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Employers Believe Many Well-Being Programs Are Ineffective

Mental health decline linked to pandemic's effect on caregiving, job duties

A group of people sitting at a table with a laptop in front of them.

At the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, employees report that increased anxiety, stress and difficulty sleeping have taken a toll on their mental health and emotional well-being. Meanwhile, fewer than 3 in 10 recently surveyed employers said their well-being and caregiving programs have been effective at supporting employees during the pandemic.

Most employers also cited rising stress and burnout as the No. 1 well-being and mental health concern, generated by an increase in caregiving needs and a lack of social connections.

"Many employers are now acting with urgency as they look to take their well-being programs to the next level," said Regina Ihrke, well-being leader for North America at consultancy Willis Towers Watson, which conducted the survey. "To achieve this transformation, they will ramp up listening to their employee needs, communication efforts, and realignment of benefit programs with a focus on mental health and caregiving."

A total of 494 organizations, employing 6.4 million workers, participated in the consultancy's January Emerging from the Pandemic Employer Survey.

Employers are expanding efforts to enhance their employees' well-being as they map out a benefits strategy for operating in a post-pandemic environment, Ihrke said. To promote employee well-being, many organizations have modified their employee benefits. For instance:

  • Half of the surveyed employers changed the features of paid time off (PTO) or vacation/sick day benefits offered.
  • About a quarter are allowing employees to roll over more unused PTO days from one year to the next.

Additionally, more than twice as many employers report developing a strategy for benefits in a post-COVID-19 environment as a top priority over the next six months (33 percent) compared with six months ago (15 percent), indicating a shift from crisis management to future planning. More than two-thirds (68 percent) cite communicating benefits and well-being programs as a top benefits priority over the next six months.

"Employers have assessed their caregiving support was not as effective as hoped and, as a result, the mental health of their workforce is suffering," said Rachael McCann, senior director for health and benefits at Willis Towers Watson. "Many solutions were short-term in nature, which contributed to their ineffectiveness."

For example, she explained, employer-paid back-up child or elder care days and caregiving time off "are short-term and potentially costly solutions," which provided emergency support but are not "the "longer-term solutions that working caregivers need, such as offering flexible work hours and concierge caregiving support services, providing manager training, and encouraging use of PTO," McCann said.

Looking ahead, "employers need a revamped approach to caregiving support [that includes ample] paid time off and flexible work policies," she said, noting that "pre-pandemic flexible work was more of a perk, but now is a critical business and talent strategy conversation."

Pre-pandemic flexible work was a perk; now, it's critical.

Caregiving Stress

Other research also highlights how caregiving duties have led to overly stressed employees. For instance, workers who took on caregiving responsibilities or additional work faced the sharpest declines in emotional well-being, a survey of 7,500 full-time employees found.

Nearly 1 in 5 workers took on a new caregiving role due to the pandemic, according to the December 2020 study by meQuilibrium, a provider of digital tools to promote employee resilience. Those caring for home-bound children, older relatives or others reported increased health worries and stress and a decrease in motivation toward their jobs.

In addition, the survey found that:

  • Women were 40 percent more likely than men to report taking on a new role as caregiver, as caregivers were disproportionately women (24 percent) versus men (17 percent).
  • 47 percent of caregiving women and 37 percent of caregiving men had trouble finding time for self-care.

[Does your workplace support employee well-being? Take the quiz.]

New Job Responsibilities

A quarter of survey respondents reported that they had taken on new job responsibilities during the pandemic, sometimes taking over the duties of colleagues who had been laid off or furloughed. Among workers with new responsibilities, feelings of burnout more than doubled.

"While new work assignments and roles are commonplace, what's different today is that it adds another layer of stress on to employees whose well-being has already been diminished," said Andrew Shatte, chief knowledge officer and co-founder of meQuilibrium.

"We are at a crucial moment in the pandemic when it comes to employee mental health," he added. "While hope is on the horizon, we are still observing a continued slide in well-being and motivation, and a decreasing ability to handle self-care."

Related SHRM Articles:

Employers Respond to Rising Substance Abuse with Treatment, Support, SHRM Online, March 2021

Today's Young Worker Is Stressed Out and Anxious, SHRM Online, February 2021

Employers Continue to Alter Benefits in Response to Pandemic, SHRM Online, February 2021

Workers' Mental Health Suffers During the Pandemic: How Managers Can Help, SHRM Online, October 2021

Employers Are Searching for Child Care Solutions, SHRM Online, July 2020

Mental Health Apps Offer New Ways to Support Employees, SHRM Online, May 2020


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