COVID-19 places emphasis on mental health

COVID-19 places emphasis on mental health

The COVID-19 crisis forced organizations worldwide to focus on the social factors that can influence employee performance, says PwC.

Article by Rana Mehta, Sarah Butler, and Damien Angus

The COVID-19 crisis forced organizations worldwide to make immediate decisions about how to protect their employees from a mysterious, fast-spreading, sometimes deadly pathogen. Among their actions were requiring employees and customers alike to wear face coverings, deploying testing, adopting best hygiene practices, rolling out health monitoring and reporting apps, and encouraging people to work from home. In short, businesses quickly acted on the social determinants of health by adapting policies and physical environments to protect employee and customer well-being.

Once largely the purview of governments and social services organizations, social determinants of health in recent years have begun to draw employers’ attention. As a 2019 PwC report notes, businesses have a role to play, not just as individual actors addressing the social factors affecting their workers’ health, but as partners in collaborations addressing community-wide needs. The COVID-19 outbreak intensifies the urgency for employers to address these issues. That’s because beyond directly threatening employees’ health, the pandemic aggravates many social factors that can harm workforce and community well-being.

As we mark World Mental Health Day on October 10, it is important to note that mental health already was an important social determinant before COVID-19. Worldwide, nearly 1 billion people have a mental disorder, 3 million people die every year from alcohol abuse, and one person dies every 40 seconds by suicide, according to the World Health Organization, United for Global Mental Health, and the World Federation for Mental Health. Yet countries, on average, spend only 2 percent of their health budget on mental health. In low- and middle-income countries, more than 75 percent of people with mental, neurological, and substance-use disorders receive no treatment for their condition.

The pandemic has aggravated matters. “The mental health and well-being of whole societies have been severely impacted by this crisis and are a priority to be addressed urgently,” states the United Nations’ policy brief on the issue.

Mental well-being and business intersect 

Even before COVID-19, mental health was recognized as a social issue with business implications. Worker anxiety and depression are tied to increased rates of absenteeism, employee turnover, distraction, and poor performance on the job. The global economy loses about US$1 trillion annually in productivity because of depression and anxiety, according to the World Bank. Additionally, mental, neurological, and substance-use disorders are estimated to contribute to yearly economic output losses of $2.5 trillion to $8.5 trillion worldwide.

This occurs even though every $1 invested in scaled-up treatment for common mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, yields a $5 return in improved health and productivity, according to the World Health Organization, United for Global Mental Health, and the World Federation for Mental Health.

Many employers in recent years have attempted to address employee mental well-being. The vast majority (95 percent) of employers around the globe now include emotional and mental health programs in their corporate well-being platforms, according to a survey from Fidelity Investments and the Business Group on Health that was fielded between October 2019 and January 2020. It found that for 2020, 69 percent of the 152 responding businesses planned to provide mental health tele-therapy, and 50 percent planned to offer stress management assistance. Additionally, 78 percent of employers include work–life balance within their well-being platforms in the form of caregiver support (46 percent), programs and tools for new parents (36 percent), and child-care support (35 percent).

In all these efforts, the pandemic has undoubtedly upped the stakes. Employees’ mental well-being is being threatened by the prospect that they or their loved ones will contract the virus, by reduced job security in an uncertain economy, and by new child-care obstacles posed by remote work and the continuation of online learning at many schools. Social-distancing requirements and remote work are aggravating social isolation. There are also heightened risks of domestic and family violence.

In a survey of 1,210 people from 194 cities in China early in the pandemic, 54 percent rated the psychological impact of the outbreak as moderate or severe. In the U.K., the government’s Office for National Statistics found nearly 20 percent of adults were likely experiencing some form of depression in June — nearly double the pre-pandemic level. A March and April survey performed by the U.S. firm Qualtrics of 2,000 employees in Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, the U.K., and the U.S. found that 41.6 percent believed their mental health had declined since the COVID-19 outbreak.

About the author(s)

Rana Mehta is leader of healthcare for PwC India. Based in Delhi, he is a partner with PwC India. Sarah Butler leads the healthcare practice for PwC Australia. Based in Sydney, she is a partner with PwC Australia. Damien Angus advises healthcare clients for Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting practice. Based in Melbourne, he is a partner with PwC Australia.


About the Author:

Anthony Moran
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