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Covid-19: How to manage stress and well-being during the current crisis

Covid-19: How to manage stress and well-being during the current crisis

Growing levels of stress at the hands of the current Covid-19 crisis could lead to another health hazard if left unchecked

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has plunged the world into a new reality of remote working, forcing us to collaborate and interact in ways like never before. It calls for both employers and employees to go above and beyond to deliver results as they navigate the uncharted territory of working from home. While remote working has been discussed at length in exploring the future work scenario, its abrupt arrival has led to unique challenges for many employees – such as the lack of space, infrastructure, and distractions.

Understandably, the situation has brought on unparalleled levels of stress and anxiety.

Stress has already been the bane of modern working society – a 2019 Cigna study revealed that 91 per cent of UAE residents admit to feeling stress at work, with 22 per cent facing unmanageable levels of stress. The struggle to cope with working in isolation coupled with the increasing fear around job security has only amplified this stress. An underlying fear of becoming redundant may lead to increased pressure on employees to always be accessible and switched on, further blurring the boundaries between work and personal time.

Add to this the widespread fear of contracting the virus – 80 per cent of residents in the GCC region are extremely worried about catching Covid-19, according to an APCO Worldwide research study – and the uncertainty of how long the situation will last is bound to lead to further emotional stress, fear and anxiety.

The burden of stress
It is important to be cognisant of this reality as the current situation presents two causes of concern – mental health deterioration and the risk of developing chronic diseases due to stress – both of which could place a heavy burden on the healthcare system in the long run.

As we scramble to deal with the unprecedented challenges before us, the long-term consequences are closer than they appear. In fact, stress has serious financial implications on the UAE’s healthcare system. Cigna’s study with Asia Care Group in 2019 revealed that the cost of select stress-related illnesses was estimated at $698m per annum.

Research shows that the top four clinical impacts of chronic stress are heart disease, mental health conditions, gastrointestinal problems and obesity, apart from its impact on relationships, moods and productivity.

In order to stop another potential stress-related health outbreak, it is imperative that we act now and not take its impact lightly. To avoid likely health fallouts of the current circumstances, we must collectively – governments, employers, and individuals – pause, reflect and build effective measures to battle stress, just as we continue to battle the ongoing pandemic.

Leaders set the tone
Now more than ever, people are looking for empathy and a sense of hope from their leaders – both the government and their employers. The UAE leadership has made commendable efforts in keeping people united and uplifted during these challenging times. Their communication and action plan serve as a model for businesses in the country and globally. Taking a leaf out of their book, as leaders and employers, here are three important steps we can implement to ensure employee well-being in this exceptional period:

1. Understand the power of reassurance and empathy: None of us are immune to emotional stress. The nation’s leaders have shown compassion and understanding that are complemented by concrete actions to make people feel safe. Strong messages of hope and unity from the leadership have not only put people at ease but also reinforced the belief that the government is prioritising its people. These messages convey that while economic consequences are being dealt with, the value of human life surpasses any other purpose.

2. Consistent and regular communication: The government has continued to ensure that people are well informed of the evolving situation through daily announcements and updates. While many organisations have been proactive in swiftly responding to the situation with necessary safety and hygiene measures and work from home solutions, there is a perceptible gap in their communication with employees. Only 10 per cent of employees are receiving primary information from their managers, according to APCO’s research, which highlights a tremendous opportunity for corporates to improve internal communications.

Communication is key not only to override the fear that arises from misinformation, but also to encourage employee support and understanding through clearly sharing the impact to business from the current situation and how this may directly affect them.

Furthermore, in the prevailing situation, people need to be offered reassurance and this can be done through positive communication – providing clear and transparent information with a focus on compassion.

3. Action for the people: Just as the government aims to reassure people through implementing proactive measures, such as setting up of accessible testing centres and free telehealth support, several organisations have gained the trust and confidence of their employees through positive action. Even as organisations fight to stay afloat during this time, many have earned global respect for prioritising employee wellness in ways that they can control. Some of these include positive communication, virtual employee wellness programs, healthcare support systems, flexibility for parents dealing with home schooling and distance learning, and regulations and guidelines for working hours, among others.

Through implementing robust support systems, companies can allow their culture and values to shine, keeping the morale high and employee trust in the company intact. Virtual wellness programs can accelerate the company’s efforts to uplift employee spirits. In addition, establishing clear expectations, procedures and boundaries will help address stress levels while supporting a healthier working culture.

Even simple initiatives, such as virtual lunches, open Q&A sessions with the staff, learning clubs, and virtual games can go a long way in keeping employee morale high. A Glassdoor study indicates that 22 per cent of employees are concerned about going ‘stir crazy’ when they consider being mandated or encouraged to work from home. People need human interaction, particularly in adverse circumstances and organisations can take on the responsibility to become centres of support in creating the positive interactions that people desperately need.

This is a two-way street – governments/residents and employers/employees are in this together. How the government or an organisation deals with this situation will form the basis of a stronger association and determine the well-being of the population, employees and the healthcare system at large. In challenging times, the physical and mental welfare of people is paramount and should be treated accordingly.

Leah Cotterill is the chief distribution officer at Cigna Middle East & Africa

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