Navigating the new world for workplace well-being

In the first of two articles David Eline spoke to Damian Lenihan, Executive Director -Operations and Distribution Europe at Aetna International, to discuss why a focus on well-being has become a necessity rather than simply a nice-to-have for employers worldwide.

 As one of the world’s leading international health insurance groups, Aetna International was ideally placed to see the issues that the COVID-19 pandemic has created, not only for its members but also the company and its staff.

 “On 12th March 2020 we made the decision that the company’s offices both in London and Farnborough would be closed,” Damian explains. “We all thought that they would be closed for two to three weeks and a year later, while we are closer to a return, we are still operating mainly in a remote working environment.”

Damian adds, given the expectation that the closure would be for a short period, firms underestimated the impact that the move to a remote working system would have on physical health, mental health and well-being.

 The impact has been clearly illustrated by the response the insurer has received from its members, in terms of accessing its support services.

“One thing we did track and notice was a 260% increase in mental health related calls year on year,” explains Damian. 

Indeed, he says he has seen, first-hand, colleagues and friends who have struggled in the past year with their mental health. Aetna is a case in point in terms of how it has been forced to respond to the rapid change that the pandemic has demanded.

With the need for remote working, firms have moved to the use of Zoom and Webex for video conferencing. However, in Damian’s view the systems have been unable to replicate the benefits of meeting face to face, and the ability for employers to assess if their staff are having issues.

Damian adds that Aetna quickly understood they needed to support their teams, both physically and mentally.

Physically the firm accessed external support in the shape of online yoga, HIT, and circuit training sessions to encourage staff to maintain or increase their fitness levels.

The mental health challenge was more complex and Damian says the firm created a series of informal virtual events called “Let’s Get Talking”. This became the platform to encourage staff to socialise online and speak with their peers.

“We quickly understood we could not do it all when it came to well-being and recognised that we needed to access third-party expertise to provide support for our employees,” he explains. “One example was using an app that allowed our staff to rate how they felt at the beginning and end of each virtual event. This enabled us to have a pulse check on staff well-being and ensure the content was hitting the mark for our employees. The results were improved ratings of up to 24%.

“In addition to our employee-focused virtual events, we also added a range of apps to support mental, emotional and physical well-being. These include Wysa, a confidential and anonymous mental well-being app, myStrength that supports mental and emotional well-being, and Kaia that supports users to correctly perform therapeutic exercises known to provide pain relief. All of these apps have been made available both to staff and members.”

For the majority of staff their biggest concerns were around the future operation of the firm and with it their role. It is a concern that Damian says, while natural, needs to be addressed at any time of change and in particular when the business underwent such a seismic shift in its operation.

The work-life dynamic has also changed. With a lot of staff now friends with their colleagues outside of work, a move to remote working has also isolated staff from more than simply their work colleagues.

“We have also seen a new normal for meetings, given the need to work remotely.  Sandwiches are being eaten, children are suddenly appearing in the background and we are getting used to the sounds of dogs barking and the obligatory Amazon delivery.”

Firms are preparing for a new normal with many companies already announcing that once a return to the office is permitted, they will move to a system of agile working allowing staff to split their time between the office and remote working.

“While we do not know exactly what this will look like we need to be planning for a new way of supporting people’s health and well-being,” adds Damian. “Communication has been and will remain key to our response and management of the future challenges. It will be common both in how we support our staff and how we support our members.”

In terms of the ongoing relationship with the insurer’s broker partners, we will need to be clear as to what we are offering and how those offerings will be delivered.

Looking to the future Aetna has put its managers through mental health awareness training and it will continue to look to train its management on ways in which they can ensure the continued well-being of their staff, not only during the continued remote operation but also in whichever shape the return to work takes.

“As Maya Angelou famously said, ‘at the end of the day people do not remember what you do or say, but how you made them feel’,” Damian adds.