Of the employee benefits that have grown in importance—and investment—over the past several years, perhaps none has become more vital than employee well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic—which has resulted in declines in practically all aspects of well-being, from physical and mental health to financial and social health—has spurred employers to significantly increase investments to help employees.
"Well-being was the lever they pulled to address these growing employee issues like stress and burnout," said Tony Guadagni, senior principal in the Gartner HR practice at Gartner.
Gartner research finds that 85 percent of organizations have offered at least one new mental well-being offering since 2020, while 78 percent expanded at least one existing offering. Half offered a new physical well-being offering and 38 percent a new financial well-being offering, while 61 percent expanded at least one physical well-being offering and 39 percent expanded a financial well-being offering.
Aon similarly found that nearly two-thirds of respondents say well-being has become more important to their company since 2020, and just under half say employee well-being has increased in priority in that time frame.
Despite the investments, there are some notable issues: For one, employees still consistently rate their well-being as low. Recent data from MetLife, for instance, showed a significant decline in overall holistic health in the past year—now hovering around 40 percent of employees who report feeling holistically healthy, with mental health and financial health in particular on a downward decline over the past several years.
Meanwhile, participation in many workplace programs lags. So what exactly is going on? Do well-being programs help? And how can employers improve their use?
For answers, SHRM Online spoke to Guadagni.
SHRM Online: First, tell me about well-being efforts. How much of an effect are employer investments making?
Guadagni: Long story short is that well-being offerings do matter. When you're looking at employees who have participated in their organizations' well-being programs, they generally say that they are more well. So these things actually work, which is good.
And the other thing that we know is, if employees are well, that has a positive impact on the organization and their bottom line. Employees who say they're well contribute more to the organization, they're more engaged, and they're more likely to say they plan to stay with the organization. So that's a big difference.
But there are some problems in how well-being is set up.
SHRM Online: Tell me about that.
Guadagni: Participation rates for employer programs are pretty low—much, much lower than anyone would like. And it hasn't changed much over time. That's even the case with employees who self-report that their well-being is not especially good.
The participation gap is one of the biggest questions we're getting [from HR and benefits leaders]: "We've made these investments. And we know employees are in need of these investments and the offerings we have. But they aren't participating at the rates we would expect. How do we change that?"
A couple of things are going on, one of which is a lack of awareness. A lot of employees have access to these programs, but they don't know they have access to them.
SHRM Online: So much research finds that employees aren't aware of their offerings. So why do you think employers aren't doing more to communicate about the offerings to employees? What's the disconnect?
Guadagni: I think that it's certainly not a lack of will. Organizations want to get the word out about their offerings. It's important; they know it's important. They spent the money; they've done the hard part already, which is to provide these. They want to reap the rewards of having their employees use services that they're already paying for.
I think information overload is a huge part of the problem—employees are increasingly inundated with information. It's hard to know what information you actually need, which e-mails you actually have to read. Did the e-mail hit your inbox, or did the post on the internal intranet happen on a day when you actually had time to look?
And there are different types of information that you need to communicate with employees. [It's important to know] what information is more educational, and what information needs to be always on and readily accessible, so you can access when you need it and employees can go find that information. I think organizations are becoming more sophisticated about the way they do this, but it's a tough nut to crack.
SHRM Online: So how do you break through that?
Guadagni: If an employer can break down some of the silos between benefits programs, you're going to be able to communicate that more effectively and drive the value of both the benefits and well-being offerings more effectively. Well-being is traditionally segmented into different pillars: mental, financial and physical are the most common, but also others like community or career well-being. Well-being is always, or at least traditionally, seen as very independent from the other benefits that are offered within the organization. So it's segmented within itself, and it's siloed from other things that the organization offers. One of the things we're really trying to focus on with our clients is to stop doing that.
Well-being offerings are a really important part of the core value proposition, and employers should think about well-being and integrate it more systematically into people's lives. People don't think about their well-being needs; we sort of artificially segment these. The way people think about them is like, "How would these apply to the moment that I'm experiencing, or the thing that I'm going through right now?" In many cases, the best way to connect with people is going to be about making your well-being benefits more integrated.
These things need to be considered together, but also more aligned to common experiences that we have, not just as employees, but as people. When you're going through a moment—like having a child—you don't want to think, "OK, I'm going to do this, I've got this benefit. I've got this well-being offering. I've got other things that might work." You want to know what that suite of broad offerings are that your organization has to support you.
Some organizations are starting to talk and think about holistic well-being, about supporting the whole employee, which is good. But we also want to go a step beyond holistic well-being and think about integrated well-being, about making all these things employers offer work together.
SHRM Online: Tell me more about integrated well-being. Can you give an example?
Guadagni: It's a way of structuring well-being programming, as well as communicating well-being programming. And it's been enormously well-received by our employer clients.
An example is having a child—you can break it into three segments: What is offered before you're having a child? What is offered the moment you're going through that process, whether it's birth or adoption? And then what is offered after the birth or adoption?
You can break it out further for what this might look like in the case of a pregnancy or birth parent, an adoptive parent, or a supporting spouse. For a pregnancy, for instance, you have a whole path of support: connecting them with a working-parent ERG [employee resource group], offering fertility treatment if needed, legal support for putting together a will, offering a pregnancy app. Then there's the plan for parental leave, pregnancy classes, mental health tools, access to an OB-GYN. After the pregnancy, perhaps there is a congratulatory gift, postpartum fitness classes, a 529 plan, child care reimbursement.
It's not just one benefit, it's several all working together for a very important time in employees' lives. And employees should be aware of what they all are.
You can break these down for employees, even illustrate it, have it available so they can see it when they need. What this does is really demonstrate this entire range of benefits and offerings that are available.
SHRM Online: How much do you think this approach could change participation rates?
Guadagni: I think this is one well-being communication idea that has the potential to have the greatest impact, both on participation and on employee outcomes. There are such robust benefits and offerings to deploy to support employees that people don't know exist and don't know how to access. Connecting this to moments that matter—like purchasing a home, dealing with a major illness, caring for an aging parent—is how you're going to drive outcomes and participation. There are dozens and dozens of experiences like that that are fairly common and consistent with the human experience that employers are already supporting, already have programs for—they're just not connecting dots for employees on these things. This can do just that.