely to occur,” says Dr. Ting.

He urged CHROs to take this opportunity to take advantage of digital solutions.  “I think what this situation really emphasizes and forces people to grapple with is how do you reach and support all your employees at scale. This is where digital interventions really shine.”

Demarcating official work and family times helps, and strictly following these across the reporting chain is vital. Reinforcing with additional work initiatives such as having the right productivity tools, daily check-ins, encouraging the creation of a dedicated workspace, and organizing non-work virtual interactions can ease stress and anxieties further.

“This way, your employees can be fully present during ‘working hours’ while ensuring that their children get the support and care during off-hours,” he notes. 

Naluri also has its own COVID-19 toolkit, a free resource for employers to help address immediate employee mental and physical health concerns.

It includes a two-week free digital health coaching, interactive and educational webinars, live and recorded fitness classes, daily COVID-19 newsletters and infographics and a crisis hotline.

Digital medicine era nears

Dr. Ting notes that the COVID-19 pandemic shines a spotlight on the virtues of digital medicine.

“We should not overlook the benefit or the support that telemedicine could offer during this time especially to emotional health. Digital therapeutics such as Naluri allows us to support employees in a faster, comprehensive and cost-effective way,” he explains.

But the industry still has some ways to go before the public feels safe in getting their health needs online.

“That being said, the experience and learning that comes from this pandemic will catalyze growth for the industry where digital health will be seen on par with the normal healthcare services,” Dr. Ting concludes. 

Photo credit: iStockphoto/tommaso79