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From coffee to COVID: An OECD icon reflects on resilience and well-being

I just spent some time with Ángel Gurría, the secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) until just a few months ago, during our Coffee Chat series, now a regular feature of Swiss Re's RVS Monte Carlo event. We discussed mental health and well-being – and their critical importance to building global resilience.

It turns out Ángel was the perfect partner for a chat over coffee, because he once served as Mexico's representative to the International Coffee Organization in London. It was among the first stops during a career that soared, as he later helped negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and stabilize his country's economy before taking over at the OECD in 2006.

Listening to Ángel, what struck me was how his experience, gathered over decades, has given him the long view on why societies, countries and companies neglect mental health and the pursuit of well-being at their own peril, and at the peril of their economies. Every year, the direct and indirect costs of mental ill-health drain around 4% from gross domestic product.

The human cost

And that doesn't capture the human cost, on individuals and families. People hide their illnesses. Managers are uncertain how to address them. With the whispers, it becomes stigmatized, even though we know that with a timely diagnosis, mental ill-health can often be effectively treated.

"It's like when you see a placid body of water, a beautiful lake and underneath there's this big undertow which is dangerous," Ángel told me. "This is the kind of situation – it often goes undetected."

What is alarming, however, is that the COVID-19 pandemic has become not merely a crisis of physical health, but a crisis of mental health. In a new report, Swiss Re Institute researchers who surveyed global studies discovered a consistent theme: Anxiety, depression, even post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, have been on the rise since the first reports of CoV-SARS-2 emerged in early 2020. One U.S. study revealed that the prevalence of depression symptoms had increased three-fold, from 8.5% before the pandemic to 27.8% during the peak of COVID-19.

A top priority

It hits different groups differently, from patients who survive the trauma of ICUs to the courageous doctors, nurses and health care professionals caring for them. It hits families mourning loved ones.

Even young people who on the surface seem the least vulnerable haven't escaped. Facing social restrictions, at a time when they should be in the classroom or easily building life-long relationships, people between 15 and 24 years identified mental health as a top priority, according to an OECD surveyed published under Ángel this year.

"Normally, the young people say they are immune, or they say they will be asymptomatic if they get the virus," he told me during our Coffee Chat. "But they are not immune to the question of mental health and to the problems of mental stress."

A moral, political and economic question

As insurers, we have a role to play in addressing this emerging challenge. We can help society become more resilient by tackling widening coverage gaps, including a lack of accessibility. We can promote flexible treatment models. And we can keep this conversation going, to eliminate the stigma and promote prevention and early intervention that will be sorely needed, even in a post- pandemic world.

The "business case" for mental health and improving well-being, as Ángel describes it, is clear.

"Addressing mental health is a moral question, it's an ethical question, of course it's a political question. But it is a very important economic question," he said. "The greatest asset you all have is the talent of your workforce, so keeping them of sound minds and sound bodies should be your main priorities."

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