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As reality bites, a guide to digital transition

Simon Miller, Senior Director, Customer Proposition - Aetna International

Just as we adapt to a ‘new’ normal, it could all change again. So, what options does the digital realm offer businesses who want to look after their employees’ well-being despite not knowing what will happen next?

Times have changed dramatically over the last few months. The ongoing impact of COVID-19 has altered our perception of many things, including what well-being at work actually 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?

Time to reassess
One way for organisations to approach these unusual circumstances is to see it as an opportunity for rapid re-imagining and innovation. This is no bad thing when you consider that, in a survey we carried out pre-COVID-19, we saw a massive disconnect between what employers thought they were providing in terms of well-being resources, and employees’ opinions about what was available to them. It appears a change was already overdue to do things differently.

For forward-thinking businesses, well-being at work 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 seen by employers as a last-minute bolt-on. Now the appetite for a separate line of services that can meet diverse employee needs is high, as is the understanding that one size does not fit all. After all, when routines are disrupted and life changes dramatically, those who consider themselves mentally well can benefit from developing new coping mechanisms as much as those who feel they are struggling.

Well-being apps are becoming more popular for this very reason. 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 demonstrate how well-received this type of resource can be. That’s why, amongst others, we offer MyStrength, a daily destination to improve happiness and resilience, and Wysa, a responsive mental and emotional health support app that uses AI tech, to our own employees and members.

Bridging the gap
Research shows that, valuable though Employee Assistance Programmes and clinical support clearly are, 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. Conversely, beginning these discussions via text can feel much less intimidating.

That is where the value of these apps really lies. They 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 and make 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, amply illustrated by the way virtual primary health care services – for mental as well as physical health – have been catapulted many years into the future.

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, people are already 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.

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. But this is exactly why re-examining scalable digital therapeutics could offer so many benefits. 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. And regardless of the unpredictable situation playing out in the background, this can only lead to more positive outcomes on the path to better health.

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