Benefits Products & Services
By Thomas A. McCoy, CLU
THE STATE OF EMPLOYEE WELLNESS
A stress-filled year highlights the need for solutions
Long after we stop having to wear face masks in the workplace, we may look back on 2020 as a time when employee wellness programs became mainstream. The interrelationship of employees’ financial, emotional and physical needs—all of which can be addressed in wellness programs—has become more evident through the pandemic experience.
MetLife’s August 2020 mental health report, issued as part of its current Employee Benefit Trends Study (EBTS), called COVID-19 “the perfect storm of stressors” representing “a modern-day collision of financial, physical and social worries.” It found that 41% of employees feel stressed, burned out or depressed at work regularly.
“The stress we’ve all faced since the beginning of the pandemic has heightened the focus on mental health,” says Cynthia Coverson, senior vice president, group benefits at MetLife. “It’s important for employers to provide a supportive environment for employees that helps alleviate stress.”
The leading cause of employee stress (81%) was financial worries, according to MetLife’s report. (This was followed by job security fears, workload and other workplace issues—77%; and getting coronavirus or having a loved one get it—60%). Employees with good financial health are twice as likely to report having good mental health compared to those with poor mental health (83% vs. 37%).
Results gathered from MetLife’s EBTS before the pandemic this year show that 76% of employees who were offered financial wellness benefits reported being satisfied with their overall employee benefits program, compared to 59% of employees who were not offered financial wellness benefits.
A recent Financial Wellbeing Employer survey conducted by the Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI) showed that 54% of employers with at least 500 employees are offering financial wellness programs. Another 36% have a strategy to set one up. Employers participating in EBRI’s study reported that the biggest challenge in offering financial wellness benefits is the cost—44% mentioning the cost to the employer, 29% the cost to employees.
EBRI’s survey showed that the top reasons given by employers for offering their financial wellness programs were improved overall worker satisfaction (44%), improved employee retention (37%), reduced employee financial stress (35%), and increased employee productivity (28%).
Unum conducted a wellness study of 409 employers in August, which included some smaller firms (25% were under 50 employees; another 25% were 50-100 employees). It found that 85% of the employers are concerned about their employees’ mental health.
Three out of five employers Unum surveyed have specific plans to address mental health; 58% have seen an increase in the use of these benefits; and two-thirds of the employers expected a further uptick in the fall.
The Unum study paid particular attention to the concerns of parents with school-aged children, many of whom must be taught virtually from home, either every day or for part of each week. Almost all the businesses (93%) have at least some employees with school-aged children. Three quarters (78%) of the employee benefits decision-makers at these companies said they expect school schedule disruptions to create challenges for their entire organization.
Unum asked the employers how these disruptions might affect their organization, and the leading responses were productivity/focus (59%), increase in leave requests (52%), the need to shift work to other employees due to leave (50%), employee mental health (46%), and maintaining employee engagement/morale (44%).
More than half of the employers (57%) said they are planning to offer some specific accommodations to parents faced with this situation. Most frequently mentioned were flexible work schedules (76%), full-time work-from-home arrangements (58%), and reduced work hours (48%).
About six in 10 (61%) of the employers Unum surveyed have plans or offerings in place that specifically address their employees’ mental health needs. The most common mentioned were counseling or therapy—often on-site and employer paid, employee assistance programs (EAPs), helplines/hotlines, telemedicine, and additional time off.
It is apparent from MetLife’s current Employee Benefit Trends study that employees’ difficulty in managing work-life balance isn’t simply a “pandemic problem.” In data gathered before the pandemic, 40% of employees reported that they struggled to meet the demands of an “always on” work-life world. Also, 60% of employers stated that their organization was struggling to keep up with the blended work-life world.
Coverson stresses the importance not only of formal wellness services, such as counseling, but also everyday workplace policies that make employees aware of management’s commitment to work-life balance and overall mental health. These practices can apply to small employers as well as large ones, she notes.
“Leading by example goes a long way,”Coverson says. “Having an organization’s leaders model healthy behaviors—such as not responding to emails while on PTO or being open to speaking about mental health challenges—will help drive greater employee awareness of the importance of wellness.
“Employers should encourage managers and supervisors to share with employees how the current climate affects their own working norms,” she adds. “They can discuss the ways they are taking breaks, changing habits and managing daily routines.
“Employees need to be encouraged to find ways to set boundaries in their working lives such as taking PTO or personal days to recharge, even when normal vacation activities are restricted,” Coverson notes. Employers can provide managers with training on how to have these conversations with employees, she suggests.
“It is imperative for employers, regardless of size, to have a grounding in what challenges are most affecting their workforce and perhaps hindering productivity, engagement or even retention,” she continues.
“To assess these challenges, large employers may do regular pulse surveys of their employees,” Coverson adds. “Smaller employers should take advantage of forums such as town halls, team meetings or skip-level check-ins between employees and upper management to gain greater understanding of what types of support employees are seeking.”
MetLife’s mental health report shows that, although a majority of all employers consider employee mental health important, there are definite gaps in employer acceptance of programs that address mental health, especially among small firms. A third of employers reported that they do not consider mental well-being to be an important objective.
More than two-thirds (68%) of firms with at least 5,000 employees said they have a wide range of programs designed to prevent mental health problems, as did 70% of those with 100 to 5,000 employees. Only 38% of employers with fewer than 100 employees said they had these programs in place.
The report also asked employers and employees in general whether their organization was open and supportive in addressing mental health issues; 75% of the employers said yes, while 47% of employees did.
Pandemic or no pandemic, financial concerns are likely to remain atop the list of sources of stress for employees. Benefits brokers play a key role in helping employers alleviate financial stress through their plans’ product offerings.
A recent MetLife open enrollment survey found that 20% of employees were more interested in health savings accounts (HSAs) and flexible spending accounts (FSAs) heading into this year’s enrollment season.
“For HSAs and FSAs, employers should offer employees and their families simple guidelines for calculating the impact of the various savings programs offered,” Coverson advises. “This includes encouraging employees to think holistically across a range of their expenses—out-of-pocket health, dependent care and commuting expenses—to understand what they’ve spent annually over the last couple of years. Then they can gauge how much they feel comfortable setting aside from each paycheck and see the tax advantages of these programs.
“Benefit communication that places benefits in the context of an employee’s personal situation provides the best opportunity for them to understand how programs offered through their workplace can help their finances throughout the year,” she adds.
Employee wellness needs to be addressed holistically, Coverson maintains. “Our current crisis has magnified the need for employers to provide a variety of resources and support mechanisms that help employees address their physical, financial, mental and social well-being.”
Thomas A. McCoy, CLU, is an Indiana-based freelance insurance writer.