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Why it’s time we digitally transform our approach to mental health and well-being

Why it’s time we digitally transform our approach to mental health and well-being

What options does the digital realm offer businesses who want to look after their employees’ well-being?

Covid-19 has altered our perception of many things, from socialising and the importance of basic hygiene practices like washing our hands to what well-being at work means. From finding the right work-life balance in a remote environment to understanding just how important mental health is for teams to remain productive, motivated and purposeful, our way of looking at health and well-being has undergone a profound shift in a very short amount of time.

Given that people have been (and continue to be) affected in a multitude of different ways, it can be very difficult to anticipate and meet the diverse needs of employees. This difficulty is amplified by the fact that we are all dealing with a day-to-day reality that could change again at any time. So, without established models to follow or clarity about the longer-term effects, how can businesses leverage the kind of well-being support that will be effective both today and, in the future — whatever it might bring?

Making mental health a priority

One way for organisations to approach these unusual circumstances is to see it as an opportunity for rapid re-imagining and innovation when it comes to employee well-being. For forward-thinking organisations, this starts with getting the right balance of scalable support; giving equal weight to physical, mental and emotional health. Long gone are the days when positive mental health services were considered a “nice to have” as evidenced by findings from Aetna International’s September 2020 Employee Health Study which found that 72 per cent of United Arab Emirates (UAE) employees say that mental health care provision from their organisation is now more important than ever. As such, the appetite for a separate line of mental health-specific services, that can meet diverse employee needs, is high, as is the understanding that one size does not fit all.

Reassessing delivery mechanisms
Most organisations offer Employee Assistance Programmes and clinical support services that employees can use to address mental health concerns. But while valuable, most people don’t consider themselves in need of these services in the first instance. Even if they do, they often feel uncomfortable initiating a conversation with a stranger. As a case in point, according to a recent report from Oracle, only 18 per cent of respondents said they would prefer a human over a robot to support their mental health.

Enter well-being apps. In a digital-first era, where “digital transformation” is part of the business lexicon and Uber and Netflix have become verbs, it is only fitting that our approach to mental health and well-being also goes digital. People tend to be familiar with the format, they’re convenient to access when and where needed, and they’re a straightforward point of entry for self-care support. The success of mindfulness apps such as Headspace and Calm or Wysa — a responsive mental and emotional health support app that uses AI tech — demonstrate how well-received this type of resource can be.

These apps can help people self-manage feelings of anxiety, isolation and stress, but then also gently and expertly pave the way to appropriate next steps when needed. For example, Wysa’s AI-driven chat function allows members to talk about their well-being and mental state via text but can also direct people towards further self-help content or guidance on how to seek additional support from a professional. This could include structured one-to-one coaching or counselling sessions via text, or online consultations with a virtual health primary care doctor.

In this way, a barrier commonly experienced by so many businesses — the struggle to effectively communicate the range of support available, in a way that makes it straightforward for employees to understand their relevancy, accessibility and usefulness — can be greatly reduced. But the benefits don’t stop there. Communicating with a professional coach or counsellor via text might sound like an unusual approach, but it gives people the chance to reflect on their thoughts and their emotions as they type. Research has shown that writing about feelings in this way has significant therapeutic advantages by encouraging a fresh perspective.

Changing habits
We know people can be extremely resistant to changing their health habits. Sometimes you need a catalyst. The coronavirus pandemic has provided this, and as we continue to navigate our shifting reality, we’ll undoubtedly need to adapt to many new challenges.

Well-being resources will have to be equally as adaptable if they are to have any hope of being effective. After all, while the current trajectory of our journey may be unknown, and the full impact is unlikely to become clear until we have the benefit of hindsight, people are facing an assortment of emotional, mental, physical, psychological, and even financial blows. Encouraging and enabling self-management of these issues will help to ensure the right foundations are in place to stop any niggling concerns from raging out of control. This in turn will hopefully educate people to recognise when more in-depth help is appropriate.

As such, it’s hard to imagine the future of corporate well-being without adaptable tools that support people across their particular spectrum of need, no matter what that might be. Regardless of the unpredictable situation playing out in the background, this can only lead to more positive outcomes on the path to better health.

Catherine Darroue is senior director of Customer Proposition, EMEA, at Aetna International

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