The COVID-19 Effect: Why Latin America Needs a Workplace Wellness Revolution – and How Technology Can Enable It
Editor’s note: This article is part of NextBillion’s series “Recovery 2021,” which explores how businesses, development initiatives and the communities they serve in low- and middle-income countries are building greater resilience for a post-pandemic future. For news updates and analysis, virtual events, and links to resources related to the COVID-19 crisis, check out our coronavirus resource page.
Remote work is nothing new in Latin America. Before COVID-19, Brazil was the country with the most employees working from home in the region, with 12 million remote workers, followed by Mexico (2.6 million), Argentina (2 million) and Chile (500,000). However, the pandemic forced thousands more into isolated work environments almost overnight. According to a November 2020 survey by Runa of more than 375 executives in the region, less than 5% said their companies are currently working in person from an office or plan to do so in the next 12 months. Over 94% of respondents confirmed that they are working 100% remotely or in a mixed scheme.
This drastic shift to remote work, coupled with all of the other stresses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, has increased anxiety and burnout for workers and left many companies without enough time to plan how to address the impact on their employees’ mental and physical health. And the problem isn’t limited to Latin America: According to a global study of more than 12,000 executives released by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence last October, 70% of people reported feeling more stress and anxiety at work this year than any other year before.
These increased levels of stress and anxiety are having a negative impact on the mental health of 78% of the world’s workforce, causing additional stress (38%), lack of work-life balance (35%), burnout (25%), depression due to lack of social activity (25%) and loneliness (14%). The report also indicates that the pandemic is adding new pressures to everyday workplace stressors, impacting people’s ability to meet performance standards (42%), to handle routine and tedious tasks (41%), and to manage workloads (41%).
The upside of these alarming statistics is that companies have become more aware of the need to provide their employees with support for their mental wellbeing, and many are adopting digital solutions to support workers’ mental health.
Leveraging technology to improve employee wellness
There are many ways technology is finding its way into employee wellbeing programs, and workers are embracing it. In fact, 68% of respondents to the Oracle and Workplace Intelligence survey said they would rather talk to an artificial intelligence (AI) bot than their boss about stress and anxiety at work, and 80% are open to a bot therapist or counselor. A substantial number of people (29%) believe bots can help provide quick answers to health-related questions, an unbiased environment to share their problems (30%) and a judgment-free zone (34%). AI tools also help workers automate tedious and repetitive tasks, freeing up time to be more productive, decreasing their workloads and reducing stress.
In light of this increasing acceptance, more companies in both Latin America and globally are offering digital wellness programs to employees as part of benefits packages — a meaningful advancement. In response to the pandemic, more than 51% of companies surveyed by Runa offer wellness benefits to employees in popular areas such as stress management (63%), physical activity (39%), and financial wellness (35%). Many employers are turning to startups to help them rapidly introduce or improve employee wellness programs. One such company is the Brazilian healthtech enterprise Vittude, founded by Tatiana Pimenta, which provides online therapy programs: It saw its number of corporate clients soar by 300% after COVID-19 hit the region. “We had an increase in demand from all stakeholders: an increase in the demand for psychologists (wanting to work with) a safe platform; a surge of people seeking therapy; and also an increase in the number of companies wanting to develop corporate mental health projects for this moment to welcome their teams,” Pimenta said in an interview with Latin American Business Stories.
Brazilian mental health startup PsyAlive (known as Psicologia Vivia outside of Brazil) has also experienced major growth during the pandemic. Founded by Bráulio Bonotto, Fabiano Carrijo, Luciene Bandeira and Paulo Justino, the company facilitates online consultations between psychologists and employees of large companies (with 500 to 1,000 employees), and it saw an 80% surge in users after isolation measures were announced in March 2020. By June 2020, 9 million people were already accessing the platform through their employers for psychological consultations.
Mexico-based Terapify is also helping bring psychotherapy to anyone that needs it via a platform that connects certified mental health professionals with individuals (or corporate wellness programs). The founders of the company, brothers Daniel and Eduardo Vélez, reported 30% month-over-month growth in 2020.
The workplace wellness market remains underserved
Despite these signs of progress, a significant portion of the region still lacks easy access to digital health and wellness solutions. On average, only 7.6% of the population of Latin America has downloaded a health application, compared with 22% in North America and 15.1% in OECD countries. And when it comes to mental health, global progress is still needed: Although 51% of employees in the Oracle and Workplace Intelligence study said their companies have added mental health services or support as a result of COVID-19, 76% believe that their company could do more to protect the mental health of its workforce.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed mental and emotional health issues firmly into the spotlight. Not only are more workers looking to their employers for mental health support, but more companies are also realizing that employee wellbeing impacts nearly every aspect of their businesses, and that they must do more.
With studies showing employees with higher rates of wellbeing are more likely to be engaged, enjoy their work and recommend their organization, it’s in companies’ best interests to continue to boost their focus on wellness. And as remote work becomes the standard for many organizations, blurring the lines between our personal and professional lives, it will be important for these efforts to offer digital options. With remote work becoming ever more widespread in Latin America, the market potential for tech-fueled employee health and wellness solutions — from on-demand counseling and monitoring services to apps and chatbots — will likely continue to grow, even after the pandemic ends.
Photo courtesy of Polina Zimmerman.