Stressed out

Cumulative stress is real and one way it can manifest is a feeling of ‘languishing’ – the void between depression and flourishing. What can employers do?

By Alison Bamford, Mercer Marsh Benefits Country Leader, New Zealand
6 Jul 2022
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4 min to read
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Covid-19 has pushed mental and physical wellbeing up the corporate agenda, but organisations must tread carefully.

Poorly designed plans or ‘quick fix’ solutions are likely to cost more money and yield little to no return on investment with the added potential to undermine health and employee engagement.

An evidence-based approach that understands and addresses the specific needs of the workforce is the key to successful program design, measurement and implementation.

We all wanted to start celebrating again as we learned to live with Covid-19, yet for many, other events and shocks occurred, bringing despair and anxiety.

At one extreme, some people feel fine or are even flourishing; at the other end of the spectrum, some people may experience depression. 

Workforce exhaustion was identified in Mercer Marsh Benefits’ “The Five Pillars of People Risk Report 2021” as the third highest risk among all people risks, and is an escalating concern that requires immediate attention.

When asked, ‘To what extent is your organisation currently addressing this risk?’ respondents rated it 14th on the list of organisational priorities, behind other items such as data privacy, labour and employee relations, and communicable health conditions.

Besides the long-term health risks of workforce exhaustion, there is also an organisational cost to ignoring this issue, including toxic work cultures, low employee morale and engagement, high employee turnover, low productivity and higher medical claims.

New buzzwords

Since the pandemic, we have acquired a new glossary of terms to describe the various states of workforce exhaustion:

Languishing: While not all New Zealanders are feeling levels of distress and discomfort that warrant a mental health diagnosis, many are experiencing the effects of ‘Pandemic Languishing’. “Languishing is the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of wellbeing,” psychologist Adam Grant wrote in the New York Times. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, which increases the workload (as things pile up) but significantly reduces your motivation to get through it. While languishing is not a diagnosable mental health condition, it appears to be a significant risk factor for developing mental illness.

Emotional Exhaustion: This is the sense of being overwhelmed to the point where you feel like you don’t have the capacity to deal with life anymore. It’s physical tiredness. It’s mental tiredness. It’s difficulty concentrating. It’s all the things that we experience when we’ve reached our limit or capacity.

Burnout: Burnout was the unofficial 2020 mental health buzzword. According to the World Health Organization, burnout is specifically a form of work-related stress that has not been successfully managed. Common symptoms include feelings of energy depletion, cynicism about one’s job and reduced professional efficacy. 

Alonely: Aloneliness is the opposite of loneliness. It’s the dissatisfaction that comes from not spending enough time by yourself. During the pandemic, when home, school and office life has been combined in one space, this feeling is becoming more common. 

New Zealand’s workplaces need to provide solutions that meet these varied needs. Organisations should take a human-centred design approach when developing a curated mental health and wellbeing framework that is data-led and research-informed.

Workplaces are craving initiatives that provide benefits to employees that address mental health or emotional health issues; train managers to identify mental health issues and support with early help seeking activities, and provide access to digital or remote mental health services.

Interestingly, there has also been an identified need for organisations to take a more coordinated and multiyear approach to mental health and wellbeing, with the implementation of an overarching strategy or framework – rather than a quick-fix or tokenistic approach to employee wellbeing.

Mercer Marsh Benefits has identified two primary initiatives that can assist in managing mental health risks at an employee level:

  1. Mental health literacy training: elevating employees’ knowledge regarding mental health-related terminology, the signs and how to identify these workplace hazards is a proven method to reduce the risk of exposure and strengthen workforce resiliency.
  2. Mental health capability and skills based training: Building employee competency through the adoption of practical skills required to strengthen psychological immunity can be effective in mitigating employee mental health risks. These can include developing employee health and wellbeing tools around areas such as setting clear boundaries for ‘power down’ time, implementation of a peer support system at work, stress reduction activities like mindfulness or meditations, and more.

“Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, which increases the workload (as things pile up) but significantly reduces your motivation to get through it.”

Vaccination policies

When considering whether a vaccination policy is required for your workplace, review if there are any government requirements for your employees to be vaccinated, as well as your reporting obligations as an employer.

You should also ensure your workplace is a safe environment for your employees – review what you need to do to ensure the safety of your workforce.

Employers also need to assess their corporate travel policies as international borders reopen and businesses return to a new normal.

There is a renewed focus for employers to provide a holistic people risk approach, including reducing risk profiles in conjunction with assessing how clients’ insurance coverage may be impacted by insurer-imposed Covid-19 limitations and exclusions.

Insurers experienced bounteous insurance claim volumes largely for loss of deposits, cancellation and additional expenses claims. Consequently, insurers no longer consider Covid-19 unforeseen and related claims are for that reason not insured.

This has again brought into question the viability and practicability of international travel versus a virtual presence, local resource capabilities, Covid-19 restrictions and infection rates.

The vast majority of corporate travel policies have remained active on a reduced declaration of travel basis to act as a safety net for unplanned travel or earlier than expected travel.

As insurers are regularly reviewing coverage, which is being influenced by community expectations, care is required to understand individual policy terms and conditions at renewal.

“Almost half of long Covid patients were working reduced hours six months after infection, and a fifth of individuals were not working at all, both as a direct result of their illness.”

Long covid

According to recent studies, around one-third of Covid-19 cases experience ongoing symptoms months after the initial infection. According to official Ministry of Health records, 1.21 million New Zealanders have contracted Covid-19, although this number is thought to be much higher, meaning a potential 400,000 people may have long Covid, posing a serious impact on business. To ensure a healthy and productive workforce, companies need to have both organisational and workforce strategies.

Without any intervention after illness, individuals are more likely to experience a lower quality of life and lower ability to successfully complete daily tasks. Research has shown that less than a third of individuals who contracted Covid-19 were back working the same amount of hours as they were prior to infection.

Almost half of long Covid patients were working reduced hours six months after infection, and a fifth of individuals were not working at all, both as a direct result of their illness. Of those individuals who were back at work, almost 90% reported feeling mildly to severely unable to complete their work.

This means that businesses can expect to see a reduced workforce size, as well as reduced productivity and efficiency from workers who are suffering from long Covid. 

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