How the pandemic has been positive for employee health & wellness
The pandemic has been a wake-up call on the importance of investing in workplace health and wellness, and even a catalyst for positive change.
The clearest example is how COVID-19 related restrictions fast-tracked the adoption of virtual services and ensured continuity of care despite the disruptions to our everyday lives.
In the absence of medical clinics, emergency rooms and hospitals during lockdown, plan members logged onto digital platforms to consult a doctor, get treatment, fill a prescription, and receive counselling, all from the comfort and privacy of their homes.
Only a few months after the onset of COVID-19, a poll conducted by the Canadian Medical Association found that almost half of Canadians had accessed a physician using virtual care options and over 9 in 10 were satisfied with their experience.
By putting health care literally at the fingertips of Canadians, options ranging from digital psychotherapy to virtual physiotherapy are now empowering employees to take charge of their health on their terms.
The pandemic has also brought the need to support the mental wellbeing of employees into sharper focus.
An analysis by MindBeacon found that in the five-month period since the crisis began, the percentage of Canadians struggling with generalized anxiety disorder rose from 34 to 46%, making it the country’s number one mental health concern — moving ahead of depression.
Insurers like Medavie Blue Cross, who had been working with mental health service providers prior to the pandemic, strengthened their partnerships and expanded their offerings to include more options that expedite care.
Here again, technology is playing an important role in breaking down barriers to treatment, providing the most immediate care possible and, by intervening early, preventing mild to moderate mental health concerns from escalating.
In addition to covering the services of mental health practitioners under the benefit plans, employers can remind employees of the counselling offered through their Employee Assistance Program.
Employees can also be encouraged to make full use of the information and self-care tools available through wellness portals, resource centres or online programs their insurer may offer. In addition, employers can have managers do regular mental health check-ins with their teams. This can go a long way in keeping employees psychologically healthy.
Another key takeaway from our pandemic experience is social connectivity and its importance to our mental health.
Although a lot of us are suffering from screen fatigue, the virtual calls, texts and messages we’re now used to have served as lifelines during this difficult time.
As a result, some employers have extended their regular workplace communications to include virtual town halls, online lunch-and-learns, even after-work happy hours.
Not only have these activities helped employees stay connected and informed, they have boosted morale and strengthened relationships on both professional and personal levels.
At Medavie Blue Cross, we collaborated with organizations like the Canadian Mental Health Association to hold webinars to give employees expert advice on wellness-related issues like improving sleep, managing stress, lowering blood pressure, and practicing mindfulness.
We’ve added Meditation Mondays and Yoga Fridays to our calendars, published a staycation guide, a cookbook and a family fun activity book, and sent care packages to employees’ homes.
These were only a few of the ways that we, along with employers across Canada, strived to go over and above our traditional core offerings in order to ensure employees were equipped to deal with the challenges brought on by the pandemic.
Although these extra activities and initiatives were intended to help our employees get through this difficult time, there is little doubt some are here to stay given the positive impacts on workplace health and wellness.
In addition to staying mentally resilient, keeping physically fit during the pandemic has been challenging to many.
However, as gyms and studios shuttered across the country, we saw at-home alternatives start to flourish, allowing us to keep our bodies in shape and our minds sharp.
How many of us, over the past year, have moved the furniture out of the way and followed an on-demand workout video or joined a live online class?
One upside to these virtual activities is the ability to customize them to match individual fitness levels, schedules and interests, be it low-impact yoga and Pilates or high-intensity cardio and strength training.
It is another example of how the pandemic is indirectly helping us take greater ownership of our health and wellness.
Employers may want to consider how this trend could be reflected in their benefit packages. Should they add more in online workouts to their mix of health spending options? Should they reimburse employees for the purchase of mobile technologies like wellness apps and wearable devices that enable employees to adopt healthy habits and reduce risk behaviours?
As much as we would all like to put the pandemic behind us, none of us would want to roll back the clock on progress on employee health and wellness made over the last year.
So how do we sustain and build on this progress in the months and years ahead?
Employers may want draw from their lived experiences and apply the lessons they have learned to refresh their benefit packages and wellness programs.
Important questions to ask are: “Do they reflect new workplace realities, and do they prepare for future uncertainties?” If not, employers might want hit reset on those packages and programs. As COVID-19 has taught us, there may be things on the horizon we can’t fully anticipate or control. However, by looking at our approaches to employee health and wellness through the pandemic lens, and by continuing to be adaptable and flexible, we can ensure we are better prepared and protected for the future.