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Science-based, digital and preventive: the new model for employee resilience

The coronavirus has exposed how organisations have neglected mental wellbeing, providing the bare minimum of support for employees in tick-box exercises. We need a new, engaging, digital model based on evidence and science, says Paul Morrison

Science-based, digital and based on prevention: the new model for employee resilience

The coronavirus pandemic will have long-term effects. It will change how many businesses think about workforce mental wellbeing and resilience.

How can it be any other way, when we have 8.9 million employees furloughed and millions more working from home? Many staff have had to cope with the unaccustomed pressures of co-existing almost permanently with children and partners, or of operating from improvised offices. The technology-led, always-on culture blurs the lines between employment and private life and makes it difficult for some employees to switch off.

And even if employees achieve domestic harmony, there is the constant fear of what the economic consequence of lockdown will be and whether jobs are safe. For the boardroom there is the struggle to survive, regain lost ground, and consider how to achieve growth in tough conditions.

Now that we are in the phase where the return to offices is tentatively under way, social distancing will also create a very different atmosphere in which normal mixing and mingling will be strangely inhibited.

COVID-19 continues to reveal the inadequacies of most forms of employee support

The whole experience has been difficult for most people, placing great strains especially on employees who may already have been below par emotionally. It has exposed how organisations have neglected mental wellbeing, providing the bare minimum of support for employees, frequently in the form of employee assistance programmes that are merely tick-box exercises.

This is not just damaging to employees it is extremely damaging to businesses. Deloitte, the global consultancy, this year published an authoritative study which estimated how even before lockdown poor mental health was costing UK employers £45 billion each year (a 16% increase on its 2017 report). The report reveals how, aside from the substantial costs of absence and employee turnover, businesses were badly impacted by presenteeism, where employees come to work despite a health condition or poor state of wellbeing that renders them unable to work at full capacity. This increasing phenomenon inflicts financial damage of between £27bn and £29bn annually, according to Deloitte, and drags down the vitality and creativity within an organisation.

In another study before COVID-19, the CIPD, the official body of the HR profession in the UK, found 89% of respondents in its survey of HR professionals recognised presenteeism in their organisation. Absenteeism may be declining, but presenteeism is on the increase.

The new model of workplace wellbeing and resilience

A new approach is needed that works to a different paradigm – that of prevention. What the COVID-19 era demands is a shift to a preventive approach that addresses the needs of the whole person – keeping them at peak fitness in terms of mental wellbeing, sleep, diet, exercise and social connectedness. This includes coping with the pressures of isolation, return to work anxiety and the disruption to normal human interactions caused by social distancing. What is critical is to use the latest advances in neuroscience and base interventions on the evidence of what actually works, rather than what sounds good but is in reality just a fad.

And with a workforce that may continue to work from home, the means of delivery have to change. An employee assistance programme only available from a desk-top log-on no longer cuts it. We need digital technology that offers a far more engaging and multi-faceted range of content, tailored to the individual, that includes animation and gamification. The new paradigm is of a platform available across smartphones and laptops, offering detailed, evidence-based advice and access to therapeutic interventions such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). Where employees have worries about back-pain, maternity leave or parenting, for example, the platform must also be able provide expert-moderated supportive communities where these concerns are aired and shared, cutting across organisational boundaries to pool insight and reduce that debilitating sense of isolation that leads to poor wellbeing.

Prevention makes far better financial sense

Early intervention is always the key to success in any health matter, but it also makes financial sense. Deloitte calculates that proactive interventions to improve resilience and wellbeing deliver a return on investment of roughly 5:1, compared with only 3:1 for reactive approaches that only offer assistance once a problem has developed. Tailored web portals are even better value as investments, offering a 6:1 return. The study found the most effective solutions to be those embedded within organisations over the long term.

At Helix Resilience we have seen how our own neuroscience-based resilience platform, using a variety of proven techniques and tools, led to a 152% increase in activations in a major corporation during the coronavirus outbreak. This engaged every employee from the CEO to the youngest recruit, using bespoke content, tools and evidence-backed techniques that helped prevent stress, sleeplessness and the causes of presenteeism.

New challenges demand new solutions. Businesses need to completely reassess how they provide support to their workforces, in light of the pandemic and its effects. The outdated basic approach that only offers support when the problem is in full force, has to be ditched in favour of a proactive rethink. Companies taking employee resilience seriously must have a platform providing highly engaging, dynamic content that encourages employees to spot the signs and proactively take care of their mental wellbeing and resilience before they are gripped by anxiety, stress or emotional difficulties. The same way they already do in relation to physical health, when going to a gym or Zumba class, for example.

Commoditised platforms may give access to a few hours of counselling or therapy when employees are struggling badly with stress, anxiety or depression, but these are essentially post facto approaches that intervene too late.

The passive approach no longer works and is only contributing to presenteeism. As millions of employees cope with the pandemic, a proactive and preventive approach rooted in science is essential to the resilience and increased productivity of all organisations.

Paul Morrison, pictured below, is chief operating officer at Helix Resilience

Paul Morrison is chief operating officer at Helix Resilience

Published 24 June 2020

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