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October 8, 2020

Psychological effects on physical health: How Covid-19 is changing the industry's outlook

An interview with Antimo Perretta, CEO of AXA European Markets, and Alexander Vollert, CEO of AXA Germany.

Original content: AXA Research Fund

In June, AXA asked 5,800 people in seven European countries to describe the state of their mental health before and during the coronavirus pandemic. Why did you commission this study?

Perretta: We have been looking at the relationship between mental and physical wellbeing for quite some time. We are convinced that it is more beneficial for us as insurers - but also for society as a whole - to invest in early stage prevention rather than in the treatment of physical and mental health conditions.

Vollert: Figures from the World Health Organization show that 25 percent of all Europeans suffer from depression or anxiety disorders. These conditions account for 50 percent of sick leave. Quite apart from this, permanent mental stress has been shown to make people physically ill. This was already the case before the pandemic. We suspected that corona would reinforce these tendencies as people in crisis are under particularly high stress. Hence the study.

Have your suspicions been confirmed?

Vollert: The pandemic and the necessary measures taken to contain it - i.e. the lockdown and social distancing - are really taking a heavy toll on people. The proportion of Europeans who say that they are psychologically unwell has tripled during the pandemic. People who have had psychological problems in the past, or have a predisposition to anxiety and depression, now more often have the feeling they have lost control over their lives.

How has this additional psychological burden affected productivity in the workplace?

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Vollert: Even in normal times, the cost of sick leave due to affective disorders or anxiety disorders in the European Union is around 170 billion euros per year. With the additional mental stress brought on by the pandemic, this figure is likely to grow significantly.

“The proportion of Europeans who say that they are psychologically unwell has tripled during the pandemic.”

What are the consequences of your findings for AXA as an employer?

Perretta: Before the pandemic we already took responsibility for our employees by providing them with a good working environment that promotes their mental wellbeing. We are currently working on global offerings for our employees. The pandemic reconfirmed to us how important such offerings are and this is a further incentive to constantly upgrade.

A large part of the work still takes place in the home office. What does this mean for our working life?

Perretta: The need and indeed longing for social interaction among colleagues is probably greater than ever. We must now ask ourselves: How do we create social spaces at work? And looking ahead: What will the function of the office be in the future?

How is the pandemic changing the health insurance business?

Perretta: We have long pursued a holistic approach that views body and mind as one. For us, mental health is a critical lever for prevention. In these challenging times, we recognize that more people are seeking advice on health issues and need our help to stay healthy, or to get back on their feet. Generally, mental health is losing its stigma for people, especially in Spain and Italy, countries that are heavily affected by Covid-19. In business circles, there has been a lot of talk about supply chain resilience in the face of future crises. In healthcare, resilience means strengthening people psychologically. This is where we have to start.

What could such offers look like?

Vollert: We view our customers as partners for life. In these “new normal” conditions that are still emerging, we want to reach people in the form of digital and remote services, including telemedicine - meeting people at home on their devices. The pandemic has made people more open to digital solutions - even the elderly, who previously were considered less digitally savvy. Even if classical treatment approaches will not surface or are not available enough, we now have the opportunity to complement the health system with digital solutions, since classical treatment approaches are not easily accessible today. In Germany, for example we offer extensive online support through our meine gesunde Seele – “my healthy soul” – program. In the UK, for example, our GP service Doctor@Hand saw its users more than double during lockdown. Especially for the young generation, which was over-proportionally hit.

“Generally, mental health is losing its stigma for people, especially in Spain and Italy, countries that are heavily affectd by Covid-19.”

So will society change fundamentally as a result of the crisis?

Perretta: When we decided to do the study in January, the world was a different place. Now there’s a new status quo and we have to learn from it. After all, there are some silver linings. 60% of those surveyed said they’d changed their view of mental well-being as a result of Covid-19; 70% said they’d learned to accept those seeking professional help – a sign that the stigma surrounding mental illness is beginning to recede. This is the mindset we should try to maintain even when the crisis has passed.

And what is the role of insurers in this?

Vollert: Healthcare as an issue is becoming more important in society. We are discussing the resilience of healthcare systems, while economies around the world are mobilizing enormous investments in search of vaccines. Good healthcare is also the key to a sustainable economy. As important as the environmental and climate protection aspects of ESG might be, being "social" is also a vital part of good governance. As insurers, we can contribute a lot to these debates and provide an easy first access to high quality treatment.

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