Employers Broaden Well-Being Programs

Most employers to focus on mental health stigma and women's health

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS September 4, 2019
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Over 80 percent of employers said they were planning to increase their wellness and well-being budgets this year, more than double the number that answered similarly in 2009 (34 percent).

The 10th annual Optum Wellness in the Workplace study, released in August, also found that more than twice as many employers said workplace wellness and well-being programs are important to their employee benefits mix (77 percent) than did a decade ago (33 percent). The survey, based on responses from 544 companies with at least 100 employees, was conducted from December 2018 to January 2019 and sponsored by Optum, a health services technology firm.

While the percentage of employers saying they offer wellness programs to reduce long-term health care costs has stayed relatively steady over the past 10 years (around 80 percent), other objectives are now viewed as equally important by employers, such as:

  • Improve absenteeism/presenteeism (cited by 79 percent of respondents).
  • Attract and retain talent (78 percent).
  • Maintain or improve employee morale (76 percent).

"We've seen an evolution in the reasons for offering health and well-being programs, with employers saying these initiatives are just as important in attracting and retaining employees as addressing health care costs," said Seth Serxner, chief health officer at Optum.

'These initiatives are just as important in attracting and retaining employees as addressing health care costs.'

The survey also showed growth in interactive wellness tools:

  • Mobile apps. Since 2016, the proportion of employers using health-related mobile apps rose by 46 percent, with close to three-quarters of respondents now reporting that the apps help increase employee participation.
  • Fitness trackers. The number of employers reporting that their employee wellness and well-being programs include the use of fitness or activity devices increased by nearly 40 percent over the same time period, with 71 percent of employers reporting these tools, when offered, were used by their employees.

Wellness programs also are expanding to address additional well-being factors, the study found. For instance:

  • Mental and behavioral health is top-of-mind for many, with 84 percent of employers concerned about substance use disorder. Nearly 90 percent of employers say they are planning to address stigma surrounding mental health; a similar number are concerned about the level of access to behavioral health services.
  • Women's health services will receive increased spending, said 84 percent of employers. The largest increases are directed toward fertility programs and at neonatal and infant care services.
  • Telemedicine was one of the fastest-growing health programs, with the proportion of employers reporting its use increasing 171 percent since 2014.

A Holistic Approach

The Optum findings dovetail with those of another recent survey that showed the expanding scope of corporate well-being programs. Results released earlier this year from the 10th Annual Health and Well-Being Survey by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health (NBGH), a nonprofit association of large employers, showed that while programs focused on physical health remain the most popular wellness offerings, employers recognize the interrelationship between the physical, financial, work and well-being components of employees' lives.

The survey received responses from 164 large and midsized organizations from among NBGH members and clients of Fidelity Investments polled during October 2018 through January 2019.

Employees who need help with their financial well-being are significantly less likely to be physically healthy and more likely to report feeling frequently stressed or anxious—which can impact job performance and productivity. As a result, employers continue to focus on providing programs focused on well-being beyond physical health, including:

  • Emotional/mental health (cited by 92 percent of respondents).
  • Financial health (88 percent).
  • Community involvement (69 percent).
  • Social connectedness (54 percent).
  • Job satisfaction (25 percent).

"More employers view their investments in health and well-being as integral to deploying the most engaged, productive and competitive workforce possible," said Brian Marcotte, president and CEO of the NBGH, based in Washington, D.C. "Their focus is holistic, with physical health being a component rather than the only priority."

Financial and emotional stress, for example, are major detractors from work performance and employers are doubling down on these areas, he noted.

Mike Shamrell, vice president for communications at Fidelity Investments in Boston, agreed that all dimensions of wellness are important. "It's tough to be well in one area when you're unwell in another," he said.

'It's tough to be well in one area when you're unwell in another.' 

Employers are "looking at what's causing the most stress, what employees are struggling with," added Jeanne Thompson, head of workplace solutions thought leadership at Fidelity. That data helps them provide benefits that have the greatest effect on their workforce, she said, "whether that's offering nutritional counseling or encouraging use of the employee assistance program," for instance.

Benefits often are siloed, Thompson noted. "You have programs for retirement, health care, financial wellness, each sending different messages. Taking a holistic view allows employers to prioritize an employee's need across these domains."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Designing and Managing Wellness Programs]

Well-Being Programs Expand Globally

More employers with multinational workforces are developing consistent benefits platforms for their employees across different geographies, and many large companies have taken steps to offer well-being programs to their global workforce, the Fidelity/NBGH survey showed.

More than half (56 percent) of employers surveyed offer well-being programs to their global employees, an increase from 44 percent in 2018, and another 14 percent are considering extending their well-being program to workers in multiple geographies by next year. However, only 34 percent of employers have a global strategy in place, while half (50 percent) let local markets focus on well-being as needed.

The overall objectives of well-being programs still vary by region. According to the survey, two of the top objectives of well-being programs in the U.S. are to manage health care costs (82 percent) and improve employee productivity/reduce absenteeism (59 percent), while the top objectives globally are to improve employee engagement/performance (82 percent) and align employees with the corporate culture (72 percent).

"As more employers recognize the relationship between employee well-being and productivity, well-being programs have taken on an increasingly meaningful role in employers' business strategies," said Robert Kennedy, senior vice president at Fidelity Workplace Consulting. "However, as the benefits landscape continues to evolve, employers need to ensure they are designing their programs to meet the changing needs of their workforce.

"Implementing programs that take a total well-being approach, designing programs for a global workforce and aligning well-being programs with the company's health care strategy are just a few of the steps employers can take to ensure their well-being program continues to deliver maximum benefit to their organization."

Related SHRM Articles:

Wellness Platforms Provide Flexibility, Raise Data-Privacy Concerns, SHRM Online, July 2019

Viewpoint: 3 Questions to Ask Wellness Program Providers, SHRM Online, July 2019

Take a Team Approach to Financial Wellness, SHRM Online, October 2017

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