People are increasingly worried about the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the fourth edition of Cigna International Markets’ recently published COVID-19 Global Impact Study.
After enduring months of lockdowns, changing restrictions and multiple waves of COVID-19, people around the world are increasingly uncertain and concerns for the future are rising.  Almost half of people (48%) said uncertainty about the future is their biggest cause of stress and a similar number, 45%, said they do not have a financial safety net if they lose their jobs or are unable to work.

Around a quarter (26%) of people are now confident that they can maintain their standard of living, more than half of people (54%) have slashed unnecessary spending, and 39% of people have made permanent changes to how they manage their finances. 

Well-being reaches record lows

In the UK, a sharp rise in cases during November caused well-being indicators to crash by 2.8 points, its lowest level since the beginning of the pandemic. While scores in Singapore, Taiwan and New Zealand also reported record lows, despite zero or extremely low case counts in those markets. Similarly, Spain fell close to its record low reported at the peak of the first wave of infection. 

The gloomy picture in New Zealand and Taiwan, where the index plummeted by 2.2 and 3.3 points respectively, is surprising, given that both markets are perceived as having been successful in controlling the virus.  Financial concerns loom large as 55% of New Zealanders and 64% of Taiwanese fear a negative impact on their financial situation.  Similarly, 43% of New Zealanders and 49% of Taiwanese have doubts about maintaining their standard of living.

Cigna International Markets president Jason Sadler said: “At the outset of the pandemic we saw well-being indicators improve as people focused on ‘making the best of it’.  However, as the pandemic has become normalized and people sense light at the end of the tunnel, we see them looking at what the long-term impact will be, with real fears about their financial future emerging.”

A more balanced attitude to life, work and health

Globally, the preference for a flexible approach to work is evident. 54% of respondent would prefer to work from home at least half the time. However, in territories where workers have returned to offices in large numbers there have been substantial increases in the percentage of people who would prefer to always work from the office – from 18 to 29% in China, 17 to 31% in Hong Kong and 30 to 37% in Taiwan. 

This is mirrored by a feeling amongst 61% of those who are working from home that their productivity has dipped over the last month – highlighting the longer-term impact of the situation.  This is most pronounced in Asian markets (Hong Kong 80%, Korea 67%, Mainland China 62% and Thailand 62%) vs. Western (UK 56%, USA 53% and New Zealand 52%).

There is also an overall increase in recognition of the advantages of the office environment. 46% of global respondents cited more effective communication face-to-face; 37% highlighted better team collaboration; and 33% said it improved their time management – suggesting that the home working revolution may not be as dramatic as many suggested earlier this year.  

However, there is a more permanent shift in how people will manage their health. 65% of respondents say they care more about the healthcare services they have access to; over a third, 34%, said they will do more exercise than they did before; and 30% of people have changed their approach to managing mental health. 

Continued appetite for virtual health 

Widespread adoption and usage of virtual health services, initially driven by social distancing measures, is another facet set to outlast the pandemic. Six in ten people (59%) are likely to use virtual health services if given the option, while 29% now view it as their preferred option.  

Mr Sadler said, “The success of remote working has been a bright spot among the challenges we faced over the past year, but we’re seeing more people recognise that the physical workplace offers benefits which the virtual world cannot.  We also see a major shift in how people access healthcare – with many now far more comfortable with accessing care through virtual means – a trend that is now being reflected in health systems worldwide.” 

US bucks the trend

While perceived well-being declined worldwide, in the US it was a hugely different, more positive picture, with the well-being index improving by a remarkable 2.6 points. Respondents reported significant improvements in their feelings of health and well-being. They felt growing confidence in their current financial situation, job security and longer term needs like meeting medical and housing needs. For instance, the percentage of Americans who were optimistic about maintaining their standard of living rose from 32% in August to 42% in October while those saying they had good career development increased to 64% from 52%.

 “We’re entering a new phase in response to the pandemic, one where it will be important for organizations to support their workforce by offering tailored healthcare programs that cater for a wide variety of perceptions and experiences across the globe. They need to be sensitive to the fact that the experience of employees differs considerably between markets and they need to provide solutions that truly address that,” he said.

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