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Tech to Counteract COVID-19-Related Stress

By Nicole Lewis

Originally published via SHRM

As the pandemic continues to disrupt the labor market and employees struggle with COVID-19-related stress, anxiety and depression, Kimberly Miller is turning to a mental wellness tool that she says helps many of her company's 4,000 employees improve their mental well-being.

Miller is global chief experience officer at Initiative, a communications agency headquartered in New York City with 90 offices worldwide.

During the last 18 months, Miller has spent her time protecting employees' jobs while trying to create a better experience in a remote-work environment. 

"The lines between life and work have blurred, and that caused an extra layer of stress on top of everything else that was happening. People really felt like they have lost control of their lives," Miller said.

She added that in 2020, Initiative made efforts to protect jobs and avoid layoffs, and turnover was low compared with previous years. That changed in the summer of 2021 when the job market opened up and the demand to find talent significantly increased across several industries such as travel, retail and hospitality. This situation led to several employees resigning either to take new jobs or to pursue opportunities that give them more purpose.

"We were seeing signs of burnout and signs of disillusionment. We knew we needed to do something," Miller said.

To help employees manage stress, Miller engaged Wellness Coach, a Miami Beach, Fla., company that offers a digital wellness platform where employees can receive mental, physical, emotional, financial and social well-being. Employees can personalize private one-on-one sessions and live interactive classes, or company teams can participate in wellness challenges.

Initiative added Wellness Coach to its existing mental wellness program in June once it became clear that the COVID-19 delta variant extended the pandemic well into 2021. 

In the first phase of its rollout, Initiative offered 1,500 employees in Brazil, the U.S., the U.K., Canada and Australia the Wellness Coach tools that are hosted on Amazon Web Services' cloud platforms. Employees can take advantage of biometrics tracking tools, education and health content, and Tableau Software's artificial intelligence tools to analyze data on their participation over time.

In addition to using their desktops, employees can also log in to the Wellness Coach platform by downloading an app for their mobile phones, laptops or tablets. They can also access their sessions online through Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Slack.

Since the pandemic began, apps from companies such as Santa Monica, Calif.-based software provider Headspace, San Francisco-based Calm, Philadelphia-based NeuroFlow, and Ottawa, Ontario, Canada-based TryCycle Data Systems Inc. are improving their products and expanding their reach. 

Carolina Valencia, an analyst at advisory firm Gartner, said the stress caused by the pandemic as well as the improvements in features and resources have increased the adoption of on-demand digital wellness and mental health apps. 

"Because things are so dire, people started experimenting with these apps in ways that they never would have before the pandemic," Valencia said. "Employers were making these apps accessible to their employees and the employees were not using them, but now many more are. Before the pandemic, workers preferred in-person experiences, but the need to socially distance plus the difficult experiences people were having made people open to these less-personal options of support."

Julie Sharma, co-founder and chief content officer at Wellness Coach, describes her company's on-demand videoconferencing platform as a tool that makes it easier to access professionals.

"You don't have to drive to an appointment and dress appropriately," Sharma said. "You can get a fitness trainer, a nutritionist, a mental health professional or a yoga instructor in your office anytime."

Of the 1,500 employees who have access to the service, about half that number are actively using it, Miller said. She added that employee engagement surveys indicate workers appreciate the company's concerns about their well-being. Data from Wellness Coach also shows which online sessions are popular.

"We are seeing most of the time being used around sessions that cover meditation, breathing and sleeping, and a lot of time is being spent on coaching around resilience. Employees are also trying to get their nutrition back into some type of schedule. The service provides online coaching to help employees navigate their diet," Miller said.  

When asked if she thought enrollment on the Wellness Coach platform was a success, Miller had this to say: "Even if we help half the number of people that we wanted to help … we've helped someone versus the other option of not doing anything at all," Miller said.

She added that having tools like Wellness Coach on a consistent basis helps bring visibility to the fact that mental health is something that a lot of people are struggling with.

"Protecting our people's mental well-being is part of our corporate culture. We want to talk about it and remove any stigma," she said.

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