August is National Wellness Month, and HR Dive is taking a closer look at the state of employer-sponsored wellness programs in 2019 in a two-part series this week. Part one debuted on Monday and detailed the disconnect between employee and employer perspective on wellness.
No company wants its employees to be sick. But to encourage workers' overall health, benefits packages will need to include much more than basic healthcare. Employees may function at less than their best due to physical, mental, emotional, social or financial problems. As a result, their performance may suffer — and that takes a toll on overall business.
More than 75% of companies said they offer wellness programs to reduce absenteeism and presenteeism, to offer competitive compensation packages, to reduce healthcare spend and to boost employee morale, according to a survey of more than 540 employers from Optum. Optum's report revealed that, over the last 10 years, employers have used well-being programs to do so increasingly, while their use of such programs for healthcare savings has "changed little over time."
Nearly half of all U.S. worksites offer some type of wellness program, according to a recent report from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention. Even as companies continue to offer subsidized gym memberships, initiate weight loss challenges and host stress management activities in hopes of improving employee health, some companies are taking a bigger, more holistic approach.
What started as on-site yoga classes and smoking cessation programs has evolved, Tim State, senior vice president of Associate Health and Well-Being at Humana, told HR Dive. As employers learn more about the science of how humans thrive and other aspects of productivity, organizations can build a better foundation for well-being, he said. "We've moved from a narrow understanding of programs or slices of that picture into something a lot more holistic and fundamental," he said.
Transforming wellness into well-being
Despite the popularity of wellness programs among organizations, many employees report they don't work. This tension may result from a disconnect between employer offerings and overall strategy, State said. For example, an employer may offer a stress management program, but employees' stress will hold steady after its implementation. That may not be the fault of the program. That may result from a toxic environment where employees don't have a sense of teamwork or belonging.
Rather than implement such a program, employers may focus on well-being. Well-being does a much better job of measuring and improving what drives better productivity and health engagement, State said.
At Humana, for example, that understanding incorporates four dimensions: a sense of purpose in one's life and career; health, including, but not limited to physical, emotional and spiritual health; sense of belonging, which includes relationships; and sense of security, which includes personal safety as well as financial security, State said. These aspects provide the foundation for wellbeing, and the company's offerings reinforce the direction.
Humana isn't the only organization that takes a holistic approach to employee wellness. Misty Guinn, director of benefits and wellness at Benefitfocus, told HR Dive that organizations are embracing a total well-being strategy to meet different employee needs. Now that several generations inhabit the workplace at one time, focusing on one specific area of wellness, such as fiscal health, may not benefit all employees, she said.
Focusing on well-being doesn't mean canceling gym memberships or any other wellness initiative, but it does mean making gym memberships the starting point rather than the endpoint in addressing health.
Make the right diagnosis and implement the right treatment
Corporate programs can fail when they don't address employee pain points. That can happen when employers make assumptions about what employees want. "We have to design what our measuring stick is and make sure that we're not just adding a benefit to say, oh, we offer this benefit," Guinn said. "We're adding it so that we're ensuring that it adds value to our employee base, to our organization's culture."
To counter that, Guinn said she launched an annual employee wellbeing survey to find out what is critical to different employees. She was surprised that, for two years in a row, 69% of employees, who had an average age of 38, put saving for retirement as one of their top wellbeing goals, above work-life balance or stress management, she said.
Because of that information, her company started offering financial wellness support, including a financial coach and student loan refinancing. "I think that the first step is to look at all the different data points and most importantly, launch that survey and see where you're going to really engage with people."
Consider what the ultimate change your organization is seeking is, State added. Then, understand what habits or behaviors or inputs are required to make that change. Last, make sure you have strong, stable and reliable ways to measure those things.
The virtuous cycle of well-being
When employers incorporate well-being initiatives into their compensation packages, they do themselves a service. Employees are starting to value their benefits package more than their salary, Guinn said. The ability to customize and personalize those benefits increases employee loyalty. "It's really more about not just offering core benefits," she said.
Creating employee well-being takes commitment to employees and a commitment to a positive climate in organizations, State said. That environment can become a competitive advantage for attracting, retaining, and engaging a thriving workforce, he said.
Although organizations may not have played that role in the past, they are taking more responsibility. State said he sees this as fair. "As an employer where folks spend eight to 10 hours a day on average in America engaged in their work, we're in a great position to influence all of those dimensions," he said. "And what we understand is that at an individual level, those [dimensions] all do work together. They're very integrated within each of us."