Kindness, community spirit and deeper human connections: the lasting legacy of the pandemic?

25 January 2022

  • New research from AXA’s Mind Health Study reveals that despite the highest level of mental ill health in Europe, the UK is leading the way in reducing the stigma surrounding mental health
  • UK research highlights the impact of the pandemic on kindness and empathy – half (50%) of people said they’re kinder to themselves since the pandemic and 45% feel more compassionate
  • Only 40% of people agree their employer provides good support regarding their mental health, but those who are supported at work are 1.6 times more likely to be happy1.

Many of us will consider the pre-pandemic world as a harried and often cruel place, littered with stories of perennial burn-out and a constant fight for improved ‘wellbeing’. But new research from AXA’s annual Mind Health Study reveals that although the UK is experiencing more mental ill health than the rest of Europe, the nation has been transformed thanks, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Brits becoming more compassionate and empathetic as a result1,2.

The second edition of the AXA Mind Health Study is a comprehensive look into the current state of mind health among 11,000 people in 11 countries and territories in Europe and Asia. It provides a detailed picture of how people fared mentally at the height of the pandemic and beyond, looking particularly at how they identified and remedied problems and the significant social shifts that have occurred due to this seismic event1.

The study reveals that the UK has the highest level of mental ill health in Europe, with two in five (37%) people experiencing at least one mental health condition and almost a quarter (24%) ‘struggling’, according to the AXA Mind Health Index1. However, the research also suggests that perceptions surrounding mental health are shifting in a more positive way. Findings show the pandemic has been a catalyst in helping to de-stigmatise mental health conditions in the UK1 and has encouraged more people to have open conversations about their own struggles2. Half of people in the UK think the stigma around mental health is declining as a result of the pandemic, whereas only a third (31%) of Europeans believe the same1. Half (49%) of Brits also feel that they are better able to acknowledge when they may need support and 46% reported feeling more compassionate to others compared to pre-pandemic2.

Kindness and compassion, to both ourselves and others, is a lasting effect according to the data, with half (50%) of people in the UK acknowledging that they are being kinder to themselves alongside 53% feeling that caring for others is more of a priority than it was two years ago2.

The research paints a picture of an evolving nation, with the collective experience of the pandemic bringing about deeper human connections, as three-fifths (58%) of Brits feel that friendships and relationships have become more meaningful2. This level of connection extends to the workplace, with two-fifths (42%) of employees now feeling that having strong connections with colleagues is important for their mental health and over half (55%) making an effort to be kinder to their colleagues2.

People have also built stronger and more meaningful connections with their neighbours, in a move that could be a watershed moment for community spirit and civic responsibility in the UK2:

  • Almost half (47%) now care more about the wellbeing of their local community and 42% think their local communities have become more friendly as a result of the pandemic, while also recognising the impact and importance of their communities more
  • Two-fifths (39%) feel that their local community has become a kinder and more friendly place to live since the pandemic
  • Two-fifths (38%) have become closer to their neighbours and local community
  • A further three-fifths (61%) of Brits performed a random act of kindness during the pandemic, and 38% said they had been on the receiving end of one.

The impact of kindness and empathy in both social and work settings cannot be downplayed. Those who reported engaging in random acts of kindness said it made them feel fulfilled and brought them joy2. Those who reported a more empathetic workplace, with better wellbeing support, said they’re more productive and motivated to do better work as a result2.

However, the AXA Mind Health Study also shows workplaces need to improve mental health support for employees, with only 40% of people agreeing their employer provides good support regarding their mental health1. This is despite the research revealing that those who are supported are 1.6 times more likely to be happy, and twice as likely to be flourishing1. This suggests that providing good mental health support at work will not only benefit the organisation itself, but society as a whole too. It can also play a key role in helping to alleviate stress on the public healthcare system, which has been put under unprecedented strain due to COVID-19.

Headshot of Claudio Gienal, Chief Executive Officer, AXA UK and Ireland

While it’s concerning to see that the UK is experiencing the highest level of mental ill health in Europe, there is cause for optimism in the findings that show the UK is shifting to becoming a kinder, more empathetic and community-focused nation. Importantly, we’re also seeing a reduction in the stigma surrounding mental health and a wider recognition of the need to talk about these issues and seek help when problems arise.

As an insurer, we strongly believe that our duty is not confined to just stepping in when things go wrong, and we hope our AXA Mind Health Study can act as an essential resource to support individuals, businesses, healthcare professionals and policymakers as they develop their approach to good mind health.

After an incredibly tough two years for everyone, this study should provide not only a wake-up call but also a positive and hopeful outlook – the post-pandemic world looks set to be a kinder place for us all to live.

Claudio Gienal, CEO at AXA UK&I
Headshot of Dr Oliver Scott Curry, Research Director at Kindness dot org

The pandemic has disrupted our social networks and forced us to forge new relationships closer to home. Kindness is a great way of making new friends, and the pandemic has offered plenty of opportunities to help others. As this study shows, people have taken those opportunities. And consistent with previous research, they have found that helping others is deeply rewarding. As a result, people have come to see their local communities as friendlier places. Hopefully people will take these newfound social skills back with them to work, where mutual support and cooperation is key to a happy and healthy company.

Dr Oliver Scott Curry, Research Director at
Amy Conroy, GB Paralympian and AXA Mind Health Ambassador, playing wheelchair basketball

It’s so positive that people think the stigma around mental health is declining. Feeling like you are able to have open and honest conversations about your mental health with loved ones, healthcare professionals or your employers is so important and can be game changing.

I think it is absolutely brilliant that this study has shown that people are seeing more kindness around them. The pandemic has been really hard on us all, but equally has reminded us that everyone is facing something. Random acts of kindness, however small, can stay with someone for a long time. I think the power of a smile to a stranger, a small compliment, or having a chat with a homeless person should never be underestimated. Plus, once you start doing more kind acts, you start noticing they are all around and it helps remind you that people really are inherently good. It’s the secret to happiness, I reckon.

Amy Conroy, GB Paralympian and AXA Mind Health Ambassador

1 AXA Mind Health Study - conducted between 27th September and 25th October 2021 in 11 countries among representative samples of the population aged 18 - 75 years old in each country (1,000 in each)

2 AXA UK research - conducted through 3Gem research between 10th and 13th January 2022, polling 2,000 adults (aged 18+), weighted to be nationally representative.