Addressing employees’ well-being will be a critical component of returning to the workplace as isolation and closure measures start to loosen.

“Our greatest assets [are our] people,” said Wendy Poirier, global well-being leader at Willis Towers Watson, during a webinar last week. “How do we keep them healthy and well, but [also] how do we make them resilient so that they can both get through this shock and then absorb future shocks?”

According to a survey by the consultancy, employees have myriad new stressors due to the pandemic. Almost all (92 per cent) survey respondents reported at least some anxiety from the coronavirus, with 55 per cent saying they had a moderate or high degree of anxiety. Employees cited feeling overwhelmed by changing information, stress and anxiety about the disease itself, as well as safety concerns, loneliness, guilt, helplessness, grief and uncertainty.

Read: How to support employees’ mental health during coronavirus

More than a third (39 per cent) of respondents agreed their colleagues have been able to cope well with the stress they’re experiencing and 57 per cent said they’ve been able to find ways to manage challenges outside of work.

Nearly three-quarters (70 per cent) said they’ve experienced some distraction from work because of coronavirus concerns, with 26 per cent saying their level of distraction was moderate or high. Just one-third (32 per cent) said they’ve been able to balance working from home with their other personal life commitments. “[Some employees] are experiencing additive effects of having to manage caregiving responsibilities while they are working,” said Poirier. “That’s certainly distracting and stressful all at the same time.”

The survey also found 61 per cent of respondents said they’re facing new financial concerns because of the pandemic, whether due to layoffs, furloughs or salary reductions, with 25 per cent saying they’re experiencing a moderate or high degree of worry over the state of their finances.

Read: Sick leave, accommodation, mental-health considerations for a post-pandemic return to work

However, employers are responding to the well-being challenges created by the pandemic, noted Poirier. Two-thirds of employers said they’re enhancing their well-being programs in the wake of the pandemic and the same amount identified enhanced mental well-being offerings and increased benefits communication as key priorities for the next six months.

“There was already a movement for really a broader holistic view of well-being and the pandemic really just exacerbated both the employee need . . . as well as actions from employers in many areas,” she said.

Eight in 10 (80 per cent) employers said they’ve prioritized promoting well-being apps that support employees’ physical and emotional well-being. The same amount (8o per cent) said they’ve increased their communications to employees about well-being programs in the last months. Two-thirds said they’re making employees aware of emergency financial assistance sources.

Read: Disconnection from colleagues key challenge of working remotely: survey

Employers are also recognizing the toll isolation can take, the survey found. Ninety per cent said they’re promoting virtual solutions so employees can connect with each other for non-work purposes.

While Poirier noted employers are increasingly relying on their employee assistance programs as a minimum standard of mental-health coverage, she said the already low utilization rates had dipped during the pandemic. “Perhaps that’s just because the face-to-face counselling piece got cut off, but maybe it’s just time to sort of refresh and relook at what EAPs are meant to do. EAPs have been very helpful and in this pandemic we’ve seen a great response from EAP companies in offering some of those critical incident-type services to organizations . . . but we’re still falling short of getting utilization.”

While EAP use has dropped, the use of mental-health apps has skyrocketed, she said, noting that could be the nudge for employers to look at different ways of supporting their employees through and after the crisis. “Not all employees are ready for counselling as their only support — for instance, an EAP provider. Maybe they need more of a coach supportive approach. Maybe the demographic groups that your employees represent need self support through a digital support tool.”

Read: How OPG is leveraging virtual care to improve health access

According to the survey, the efforts employers have put in during the pandemic have been resonating with employees. Prior to the crisis, 50 per cent of employees said they believe their employer demonstrated a sincere interest in their well-being. During the pandemic, the percentage has nearly doubled to 95 per cent.

“It’s been a huge improvement and certainly, I think, an opportunity to ride this tide from a leadership perspective, to really create a culture of well-being,” said Poirier.