Managing covid toll on envoys’ health

Whole Health: what is it and why does it matter to diplomats? Arjan Toor, CEO, Cigna Europe, explains

COVID-19 has turned the world upside-down with the many countries continuing to face tight restrictions. Even as the UK steps cautiously out of lockdown, there’s little indication of the ‘old’ normal returning anytime soon.

For those working in diplomacy – often referred to as a ‘contact sport’ – remote working and social distancing has been a particular challenge. The all-pervasive nature of the pandemic has affected every aspect of our ‘whole health’ – family, financial health, work life, and our physical and mental well-being. And to restore our ‘whole health’ each facet needs attention.

The family, financial and work-life story
Family relationships, our financial health and our work-life – the key components that make up our ‘world’ – have changed dramatically. Often a change in one of these areas has knock-on consequences for the others. According to a survey by the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) working parents of school-aged children said the pandemic had disrupted their work. A fifth said this was due to having to work around childcare responsibilities, often leaving them feeling stressed, exhausted and feeling close to burnout.

This evidence is borne out in the diplomatic community too: in the Embassy Return to Work survey, more than half of respondents (58%) said the main source of stress during the pandemic has been managing remote working. The care burden was keenly felt by female diplomats. According to the 2021 Embassy Women’s Day survey, 88% of respondents agreed that the Covid pandemic had had a disproportionate effect on female diplomats due to increased childcare and home-schooling responsibilities.

Parents have had to re-adjust their work schedule to fit around caring for their children, leading to them logging on early in the morning and working later in the evening. Latest results from health service provider Cigna, indicate that 73% of workers in Europe work in an ‘always-on’ environment with 51% working after hours. Despite all the time spent at home, caring for children and home schooling, only 50% of people actually spend quality time with their family.

Although diplomats are fortunate to have job security, their spouses and family members may be experiencing financial worries brought about by the pandemic. According to  , a third (30%) of people are experiencing financial stress and only 15% are satisfied with their current financial situation.

This disruption to the daily lives of diplomats has caused a knock-on effect with their physical and mental health, too.

The physical story
Working from home has resulted in a sedentary lifestyle for many, with no regular commute, cycle to work, lunchtime walk with colleagues or stress-busting workouts in the gym. According to Cigna, only 30% of people are getting sufficient sleep at night, 31% are a healthy weight and only 27% exercise on regular basis. These figures are troubling especially since being overweight is one of the risk factors for Covid-19.

The mental health story
Regular exercise is good for mental well-being, too. At a time where feelings of loneliness, isolation and anxiety are on the rise, it’s never been more important to focus on mental health. In addition to the anxiety about contracting the virus, according to the Embassy Return to Work Survey, almost half the respondents (47%) reported feeling stressed due to separation from their family and support networks, while a third had concerns about access to healthcare.

Stress often results in poor sleep and eating habits which negatively affect our physical health. This in turn can make us feel more stressed emotionally – a vicious cycle which can be difficult to break especially while living in these extreme circumstances. To improve whole health, it’s crucial to look after mental and physical well-being in tandem.

The employer’s role in improving the whole health of their employees
With COVID-19 looking likely to stick around for 2021, remaining resilient and adapting to the new normal won’t be easy. How one person copes with change and disruption will be different from another.

According to a Cigna survey, almost two thirds (62%) of people turn to their family and friends for support whereas 30% look to their employer for support. In particular, employees would like flexible working hours (38%), enhanced insurance cover (37%) and mental health support (32%) from their employer and for their employer to understand and care about them (32%).

The Embassy survey results bear this out: 79% would like to see flexible working hours, especially relevant for a workforce often working across multiple time zones; while 63% would like to explore more opportunities for remote working. Furthermore, 79% of respondents said mental health support for embassy staff was “very important”.

Some further recommendations from respondents to the Embassy survey include: “increased communication” between leaders and lower-level staff; an appointed person to support health and well-being; wider access to healthcare plans; and a flexible approach to returning to work.

Cigna Europe is therefore encouraging foreign ministries to look at the bigger picture when it comes to their employees’ whole health. They need to acknowledge that their employees’ lives are complex, their plates are full, and their health and well-being are made up of many moving parts.

One of the big lessons to take from the pandemic is that the personal health, family well-being, finance concerns, work-life balance and access to care all impact the whole health of staff and their ability to work effectively.

Foreign ministries would benefit from offering a comprehensive employee wellness programme which covers everything from medical assistance, mental health support and life and protection services to ensure their diplomats and embassy staff  feel supported wherever they are and in every sense – when they are in good health and when they are not. Diplomats and embassy staff who are supported, resilient and in good health will be fighting fit to navigate through Covid-19 and beyond.

Learn more about Cigna’s Whole Health approach here.