There is no doubt that covid-19 has reshaped our collective attitudes towards things we once took for granted and transformed the way we view the world. Our priorities, our choices, our way of working, our health and fitness, our freedom to choose where to go, when and with whom, all of these things were greatly limited during lockdown. But it's interesting how one thing quickly became clear - without technology, we would have all felt the impact and isolation much more severely, writes Richard di Benedetto
From keeping friends and families connected, businesses running remotely and ensuring all the essentials were only a few clicks away, technology has never proven its worth more to individuals and businesses than it has during the last few months.
However, arguably, this increasing reliance on all things digital has come at a price. As well as an exponential rise in screen time, working from home during lockdown exacerbated the tendency to be ‘always-on' for many people, with emails on phones and laptops constantly within reach. While technology has given businesses the chance to continue functioning, the boundaries between home and work have been redrawn and are now more blurred than ever before.
The physical and mental effects of the pandemic will be felt for a long time to come, meaning the responsibility of employers to take care of their employees’ health is only set to increase."
It's a monumental shift when it comes to thinking about employee health and well-being. And it is going to be a challenge for senior leadership to adapt. There's a need to disrupt existing norms, transform current, possibly outdated practices, and create a more holistic approach that is tightly tailored to requirements.
Keeping in mind how health and well-being benefits are increasingly linked to employee performance and retention, it's of paramount importance that businesses carefully assess their own provisions and really consider the increased responsibility they have to take care of their employees. As always, the first step is really listening to what it is that employees want.
For example, a recent survey we conducted of employees from the UK, US, UAE and Singapore found that almost three out of four respondents believe that their employer can help them to manage their health better by providing technology such as fitness trackers and other wearables. Then there are services such as virtual primary care services, and accessing GPs online.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, we've seen a huge uptake in our virtual health service, vHealth, over the past few months, when it's been a lifeline for people facing physical restrictions on where they can go, or feeling uncomfortable about waiting in a doctor's surgery for a face-to-face appointment. Previous research has suggested it can come as a surprise that medical consultations over the phone or via video link can be so thorough and insightful, but that when someone tries it, they are highly likely to repeat the experience. So, the sharp increase we've seen in virtual consultations indicates a potential transformation in consumer behaviour going forward.
The same survey also revealed almost two thirds of people felt they would benefit if their employer provided mental health support via technology such as mobile phone apps. Apps are straightforward to implement for many businesses, easy to scale and can offer huge scope for monitoring and improving emotional health, confidentially, anonymously and at a pace that suits the individual. We've recently partnered with an app called Wysa, which uses an artificial intelligence chatbot to respond via text in natural conversational language. In this way, people can reflect on their thoughts and feelings and be guided to appropriate next steps, from self-help resources to coaching with a professional. It's a good example of how digital tech can effectively bridge spectrum of need while solving the practical issue of having private conversations when private space may be hard to come by.
So carefully considering the health challenges employees are likely to face as we move from the ‘new' to the ‘next normal' is key, and digital health support is clearly in high demand. But it's also a double-edged sword, and we need to take into account that increasing access to technology is not without its issues.
It is vital that employers acknowledge the risk of adding to an always-on culture or creating tech-driven health problems for their employees. For instance, while our research showed that employees were generally positive about technology, it also uncovered that they are concerned about its potential to negatively impact their health, from overwhelm to damaging eyesight from PC overuse. Further to this, the increasing use of health technology has led to a rise in employee concerns around the use of personal health data by employers or third parties, so maintaining high levels of trust that personal information won't be used inappropriately is a must.
Covid-19 may have shaken the world but it has also facilitated much needed conversations around health, well-being and the role that technology has to play. As we start to think ahead to what the ‘next normal' may look like, the most forward thinking leaders will seize this opportunity to invest in new ways to better support the health and well-being of their employees.
The physical and mental effects of the pandemic will be felt for a long time to come, meaning the responsibility of employers to take care of their employees' health is only set to increase. I am hopeful that this will lead to a more open, holistic and comprehensive approach to employee health and well-being in the years to come.
Richard di Benedetto is president of Aetna International