Pandemic PTSD: Company well-being programmes become more important than ever

Heathrow Covid testing

Hope is finally on the horizon.  Our biotechnology heroes have produced a medical miracle never seen before.

At least three highly effective COVID19 vaccines developed in less than one year.

The end of the pandemic is in sight, and in record time.  This development is truly remarkable and should be celebrated all around the world as an amazing achievement.

However, this is only the beginning of the healing.  Millions will still contract the disease, and many will, tragically, die even as the vaccine is rolled out.  We are not out of the woods, yet. More restrictions, more disruption and maybe, even more lockdowns are very possible.  By the time the pandemic can finally be declared “over”, we will have experienced somewhere around 18 months to two years of pandemic stress and uncertainty.

The level of distress in the world population has not been seen on this scale since World War II.  Looking at history, we can see that pandemic stress will likely leave deep scars on the psyche and bodies of millions (possibly billions) of people for years to come. Months of isolation, economic uncertainty, and for many, illness and death have stalked every corner of the planet. Despite this, it has been remarkable how hard people have worked to try to keep going as best as they can.  Particularly health workers and frontline workers who have been truly heroic in their efforts, some losing their lives in the process.

As the pandemic steadily eases later in 2021, people are going to start to feel relief, but then the mental, physical, and financial strain of the pandemic will start to emerge. As people begin to feel safer, a form of “Pandemic PTSD” may arise as a serious health challenge for many, which could impact the workplace and people’s performance. If not recognised and dealt with, it could become a serious drag on organisational and people effectiveness, impairing our ability to fight through the economic recession.

The good news, even before the pandemic, organisation spending on “well-being programmes” was already on the rise in the UK. Leadership of organisations big and small were already recognising that a healthy and mentally fit workforce is good for the organisation and society as large. It is good business. Given this, I feel on firm ground when predicting that this trend investment is going to accelerate post-pandemic.  For example, Westfield Health ‘Divided Together’ report found that 94 per cent of businesses have increased the amount they spend on wellbeing due to COVID-19. Over a third (35 per cent) have increased their wellbeing spending and 72 per cent had a wellbeing programme in place before the pandemic.  It is time to redouble our efforts and prepare for epidemic of health problems in the workforce as a result of the COVID19 pandemic.

So, what makes up an effective well-being programme? At the highest level the best programmes focus on the following:

  • Mental well-being: monitor the workload of employees to avoid burnout and provide regular opportunities to renew and recharge both inside and outside work, as well as providing a certain level of autonomy in tasks and work rules to give control over work.
  • Physical well-being: beyond providing health insurance, physical wellbeing is offering employees the opportunity to improve their health through more exercise, improved nutrition, and emphasising the importance of adequate sleep, both at night and during the day.
  • Financial well-being: one of the biggest stressors on the workforce is money; more and more companies are investing in helping the workforce to better manage finances. A particular area of focus is helping people save for future retirement and dealing with student debt burdens.

So, how does this three-pronged approach to well-being work, and what are the benefits? Significant evidence exists supporting the link between mental well-being at work and productivity – ‘good work’ (jobs that are skilled, autonomous, supported, secure, with good work–life balance, good income) is associated with better mental health and less absenteeism. Managing workloads across the workforce is one of the most important things companies can do to relieve mental stress.

During and after the 2008 financial crisis, people saw their workloads double and even triple as workers were let go and those that were left had to pick up the slack. More recently, there is a focus on using better workforce management techniques and tools to spread the load across the employees, to smooth the pipeline of work to be done and by whom it gets done. Additionally, many organisations are relaxing work rules and work times to allow more flexibility and control over their time and place of working.

Additionally, a focus on physical health is showing evidence of the impact of tackling risk factors such as smoking, physical activity and obesity. A 2017 study of Transport for London found workers with obesity (BMI>30) take an average of three more sick days annually than those of normal weight (BMI<25), and those with severe obesity (BMI>35) take six days more. Helping employees change behaviours and giving them opportunities, and tools, to work on their health reaps significant benefits. In insurance giant Aflac’s 2016 workforce survey, 55 per cent of employees said they would participate in an exercise programme through their workplace to help lower their health insurance cost, while 64 per cent of employees participate in their companies’ well-being programme and agree that they’ve made healthier lifestyle choices because of these programmes.  One area of particular focus in creating physical well-being is sleep. A flood of recent research shows that the importance of at least eight hours of sleep per day has massive personal benefits in mood and performance. At the same time, the lack of consistently catching eight hours of sleep a night can be catastrophic to physical well-being and productivity. Former Huffington Post founder and editor, Ariana Huffington, says:

“After my collapse from sleep deprivation and exhaustion in 2007 I became more and more passionate about the connection between well-being and performance. And as I went around the world speaking about my experience, I saw two things: First, that we’re facing a stress and burnout epidemic. And second, that people deeply want to change the way they work and live”.

Ariana used to sleep for only three to four hours a night when she was setting up and running her news media aggregation site. In 2007 she collapsed and woke in a pool of her own blood from an injury to her cheekbone. Her doctors told her she was exhausted and had to change. And once she made this change she said: ‘I’m much more present in my life, much more joyful. I am, without question, a better leader, because I can look ahead with more clarity.’ She went on, ‘I think the biggest growth of the Huffington Post happened after [she slept more]. I think it’s a delusion that in order to succeed as an entrepreneur you need to burn out.’ Now, she’s so evangelical about her bedtime routine, she sold Huffington Post and now proselytises around the world on the benefits and what she calls ‘the necessity of sleep’ as part of her Thrive Global enterprise.

Money worries are some of the most pernicious areas of challenges for people. Having a certain amount of freedom from worry about money is something many people long for. Therefore, financial well-being has an impact on a worker emotionally, but it also impacts business productivity. Almost 25 per cent of workers report money worries have affected their ability to do their job, and one in ten say they have found it hard to concentrate/make decisions at work because of money worries. This will surely increase after as the pandemic eases. In fact, it’s been found that presenteeism has a greater financial cost to employers than absenteeism, as it is harder to detect productivity impacts of workers being at work physically, but mentally checked out. This makes financial well-being a particularly difficult problem to root out, as people are much less likely to discuss their financial health than they are their physical health with their employer or colleagues. To address this problem (and to measure the impact), in the United States the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau came up with a financial well-being scale:

  • Control over one’s finances: being able to pay bills on time and making ends meet.
  • Capacity to absorb a financial shock: unexpected major outlay of cash.
  • Being on track to meet financial goals: paying off debt, saving for retirement.
  • Making choices that allow one to enjoy life: having freedom to do enjoyable things

So, as we emerge from our home bunkers and start to participate in life again, as we used to know it, it is important to remember there will be some damaged souls that may or may not recognise right away the extent of the harm to their physical, mental and financial health.  Therefore, it will be the leaders with the highest emotional intelligence who succeed most in the coming years. Those that exhibit empathy and understanding in the workplace.  They will be expert at recognising someone in who is struggling and help them get the assistance they need to deal with Pandemic PTSD. People never forget an organisation and a manager who stepped in to help them when they were struggling in a crisis.  Now is the perfect time to invest in the well-being of your people – the return on this investment is likely to be significant and society will be better off as a result.

Tim Ringo’s new book Solving the Productivity Puzzle published with Kogan Page is out now. To learn more visit