By Arjan Toor

COVID-19 has impacted us in ways no one could ever have predicted and the whole health of individuals has suffered as a result.

Whilst there is light at the end of the tunnel with the rollout of the Pfizer vaccine, we still face challenging times ahead.

Being unable to control what happens in our direct environments – such as financial worries, caring for children or elderly parents – coupled with the stresses that affect our indirect environments – such as broader societal and political issues; are all key factors in making us stressed, less resilient and feeling like we’re unable to cope. The combination of these factors in recent months has led to more than three quarters (76 per cent) of Brits currently reporting to feeling stressed on a regular basis, which is damaging to our long-term health.

It is important for everyone to take a moment to pause and reflect on the direct and indirect environments that we are faced with and identify the issues that are impacting their own whole health and resilience. The good news is, however, by recognising these stresses and focusing on ways to improve our coping mechanisms, our resilience and whole health will improve.

The approach many governments around the world have taken to the pandemic is to ‘flatten the curve’ in order to bring the R number down to below one. Nationwide lockdowns, limiting the number of times you can leave your home each day, a ban on in-person social gatherings and the closure of schools and universities are some of the most intense actions we have seen taken.

As effective as those measures have been in fighting the virus, they brought consequences for our basic social and economic rights. The pandemic has dramatically exposed economic inequalities, especially in countries with limited social protection systems, and in all countries, it is the most vulnerable members of society who are living with the true impact of crisis.

Arguably, one of the most harmful responses to Covid-19 has been to make it harder for people to live healthy and active lives.

Closures of parks, outdoor spaces, gyms, and a ban on all amateur outdoor sporting events have led to a 13% decrease in physical activity across all age groups. It is no secret that regular exercise brings with it a number of physical benefits – maintaining a healthy weight, increased energy levels and better sleep quality – but is also brings valuable mental health benefits too and can help reduce stress, improve memory retention and boost a person’s overall sense of wellbeing.

The social isolation many of us have experienced during the pandemic has had profound psychological and social effects.

Alcohol has become a coping mechanism for many, and economic adversity, alcoholism and isolation are behind the rise in suicides as a result of Covid-19. Around 55% of adults report that their mental health has suffered due to worry and stress during the pandemic, which should be a huge concern for all of society.

Government interventions to date have been based on the tactic of survival until there is a vaccine. As such, governments have not taken the opportunity to create a whole-health approach to health. It is now time for them to act as a matter of urgency by investing more in health promotion and ill-health prevention to help encourage people to remain healthy, and as a measure to tackle Covid-19 head on.

Action needs to be taken that will help us build structural resilience to deal with the virus in the longer term. Improved prevention polices – such as introducing a sugar tax to cut obesity rates – can foster a change of mentality and better equip people to use their whole health to build resilience against the physical and mental effects of infection.

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is how important it is to look after our own physical and emotional wellbeing by exercising, healthy eating and goal-setting in a good state of health, with a decent level of resilience to stay mentally sustained.

While governments may need to adapt their approach to Covid-19, employers also have a role to play. By taking a holistic approach to whole health through the creation of a robust wellness strategy, ‘human-centred’ employers can establish a culture of health within their business.

Focussing on recognising and supporting mental health is fundamental to ensuring a healthy, engaged and productive workforce, which should be a key priority for every business.

Future pandemics and global health crises are undoubtedly unavoidable, and while maintaining a healthy lifestyle will not guarantee immunity from illnesses, the improvement to our overall health and wellness will only be a positive move in helping against the risk of infection and limit the impact of future pandemics.

Arjan Toor is chief executive of Cigna Europe.