Has the pandemic affected health and wellbeing priorities around the globe?

Need to know:

  • Cultural differences, varying health risks and legislation drive employers’ health and wellbeing priorities around the world.
  • The biggest differences in provision are in mental health, with the US and Western Europe most advanced in the support they offer employees.
  • The pandemic has accelerated the provision of health and wellbeing support as virtual healthcare and a greater awareness of the importance of health make it easier and more pressing to look after employees.

Employers’ priorities around health and wellbeing support vary around the world. But, with the pandemic putting health firmly on everyone’s agenda, there are signs that some of these differences are beginning to disappear.

The shape of employee health and wellbeing support around the world is influenced by a variety of factors. Local health concerns are a key driver according to Janet Heaton, principle in the global benefits team at Aon. “Employers will look to address the key health risks affecting employees and these can vary significantly,” she says. “In North America, musculoskeletal, cancer and cardiovascular are the leading medical conditions, while, alongside cardiovascular and cancer, employers in Asia Pacific also see more gastrointestinal infections across their workforces.”

Country culture

Cultural differences also play a part. As an example, Sarah Dennis, head of international at Towergate Health and Protection, points to Australia, where employee health and wellbeing support is advanced. “Australia has always been attuned to the idea of work-life balance so we see lots of focus on physical activity, healthy eating and mental wellbeing in their programmes,” she explains.

As well as determining provision, these differences also shape the global approach to providing this support. “The cultural adaptations required to deliver a solution everywhere mean there are very few global benefits providers,” says Valentina Rocchi, senior director, global services and solutions at Willis Towers Watson. “As a result, multinational [organisations] tend to set the health and wellbeing strategy at a high level and then apply it locally to allow for these differences.”

Government intervention

Legislation can also influence what an organisation offers. In the UK, health and safety legislation requires employers to include a variety of risk assessments and health checks in their support. Further afield, Japan’s Stress Check Programme, which was introduced in 2015, requires all employers with more than 50 employees to conduct an annual stress audit to identify those at risk.

More recently, New Zealand passed legislation to give employees the right to three days’ paid leave for miscarriage at any point in their pregnancy. Carolina Valencia, vice president of Gartner HR, sees this as a huge step forward for health and wellbeing. “Employers in New Zealand have always been very proactive with their support, coming first with Australia when it comes to employee awareness of mental wellbeing support. This will help to push the family wellbeing agenda forwards.”

Stress measures

While culture and legislation has helped to shape employer support around the world, mental health remains the area where the biggest differences exist. “Employers’ views on whether they need to invest in mental health support vary significantly,” says Stephen Galliano, senior vice president of global relations at Workplace Options. “North America and Western Europe are the most advanced, but there are still parts of the world where provision is patchy.”

As an example, he points to Africa. While mental health support in South Africa is on a par with that in the UK and US, engagement falls off in the rest of the continent. “There are some exceptions, for instance Nigeria, where multinationals have pushed the mental health agenda more, but it is unusual to find the same level of engagement elsewhere,” he adds.

Going global

The health and wellbeing expectations of multinationals may have been chipping away at some of the differences around the world but this process went into fast forward as a result of the pandemic. “Covid-19 (Coronavirus) has brought people together more and helped to create a much more globalised approach,” says Rocchi. “Employers have had to review their health and wellbeing support, and with everyone facing the same challenges, it made sense to learn from one another.”

Covid-19 sick pay policies are a good example of this. Faced with employees having to take time off to fight the virus or to self-isolate, Rocchi says it was common for organisations to look at the different approaches that governments were taking. These were then factored into their own policies to ensure everyone received the same level of support.

This concept of ‘all in it together’ came through in other ways too. Dennis says she saw a resurgence of global fitness challenges. “These had lost some of their appeal but they popped up all over the place during the pandemic. Getting everyone to count their steps keeps them active but also helps to connect everyone,” she adds.

Technology revolution

A shift to virtual healthcare during the pandemic is also helping to create more of a global approach to health and wellbeing. Rebecca Freer, head of global healthcare marketing at Axa Global Healthcare, says that although telemedicine had been gaining traction in the US, it was met with resistance in other countries. “Very few people in Hong Kong wanted to give up face-to-face consultations but then the pandemic and social distancing came in and they embraced virtual healthcare,” she explains.

Anything that could go virtual went virtual during the pandemic, including GP and specialist consultations, exercise classes and physiotherapy sessions. Dennis believes these will remain long after the pandemic. “Using technology and apps makes it easy to design a service that can be accessed from anywhere in the world,” she says.

Mental health check-up

Covid-19 has also shifted the dial on mental health support, with Gartner reporting that 96% of organisations offered support at the end of 2020, up from 87% at the end of 2019. “There was so much discussion around the effects of the pandemic on mental health that the stigmas associated with it have fallen away,” says Galliano. “It created a real sense of urgency around putting support in place for employees.”

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The type of support required was very similar around the world. Common initiatives included employee assistance programmes, counselling, surveys and support hotlines for employees and their families. Galliano also saw an uptick in demand for training to help managers identify mental health problems, especially when working remotely.

Although it’s too early to say how the pandemic will influence the future provision of health and wellbeing support around the world, Rocchi believes it’s unlikely to return to pre-pandemic days. “It will push the health and wellbeing conversation,” she says. “The pandemic has been a real wake-up call for everyone: providing support has never been more important.”