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While much of the United States and the wealthy West rush to put the COVID-19 pandemic behind them, Latin America has been harder hit by the crisis than its northern neighbors. As of early July, nearly 1.3 million people were lost due to COVID in Latin America and the Caribbean. The societal struggle continues in populous Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, the countries with the highest death tolls in the region. Here, COVID grief, isolation and burnout can only aggravate workplace mental health.
Fortunately, pandemic pain has bred the sort of urgency that strengthens government policy and private sector innovation, and Latin America has been rising to the challenge. In Mexico, the government requires public and private organizations and governments to identify “psychosocial risk factors,” mandating that organizations establish mental illness prevention policies, analyze risk and take action toward employees’ well-being.
Meanwhile, Colombia’s traumatic history of conflict between government and organized violence has long had an impact on its population’s mental health. In 2013, the Colombian government enacted Law 1616, which established mental health care as a fundamental right. More recently, Resolution 2404 focuses on workplace mental health issues, requiring employers to assess employee mental health and address mental illness prevention.
Then there’s Peru, where one in five Peruvians experience a mental health crisis on an annual basis. The government’s Health and Safety at Work Law of 2011 required employers to monitor risks to workers’ health, followed by the Mental Health Law of 2019, which calls for workplace health promotion programs to encourage healthy habits and self-care, along with better work-life balance and recognition of efforts toward worker well-being.
These pre-pandemic measures have paid off. A recent study of the region showed that, compared to the pre-COVID years, the use of employee assistance programs grew from 38% to 49%, while use of virtual stress management programs doubled from 27% to 51%. But, while government policy provides the backbone for workplace mental health improvement, the most innovative energy for workplace mental health comes, not surprisingly, from the private sector.
Notably, online mental health consultations and therapies have boomed during the pandemic, with Latin American startups such as PsyAlive (known as Psicologia Viva in Brazil) reporting that the number of users on its platform has doubled over the last several months. Given Brazil’s size and population dominance in Latin America — as well as its ongoing struggle to contain the COVID-19 crisis — there is plenty of market space for similar Brazilian startups such as Telavita, Vittude and Zenklub, all of which report rising demand for their telehealth and online services.
PsyAlive co-founder and CEO Bráulio Bonoto noted that the company had approximately 3 million people covered by its service before COVID-19; now, there are more than 6.5 million PsyAlive users, racking up an average of 1,000 consultations per day, 75% of them from corporate customers of 500 to 1,000 employees. These include multinationals with significant operations in the region such as Siemens and Azul airline.
But for all the power of online and telehealth solutions, Latin American HR innovators are pushing to do more within the workplace, a challenge that has never been easy. So explains Sebastian Bonillas, a partner in the Mexico City-based firm Betamorfosis, which specializes in digital strategies for HR in the context of a new normal, one that acknowledges the hybrid work structures prompted by the pandemic.
“Social and structural inequities in the region support a precarious health care culture in general,” said Bonillas. “But there are still many stigmas that have made mental health a taboo subject [that] employees don't want to talk about and companies prefer to avoid. Still, the initial emotional effects of the pandemic were fear and uncertainty for the many employees who were working from home, so organizations rushed to implement emergency systems to help employees in crisis. [Eight-hundred] numbers with psychologists on the other end of the line and some online mindfulness, meditation and yoga solutions were the quick and general response to the problem.”
For many, economic conditions and limited digital infrastructure made work-from-home impossible, and Bonillas cites the rise of “anxiety, depression and languor” in the general population. “Even so,” he said, “most companies have prioritized physical health problems to help employees solve more practical challenges, such as home-office enablement and the development of digital skills. Companies preferred to address the mental health issue in a light way — in the best of cases with wellness programs.”
Bonillas notes that “some interesting wellness apps and online solutions, some with artificial intelligence well-integrated, had surfaced after the pandemic peaked. The problem with them — as is common with wellness solutions — is the difficulty of relating them to solid metrics that measure their effect on people or link them to business results.” In other words, too much anecdotal data tends to cloud organizational conclusions about what really works for the employee and employer.
Recognizing this, Betamorfosis designed an online assessment for its clients not only to evaluate the mental and emotional impact of the pandemic to better understand how individual employees are feeling but also to measure what they are doing. For example, had they stopped exercising or were they doing it more? Had they gone back to smoking? Were they socially active, even digitally? Had they acquired a pet? “The more explicit our diagnosis of how they were functioning,” said Bonillas, “the more we could enable them to take action through content that had been digitally curated for them, by an algorithm.”
Clearly, the power of digital technology to address complex mental health issues is a matter of enormous potential and debate, but for some companies, the fundamental things apply. Health product giant Johnson & Johnson, for one, is so well-attuned to the pandemic problems of front-line health care workers in Latin America — beset by infection risk, workload overload, medical supply shortages, and the depletion of personal protective equipment — that it has launched a major effort in Brazil.
Partnering with regionals, including the Distrito Innovation Hub, Moodat and TNH health technologists, J&J’s initiative is called "Caring for Those Who Care for Us" and offers emotional and psychotherapy support using Vitalk, an AI chatbot, as well as online psychotherapy consultations for health care workers in the thick of the COVID crisis. Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies in Brazil reports that more than 5,000 health care workers have benefitted so far.
The right chatbot, the right partners, the right attitude toward mental health may all go a long way in terms of delivering aid and comfort to far-flung employees. But the breadth, diversity and traditionalism of Latin America can stymie organizations still searching for best-practice solutions that work for workers and sustain business goals.
Thankfully, the political will of Latin American governments to mandate mental health efforts — and the startup energy of small, tech-driven disruptors — are combining to defeat taboo and light the path through a troubled time.
About the Author
Matt Damsker is a former principal with Mercer, an author and journalist. He served as managing editor of Human Resource Executive magazine, as a staff reporter and columnist with several leading newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and Hartford Courant and is a regular contributor to USA Today.