Why has the COVID-19 pandemic made a focus on employee wellness more important than ever?


Businesses are doing their best to adapt to the massive economic and societal flux defined by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, despite the pressures on business continuity, it’s crucial not to lose focus on employee wellbeing. Why is that?

To really determine the health of a business, we must take a holistic view – one that includes the health of its employees. Their health determines their productivity and a company’s growth and potential.Every year South Africa loses billions of rands to absenteeism and a huge proportion of that is linked to employees falling mentally or physically ill. The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened these trends. How do corporate organisations combat these losses in a time of global uncertainty?

COVID-19 puts unprecedented pressure on physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing

Employee wellbeing drives productivity. Employees who feel physical, mentally and spiritually well will be able to show up for work each day, to undertake their work to the best of their ability and to join company meetings. They will be able to offer ideas on problem-solving and innovation, and to assist leaders in uplifting team morale as a whole.

In May 2020, research called “Navigating COVID-19 – Impact of the pandemic on mental health,” by the US-based Society for Human Resource Management, found that 41% of respondents felt burned out from grappling with lives altered by COVID-19. Respondents felt pressurised by threats to their job security, pay and benefits. They felt “out of sight, out of mind” or that their work ethic and performance were being questioned because they were not in the office every day.

Researchers propose that employers counter these trends by:

  1. Prioritising employee mental health through health coaching, health and wellness tips, online courses and resources aimed at addressing stress, loneliness, anxiety or depression
  2. Using technology to give employees access to mental health resources – particularly to employee wellness programmes and wellness coaches who are available telephonically or online
  3. Keeping in frequent contact with employees to help them to feel supported and as though they have job security and tenure in the company

Offering employees emotional support and recognising that they are living through a time of great stress and uncertainty.

“Employers have to adapt to approaching employee wellness anew” – Nonku Pitje

According to Future Workplace 2020 HR Sentiment Survey, “A Greater focus on Employee Experience” ranked first with 50% of respondents. Following this result was a greater focus on using technology and artificial intelligence to automate routine tasks, performance management, and people analytics at 41%, 35% and 32%, respectively.

“But, focusing on employee wellness at a time of global pandemic – of business, economic and societal crisis – is easier said than done,” says Nonkululeko Pitje, Discovery’s Head of Employee Health Solutions. “Employers have to adapt to approaching employee wellness anew. With work-from-home the new normal for many employees, our focus on wellbeing has to extend a traditional focus on the way in which the office feeds employee wellbeing, to how well our staff are coping at home or anywhere else where they work. By finding new ways to continue taking excellent care of our employees, we sustain high-performing teams that are better able to care for our customers, drive growth for the company and for each employee.”

Are you missing the signs of burnout among your employees?

In March this year, a Gartner survey of 80 global HR executives found that 88% of organisations had encouraged and required employees to work as a response to the need to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Psychologist James Gower warns, “Employees have worked exceedingly hard under COVID-19 lockdown alert levels that saw many working from home. They are distinctly aware that colleagues or acquaintances have faced job losses or pay cuts, and they have burnt the candle at both ends to prove – should the company need to cut back on staff – that they are worth keeping.

“Once employees begin their return to work, the crisis is far from over,” says James. “Already exhausted employees are expected to continue meeting harsh deadlines and what may be a challenging and hostile environment, where they feel threats to their health and their livelihood, and in which it’s all about the survival of the hardest worker.”

He warns employers to be aware of the signs of burnout and actively work against the rising tide of employee overwork, much as their efforts are needed to get businesses back on their feet or to keep them from going under.

Read more on ensuring employee wellness in 2020 and beyond:

Employee wellness programmes should lead every businesses strategy from now onwards

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has put incredible pressure on employers and their employees, it’s important to go back to basics and focus on how to foster healthy, happy employees:

“Employee Wellness Programmes should be front and centre of every businesses strategy going forward,” says Nonku. “Seemingly overnight, businesses both large and small have found themselves navigating an unprecedented operating environment with profound impact on employees. At Discovery, we have very carefully considered the support that South African businesses need to assist employers and their management teams in formulating and executing an effective response to COVID-19.”

Podcast: Discovery’s extensive COVID-19 Business Support explained

“At Discovery, we are responding to a very clear business need for proper support to screen people, prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to contact trace in the workplace. Also, businesses are asking us to help manage staff who are very fearful of COVID-19, and reintegrate those who recover from the disease back into business. We are hearing a loud call to help business to make sure that they continue to do the work that allows them to keep hiring people and keep the economy running. So that’s the level at which we want to respond – taking the stress of COVID-19 away from employers, to allow them to focus on their work,” says Nonku.

Understanding how crucial it is to support employees both now and into the future, Discovery has developed an end-to-end solution for employers.

Listen to Nonkululeko explain this offering to Azania Mosaka.

“Overall, this offering includes a COVID-19 screening and prevention support service with a focus on employees considered high risk for severe illness should they acquire COVID-19,” says Nonku. “For those employees who contract COVID-19, we bring a case management and contact tracing expertise. We also allow employers to access to our 24/7 COVID-19 hotline and our Discovery COVID-19 information hub. And, we have developed digital dashboards for a quick view of a company’s overall COVID-19 picture. Discovery offers access to actuarial modelling and projections around COVID-19 and its impact on each business or industry. Last but not least, we offer multiple tools to support employee wellbeing including access to wellness advisers for emotional and financial wellbeing support, as well as wellbeing tools for employers.”

Podcast: Healthy employees and healthy businesses

At the end of 2019 and just before the COVID-19 pandemic started, Azania Mosaka spoke to Nonku Pitje (Discovery’s Head of Employee Health Solutions) and Dr Tshidi Gule (founder of the Medispace Lifestyle Institute) to explore the dynamics and the holistic solutions that boost employee wellness. If you’re interested in hearing more about this theme in general, then listen to this podcast:

All medical information found on this website including content, graphics and images, is for educational and informational objectives only. Discovery Health publishes this content to help to protect and empower all South Africans by promoting a better understanding of COVID 19.

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