Gordon WatsonCEO, AXA Asia and Africa
15 décembre 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has ground on far longer than many had initially hoped, with fresh headlines each month revealing an undercurrent of burnout sweeping Asia, from students and teachers in Hong Kong, counsellors in Singapore and workers across the region all struggling. The situation is global, with the World Health Organization (WHO) in July warning of the “long-term and far-reaching” impact the pandemic is having has on mental health.
The roots of the issue run deep. Even before the pandemic, research by Hong Kong’s City Mental Health Alliance in 2018 found that 37% of people said that at some point in their lifetime they had experienced mental ill health while in employment, with over 60% of interviewees saying they would not seek assistance from professionals if they suffered from depression. In 2016, UBS found that 25% of working people in Hong Kong exhibited levels of depression and anxiety, 2.5 times the global average. The pandemic has exacerbated such situations and pushed many toward the breaking point.
The longer that the uncertainty caused by this crisis goes on, the less we can expect individuals to continue shouldering this burden. Encouraging individual resilience and self-care are important tools that we have all become acquainted with out of necessity, but they can only help so much in the face of the ongoing pandemic and its associated pressures, particularly as we increasingly see the virus as endemic with no clean end-point.
Yet this crisis may also represent a turning point. The millions of people affected has opened the door to growing awareness, understanding and support across society. Public and media attention on the topic has pushed it up the agenda. Now, as we mark our second year under the shadow of COVID-19, it is time for the business community to embrace a bigger, more impactful role by taking the opportunity to develop the long-term solutions needed to head off a pandemic in mental well-being.
The central enabler of this is the concept of Shared Value. Defined in 2011 by Professor Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in their influential Harvard Business Review article, Shared Value is a business strategy that creates competitive advantage by aligning profit and purpose. They identified that a company’s ability to positively impact social and environmental conditions was a key driver in their long-term performance. In essence, it is a mindset that recognizes tackling societal issues opens up opportunities for new business strategies, resulting in a win-win result for all.
Unlike classic Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives, shared value is unapologetically about business performance. Yet it recognises that economic value can only be sustained in the long term in a thriving society. This alignment can therefore produce a more cost-effective outcome than relying on government spending or charitable approaches alone.
In the workplace, this has already begun to emerge in the changing dynamic between employers and employees, with companies increasingly taking a proactive approach to addressing mental well-being. From closing the office for mental health days to wellness talks and free access to tools like meditation apps, there is a common aim of taking steps to head off potential staff burnout.
This has the twin benefit of both supporting talent retention in a competitive market for talent while also supporting prevention, heading off concerns before they lead to mental ill health and staff absences. Such initiatives also help to bridge the gap in access to support and willingness to use that support. This movement needs to be sustained, with companies providing ongoing investment and promoting a genuine culture of openness and help-seeking.
In business, companies must seize the opportunity provided by product innovation and identify how to leverage their unique resources and skillsets to create impact. The economic incentives are clear, with a World Economic Forum study forecasting that the cost of mental health conditions (and related consequences) would rise to $6 trillion globally by 2030, from $2.5 trillion in 2010. In the US, mental health start-up funding reached a record $852 million in the first quarter of 2021, almost twice the amount raised during the same period in 2020, according to CB Insights.
The insurance sector is a prime example of where this impact can be felt. While the industry in the past focused primarily on covering claims relating to physical illnesses, we are now seeing a pivot to holistic health solutions that integrate cover for mental health needs. Policies now also incorporate access to value added services, equipping customers with comprehensive tools and resources to manage their own mental health before it reaches the stage of requiring treatment. Tailoring solutions in this way can open avenues for new products and further business growth while also supporting society in new ways.
As these approaches become embedded in our standard way of thinking and working, it can extend to touch every aspect of how we do business. In the financial sector, this could take the form of developing products and services that support vulnerable customers in times of financial hardship. By identifying bill defaults and speaking to customers, it is possible to identify those who may be facing difficulties and referring them to support services. This not only reinforces a company’s public image, but also benefits employee engagement and aligns with increasingly important ESG goals as good corporate citizens.
While we do not yet know how long the current pandemic situation will last, the opportunity for businesses to create lasting change in the way we manage mental health needs is clear. By recognizing and embracing the principles of shared value, companies can internalize a mindset that not only has the potential to benefit their bottom line, but the whole of society.
 City Mental Health Alliance, 2018.
 “Prices and Earnings”, UBS, 2016.