A WAVE OF WELLNESS
Physical, mental and financial programs take hold
By Thomas A. McCoy, CLU
Workplace wellness—employers taking care of workers’ physical, mental/emotional and financial needs—had its beginning decades ago. Initially, wellness was concentrated on workers’ physical needs. It was focused on a range of safety training and other risk management practices designed to keep workers productive and on the job.
Then, employee benefits plans introduced broader forms of support for workers’ physical well-being. These included incentive-based programs for employees to monitor and improve their standard health metrics, such as body mass and blood pressure. Larger employers were even able to invest in on-site medical personnel.
Benefits planners advocated for these physical wellness programs using the argument that workers comp insurers have always made for worker safety: An investment in loss prevention will benefit both the employee and the employer. However, it is harder to quantify the financial dividend from a healthier workforce than it is to measure the cost savings achieved through reduced workers comp claims.
More recently, the concept of work-place wellness has broadened beyond physical wellness to include mental/emotional and financial wellness. While it may be even harder to measure the financial return on this investment, clearly it is something that employees want.
In a study conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI)last July, 77% of employees agreed that employers have a responsibility to make sure employees are mentally healthy and emotionally well. Two-thirds of employees said the same about financial wellness.
It’s not hard to see why employees are interested. Guardian research shows that 40% of workers or someone in their household has experienced anxiety or depression in the last two years, double the rate that Guardian research found two years earlier.
“If an employee is likely to go out on leave, maybe these (mental health) resources will help keep them comfortable staying at work.”
Head of Product and Market Management, Group Benefits
Financial stress plays a big part in the heightened stress levels, according to the results of a recent study from The Hartford. It found that two-thirds of workers between age 18 and 54 re-ported higher levels of financial stress in the past year. For 18- to 34-year-olds, two-thirds said their financial stress negatively affects their mental health; among 35- to 54-year-olds, 58% said the same.
“The pandemic put a spotlight on mental health and mental well-being,” Meghan Whitman, head of talent at Guardian, said at a recent Guardian webinar. “Employees are looking for mental well-being offerings and resources, not just for themselves but for their families. That could be traditional clinical care or something more sub-clinical like mindfulness or coaching offerings.”
When an employer moves beyond physical wellness and takes an interest in the mental/emotional and financial well-being of its workers, Whitman said its employees “are working for a culture, not just a job or an employer.”
Dustin Boss, a Michigan-based agent, believes that employers can build long-lasting relationships of trust with employees by providing them with basic tools to manage their wellness. Eight years ago, he used his agency experience and a strong background in technology to create a software tool, called Wellness401k.com, which employers use to communicate health management messages to their employees.
Wellness401k.com is one of several software solutions offered by Emerge Apps, a software company founded by Boss. In addition to Wellness401k.com, Emerge Apps includes content covering safety, compliance issues and OSHA record keeping.
“We started Emerge Apps as a way to help employers better understand and target the root causes of rising insurance costs—not just finance problems left to develop over time,” says Boss.
“We have found that many workplace wellness programs tend to focus on those employees who have already made changes in their health or are preparing to take action. Employees who are simply contemplating making changes or not thinking about changing at all need a different kind of engagement through education and personal feedback about healthy behavior. The Wellness401k.com program is designed to fill this void,” Boss explains.
Because of the success he was having with his own clients, Boss began offering his software solutions to other agencies throughout the United States. Agencies can purchase any or all of the solutions provided by Emerge Apps, including Wellness401k.com, for distribution to employers throughout their business community.
Wellness401k.com consists of health messages—text, video and posters—delivered by email or text message to employees. It includes physical wellness suggestions—such as tips on nutrition and exercise—but also covers mental/emotional and financial wellness topics.
“We have hundreds of subscribing agencies throughout the U.S. and thousands of employers using our apps each day,” Boss says. “The cost for an agency to subscribe is a low monthly fee, no matter how many employers, users or employees an agency adds to the platform.
“The employers can choose from among the more than 500 health messages from Wellness401k that they wish to distribute. Emerge Apps also can work with the agency to customize messages for their own workforce if they choose,” Boss explains.
“The employers using the Wellness401k.com materials could be small, medium-sized or huge,” he continues. “The common trait is the mindset of the management team. We tend to connect well with those companies that really care about their workforce. There are all sorts of benefits that come with having a healthy workforce.”
Boss’s own agency, Ottawa Kent Insurance, operates separately from Emerge Apps. One of its commercial clients, after using the Wellness401k approach, hired a wellness coach to work with their staff, conduct wellness seminars and implement health risk assessments. More than 97.6% of employees participated in the one-on-one assessments with no incentives offered.
In response to growing employee concerns about their mental and financial wellness, employers are starting to look for solutions. In EBRI’s Workplace Wellness Survey, conducted last July, 55% of employees said their health insurance coverage includes mental/behavioral health; 45% said their employer offers a financial wellness program.
More than a third (39%) of employees in the EBRI survey said they are offered mental health programs beyond what is provided for in their health insurance program. For 36%, these include expanded mental health benefits such as including free counseling sessions with a mental health therapist or coach.
Guardian’s 2022 Workplace Benefits Study suggests that employers have a lot more work to do to support their employees’ mental health. It found that73% of employers believe they do an excellent job of addressing workforce mental health, but only 46% of employees said their organization offers adequate emotional health support.
For financial wellness programs, research from The Hartford published at the end of last year suggests that what employees are looking for from their employers varies significantly by age of the worker. Among those workers ages 18 to 34, 53% said they wish their employer could help with financial coaching, and 46% said they are comfortable talking about their personal finances in the workplace.
Only 38% of workers ages 35 to 54 and 14% of those 55-plus are looking for help from their employer with financial coaching.
Because industry studies have found a close connection between workers’ financial stress and their mental/emotional health, employers who are serious about addressing mental health are inclined to address financial health as well. In EBRI’s Financial Wellbeing Employer Survey, conducted last summer among companies with at least 500 employees, 84% of the companies surveyed said their financial well-being benefits are being used to improve mental health and emotional well-being.
What are some specific solutions for employers to consider in supporting their employees’ mental health? Matt Darula, head of product and market management, Group Benefits, at Guardian, believes that employers need to consider mental health solutions that go beyond traditional EAPs (employee assistance plans).
“Many workplace wellness programs tend to focus on those employees who have already made changes in their health… . Those who are simply contemplating changes need a different kind of engagement.”
“Historically, EAPs have been the primary mechanism for mental health support,” he notes. “They haven’t quite accomplished all they should for a couple of reasons. First, they include such a wide variety of services—legal support, mental health, caregiving assistance and financial wellness. It’s a Swiss Army knife. That can be good, but what is needed is more specialization.”
Secondly, he says, “EAPs are designed for ‘in the moment’ care, rather than more long-term, curated planning.” Also, Darula pointed out at a recent Guardian webinar, employees utilizing EAPs for mental health services have sometimes experienced delays in finding the right therapist.
Because EAPs offer a broader menu of solutions with less specialization and because EAP utilization has been low, employers sometimes are reluctant to offer more robust mental wellness services, Darula said. “However, we are starting to see employers investing in more specialized, impactful mental wellness programs. EAPs will continue to play an important role in many companies’ workplace wellness strategy, but may sit within a broader stable of curated wellness solutions.”
In the fall of 2021, Guardian began partnering with Spring Health to deliver mental well-being services as an alternative to EAPs. “Companies like Spring are able to pinpoint and deliver the right care for each person—whether it’s digital support, meditation exercises, coaching, therapy, medication or other treatment types,” Darula says.
“That includes matching employees with a provider based on the individual’s symptoms and preferences within minutes, and they’re often able to connect with that provider virtually or in person within a couple of days, rather than weeks or months. We’re offering the Spring program to small and mid-sized business customers as part of our insurance and wellness solution offerings.
“While larger companies were the first to introduce wellness solutions beyond EAPs, we’re seeing a growing number of smaller businesses invest in the Spring Health and Guardian pro-grams. These smaller firms also are purchasing more pre-paid visits for their colleagues in addition to family/dependent coverage.
“It’s far more difficult for a 25-per-son business to deal with an employee abruptly taking time off to care for them-selves or a family member than it is fora 1,000-life group—which is why continuing to invest in mental, physical and financial wellness solutions should be a top priority for small businesses.”
Looking at the cost and return on investment for solutions such as Spring Health, Darula says, “Employers could be paying $500-plus annually per employee for dental insurance and $300-plus for disability. For about $50 or $60 per employee, they can offer a high-class mental well-being solution to their workforce that will bolster productivity and improve retention.
“Another way to look at the ROI for these mental wellness solutions is that because the utilization is higher, these benefits can really help with a company’s quest for talent.
“They also can serve as a workplace productivity tool,” Darula adds. “If some-one is likely to go out on leave, maybe these resources will help them feel comfortable staying at work. Or if they did go out on leave, maybe these resources will help them feel comfortable coming back to work.”
Thomas A. McCoy, CLU, is an Indiana-based freelance insurance writer.