Investing in a holistic well-being benefits strategy is a win-win for employees and employers alike.
By Ruth Hunt
Wellness has become a popular catchphrase. Employers are now truly seeing how well-being is contributing to organizational effectiveness and the bottom line, if only indirectly. While there is some debate about the most effective ways to demonstrate the ROI of traditional wellness, there is clearer evidence that a broader approach to well-being drives value on investment (VOI). Well-being programs also result in other qualitative benefits, such as enhanced perception of the organization as a great place to work, increased employee engagement, reduced distraction, and more.
But factors such as rising chronic health issues, relatively stagnant wages that don’t keep up with growing living costs, always-on technology and other time stressors, and anxiety caused by sociopolitical issues make it challenging for employees to maintain healthy personal well-being. As a result, the duty to improve employee well-being has entered the realm of the employer.
Almost three-quarters of companies surveyed in the latest edition of Buck’s Working Well: A Global Survey of Workplace Wellbeing Strategies study say that supporting well-being is a critical element in their employee value proposition. But supporting positive well-being in a cost-effective way while promoting a high performance workplace is a major challenge. While there has been a significant rise in focus on reducing healthcare or insurance expenses (from 66 percent in 2016 to 73 percent in 2018), employers are facing talent shortages that force them to differentiate their offerings to support attraction and retention.
“Whole Person” Well-being
Employers continue to expand their focus on more holistic well-being goals and related supportive programming. While 40 percent said they have achieved a culture of wellbeing (up from 33 percent in 2016), out of the other 60 percent, 81 percent still aspire to develop that culture.
Leading among the goals of corporate wellness programs around the world are stress reduction and physical activity/exercise (cited by 95 percent), closely followed by nutrition/healthy eating and work/life issues (94 percent), depression/anxiety (93 percent), and access to healthcare services (92 percent).
These results highlight a major theme: Well-being is no longer about traditional wellness programs or even total health. Instead, it’s about addressing broader health and productivity by looking at the employee as a whole person who can’t reach their fullest potential if life distractions get in the way. In turn, supporting well-being isn’t a program that can be implemented with a plug-and-play program. It’s a relationship supported by a constellation of resources, programs, managerial policies, and culture.
By providing broader wellness offerings, organizations create a stronger social contract with their employees. This can in turn encourage employees to come to work motivated to actively contribute to the organization’s success—with fewer impediments in work and life.
Financial Well-being: A Significant Stressor
Financial priorities are also a significant element of a well-being program. Financial instability and inadequate financial protection, and financial distress were rated as priorities by 84 percent and 83 percent, respectively. The inability of employees to retire was a driver for 72 percent of employers. U.S. financial distress ranked among the highest in the world.
The rising number of programs that support financial well-being beyond typical retirement benefits illustrates employer recognition that employees need help addressing their near-term financial stability. Otherwise, they can’t adequately focus on longer-term life goals including—but not limited to—preparing for life after work.
Data and Diagnostics
Organizations also recognize that they can better target their wellness programs to employees’ needs by leveraging data to understand the biggest pain points. For example, data can reveal gaps in care for serious chronic conditions and allow HR professionals to zero in on the areas of top financial distress.
In the U.S., 79 percent of survey respondents rated predictive analytics as the most effective technology, yet only 31 percent stated that they use it. Globally, 84 percent of those using predictive analytics cited leveraging data as the most effective tool in achieving their goals for enhancing well-being.
Population health intelligence, including non-traditional metrics such as financial health, can help quantify the nature and scope of stress-related issues. Anticipating the potential future adverse effects of stress helps build the business case to design and invest in the right efforts to help employees manage their stressors.
Communication Tools and Channels
Almost all communication tools and channels rose in use from 2016 to 2018, reflecting an increased investment in education and promotion. Organizations recognize the need for a multi-channel strategy to reach a multi-generational workforce and provide ongoing engagement. Notable increases appear in several approaches:
- Targeted emails: from 69 percent to 77 percent.
- Posters/flyers: from 69 percent to 73 percent.
- Annual benefits enrollment materials: from 51 percent to 71 percent.
- Benefit fairs: from 49 percent in 2015 to 58 percent in 2016 and 63 percent in 2018.
- Mobile apps: from 27 percent to 42 percent, with highest use by the U.S./Canada at 50 percent.
- Home mailings: from 35 percent to 48 percent.
Leveraging relevant communication methods to get the attention of time-stressed employees may explain why 60 percent of those who already use personalized messaging, or intend to do so within one to two years, rate it as highly effective.
Well-being partners, including many point solutions that target specific well-being needs, are vital to most employers’ offerings. Yet organizations continue to experience many challenges. About 40 percent cited issues related to integration, cost, technology, reporting, lack of proven ROI, and poor participant experiences. In contrast, for financial well-being, only 29 percent have not had any issues. A lower and declining proportion cited each of the prior difficulties as problematic, likely reflecting the longer history and assortment of providers addressing physical and emotional health.
Improved health supports attaining greater wealth, and a variety of holistic support solutions reduce work and life distractions. To ensure success, organizations must understand their unique needs and identify tailored solutions. Efforts to support well-being will continue to accelerate, often testing new partners and program offerings despite uneven ratings on effectiveness. Critical to these efforts are clear objectives and guiding principles at the outset; a more systematic approach to design, vendor selection, and management; and ongoing engagement, including technology and more personalized promotion.
Survey data suggests that employers intuitively see the value on investment as promoting their organization as a best place to work while helping remove roadblocks to employees’ ability to work well. Factors such as social determinants of health, a globally aging workforce, rising awareness of mental health issues, and competitive pressures will continue to present challenges. Still, new solution offerings and technologies promise to enhance health, manage costs, and help employees address current and future financial challenges.
Today’s competition for talent may be a top reason to invest in employees and their continued well-being. After all, a culture of well-being is a win-win for employer and employees.
Ruth Hunt is principal of engagement and communication at Buck.