BY CHERYL MORRISON DEUTSCH
We have a habit of seeing mental and physical health as two separate conditions.
We compartmentalize the way we think and speak about each daily. The articles we read regarding just one or the other, apps we use to manage either, or the professional counsel we seek for support — whether it’s a trainer at the gym or a therapist. In reality, the two are very much connected, two halves of a whole that make up our overall health and wellbeing.
Think about the last time you did not get enough sleep and your ability to work the next day was impaired. Or when you experienced muscle tension and an upset stomach due to stress. Or if you’ve experienced weight gain and suffer from insecurity and anxiety as a result. It is not hard to recognize the impact one has on the other.
Viewing mental health and physical health as connected is not a new concept. The World Health Organization (WHO) has always included mental wellbeing as part of its definition of health:
“[Health is] a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” WHO states. “Neither mental nor physical health can exist alone. Mental, physical, and social functioning are interdependent. Furthermore, health and illness may co-exist.”
For many of us, this connection between our mental and physical health was never more apparent this year, when COVID-19 simultaneously struck a hit to both. Take for instance the 30-year-old woman who started telecommuting, as did her husband, and was suddenly forced to balance her work and home lives in a different way. With limited time for herself, this might have led to increased stress, and maybe she started upping her snack intake as a result. Pair that with less gym time during lockdown, and she is now struggling with numerous areas of her health.
Everyone deals with stress in different ways. This year many of us may have relied on unhealthy coping mechanisms without access to our usual resources. High levels of stress and anxiety can lead to a laundry list of physical repercussions, including sleep trouble, unhealthy cravings, loss of motivation to exercise, chest pains and even a weakened immune system. These negative outcomes can impact businesses as much as individuals. People unable to cope with stress in healthy ways end up being less productive employees and can potentially cost the business if their current stress develops into chronic health conditions over time.
“This year many of us may have relied on unhealthy coping mechanisms without access to our usual resources. High levels of stress and anxiety can lead to a laundry list of physical repercussions, including sleep trouble, unhealthy cravings, loss of motivation to exercise, chest pains and even a weakened immune system.”
EAPS ARE NOT CUTTING IT
Companies are on the hunt for resources that can help employees adapt to changing conditions. One option is Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), which are designed to help employees address the mental distress surrounding a variety of crises that arise in life, from family problems and substance abuse to workplace performance issues.
But EAPs have several shortcomings. They can be incredibly complex and confusing to navigate (especially while experiencing mental distress) and are often targeted at very specific scenarios. In fact, little evidence exists to demonstrate that EAPs are effective in serving the goal of employers to maintain productive, healthy and well employees overall.
Failing to provide the level of support employees need when they need it most, many employers have started to lose confidence in EAPs.
To ensure employees are healthy, happy, and ready to take on this new world, employers need to offer solutions that are easy to use — that employees will actually use — and that are specifically designed for general stress and anxiety, including its mental symptoms, as well as their physical implications.
VIRTUAL BEHAVIOURAL CARE TO THE RESCUE
So, what does an effective, easy-to-use, and engaging support program look like in the world we live in today? One consideration — and a particularly important one in our ‘new normal’ — is that these programs should have the ability to be delivered virtually. Brokers need to be thinking about how remote care and wellbeing support can fill the gaps in existing benefits programs.
“Brokers need to be thinking about how remote care and wellbeing support can fill the gaps in existing benefits programs.”
Luckily, care providers and consumers alike jumped into telehealth with both feet this year. Recent research reported nearly 80% of varying specialists increased their use of telemedicine technology in response to COVID-19. More good news is that digital support programs serving mental health exclusively are also on the rise, with 10,000 mental health apps now available today. But there’s still a gap to fill — what’s missing in an all- encompassing program that accounts for both mental and physical health, giving equal weight to both sides of the coin.
The best programs are those that take whole health into account, recognizing how our bodies and mind connect to either help or hurt us. They focus on helping users develop coping skills that can reduce negative mental and physical health symptoms during these challenging times. Ideally, a few factors should come together:
- Broad scope: So many applications zero in on one specific goal — whether its weight loss, relaxation or better sleep. And these are great if your goals are hyper-specific.But platforms that account for whole-person wellness, spanning stress management, sleep, nutrition and fitness, can yield a bigger impact on overall wellbeing.
- Personalization: Everyone’s life situation is differentand the way we respond to stressors are different too. Programs need to meet people where they are and be able to adapt to their specific personal needs.
- Human connection: We’ve all used apps with automated “motivation” before. But bots can only get you so Live outreach from real-life coaches who come to know us and what motivates us, can help keep employees engaged in their health and wellbeing long-term.
- Technology integration: Not everyone wants or can afford to buy the latest and greatest health tech device. Digital programs should be compatible with the devices that employees already use in their day to day
Even in the most difficult of times, staying healthy — physically and mentally — is possible. It just might look a little different and require an added dose of mindfulness. By including mental and physical wellness programs delivered virtually — in their benefits portfolios, brokers can give employers and their employees what they need, when they need it
CHERYL MORRISON DEUTSCH, President and CEO, Zillion, has been a leader at the intersection of healthcare and technology throughout her career. She has been responsible for the delivery of multiple innovative offerings that connect clinicians and patients. She has over 25 years of experience in translating business and technology requirements into actionable plans to provide a superior user experience. Prior to joining Zillion, Cheryl served as executive director of Customer Experience, Collaboration and Transformation at Kronos.