“When ‘I’ is replaced with ‘We’, even illness becomes wellness.” - MalcomX
The impact of mental health on workforce productivity is well recognised. Employers hold the key to supporting emotional and mental wellbeing in the workplace, but as businesses grow their workforces globally across geographies, how can employers provide holistic, cross-cultural health and wellbeing solutions that support hugely diverse workforces?
While businesses are increasingly invested in supporting employee health, the primary focus is typically on physical health and safety. Firms have become well versed in asking the right questions to ensure they are meeting these requirements –for example, do employees have access to adequate primary medical care, a safe and healthy workplace with the appropriate personal protective equipment provided?
But as we enter a new era of mental health awareness, supporting the financial, emotional and social wellbeing of employees is becoming increasingly important as employers look for relevant and powerful wellbeing solutions to the stresses and vagaries of our modern lifestyles.
“Ensuring a consistent approach to the emotional wellbeing of your people can be challenging when you are dealing with a remote working workforce and stark differences in culture, language and service availability. For businesses that operate globally, there are additional challenges when it comes to supporting and nurturing staff who are new to a country, or who you manage from a distance,” explains Jacqui Nel, Business Unit Head of Healthcare at Aon South Africa.
Janet Heaton, principal consultant for global benefits at Aon, explains why understanding your people is essential to a successful placement and transition. “While many large multinationals are providing a base level of support and show the appetite to support mobile workers and their families — the reality is that the speed of business often moves faster than practicalities. Assignment counselling and screening isn’t always adequate and without having all the information about the health of your people, businesses risk delays in getting coverage for what should be a simple placement.”
The true cost and impact of poor mental health
Mental health issues in Africa are frequently viewed as the ‘silent crisis’ since they are often given lower priority where efforts are focused on communicable diseases and malnutrition. According to 2017 statistics from the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), one in six South Africans suffer from anxiety, depression and substance abuse, with fewer than one in ten people living with a mental health condition receiving the care they need. The severity of the issue is highlighted by the fact that there are 23 suicides and a further 460 attempted suicides in South Africa, every day. The Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the situation with bereavement, isolation, loss of income and fear triggering mental health conditions or worsening existing ones.
The reality facing employers today is that sickness absence, reduced productivity and staff turnover relating to mental health is financially staggering. As a result, we are seeing a seismic shift in employee expectations and demands. The Aon 2020 Benefits and Trends Surveyuncovered that 88% of employers reported that employees expect better awareness and handling of mental health issues from them.
“The increasing impact of mental health challenges and the changing landscape of employee requirements demonstrates that mental health policies and support should be high on the agendas of HRDs. The needto destigmatise mental health is also of importance. For a comprehensive health and safety policy to truly work, it should be supported by a company culture that encourages open conversations about mental health and the support available, with routine monitoring of employee mental health and wellbeing,” says Jacqui.
Janet Heaton adds that company culture is the key to breaking down the challenges felt by global workforces. “If you can create a culture that is accepting and supportive, then you are likely to have better emotional health outcomes for your employees. Positivity, belonging, and acceptance can do a great amount for people’s emotional wellbeing,” she explains.
What you can do today
“Over and above offering the traditional insurances and protections for your workforce, you can enhance the employee experience and help build resilience within your people by providing consistent, meaningful and engaging cross-cultural health and wellbeing solutions,” says Jacqui.
- Treat mental health in the same way you would a physical condition
Creating a mental health ‘first aid’ policy can help ingrain a culture of wellbeing within the workplace, in the same way physical first aid has been accepted. Businesses of all sizes are adopting a policy of training mental health first aidersto respond to colleagues in distress with compassion, patience and understanding.
- Utilise technology
Technology has transformed our ability to connect and collaborate with employees, as well as monitor their progress. Apps can encourage positive behavioural changes – from diet and fitness to mindfulness and sleep. Smartwatches can also be used to measure and monitor health and wellbeing data, offering individuals instant solutions and motivation. Well One from Aonis helping transform the landscape for employers, for example, and is in the process of being rolled out in South Africa.
- Support good communication
Businesses that practice open, transparent communication can break down the ‘us vs. them’ mentality and foster closer relationships between managers and team members. Using internal social portals to share achievements, promotions and informal discussions can also help all staff feel more engaged and connected, so encourage communication that helps your global workforce feel a true sense of belonging.
- Acknowledge cultural and language challenges and adopt cultural references
Cultural diversity can bring new communication challenges to the workplace. Supporting your employees to understand the regulations, sensitivities and cultural nuances of the countries they are working in/with will help to support good communication and connectedness.
According to Janet Heaton, the importance of being culturally aware and adopting a progressive approach to wellbeing can have real benefits. “We’ve seen clients run really inspiring community events that contribute towards building a culture of wellbeing that is specific to the country they are working in. For example, some of our clients in India organise a ‘Bring your parents to work day’, because of the cultural importance of this relationship. And by extending benefits to parents, they’ve seen some beneficial results in terms of employee wellbeing and engagement.’
Wellness makes good business sense
Companies are only as strong as the people who work for them, so in today’s volatile world it makes sense to put people at the centre of your business and invest in their success.
“Providing health and wellbeing solutions for our workforces is not just about providing a basic package of support and expecting people to access what they need.To be a business that curates a culture of wellness you need to match flexible support services with an ideology of empathy, care and compassion. The businesses of the future are those that build resilience within their people to realise their potential,” says Jacqui.
“While change is often the only certainty, our support is guaranteed. Speak to an Aon professional healthcare broker to discover how you can help to improve the health and wellbeing of your team,” she concludes.