FROM WELLNESSTO WELL-BEING
Today’s employer, agent and insurer focus goes beyond traditional wellness programs
By Len Strazewski
Biometric screenings, on-site clinics, and health plan discounts are the familiar tools of employer wellness programs. But as the COVID-19 pandemic drove many employees to work at home, fewer workers lost easy access to on-site employer services and programs.
As a result, employers, agents and their insurers are developing a broader approach, focusing on employee “well-being,” which includes traditional wellness programs but goes further.
Earlier this year, the Gallup organization, one of the nation’s most famous polling companies, reported on the evolution of employer concern about the well-being of employees. As more employees work at home or are only in an office part of the time, employers have less control over the health and wellness of their employees. And according to Gallup research, it shows.
After increasing to near 50% during the early months of the pandemic, the percentage of employees who strongly agree that their organization cares about their well-being has eroded, losing 13 percentage points since last spring, according to Gallup.
“With the goodwill banked by employ-ers in the early months of the pandemic now abating, it is more critical than ever that leaders reinvigorate their efforts to build high well-being work-places and cultures,” Gallup researchers said in a May 2021 report.
The consulting company also points to a link between well-being and overall productivity: “When your employees’ well-being is thriving, your organization directly benefits—they take fewer sick days, deliver higher performance, and have lower rates of burnout and turnover. But when your employees’ well-being suffers, so does your organization’s bottom line,” the company said in a report.
Insurers continue to maintain more traditional wellness services while exploring more options.
Tracy Hammill, M.D., U.S. medical director of clinical claims at Sun Life, says employers and their employees already understand the depth and breadth of wellness—how employers can influence the overall health and well-being of employees with various programs.
“Employers understand the importance of believing in health issues and taking action to improve employee health,” she says. But as employees drifted away from the workplace during the pandemic, employers needed to make a stronger commitment to wellness in non-traditional ways and adopt a more holistic approach to wellness.
Sun Life has incorporated more of this approach in its own claims and case management, accentuating return to work and incenting healthy activities of their insureds. Dr. Hammill says the insurer has sought out more opportunities to provide wellness-related services.
Sun Life is promoting a broad range of wellness benefits to its own employees, including family health and fitness tips on staying active while working from home, mental wellness, eating well, budget tips, preventing and treating illness with a focus on chronic diseases such as diabetes, and retirement planning.
However, Dr. Hammill says the traditional in-house approaches will probably not work as well as they used to. “In-house services is probably not the path employers will be taking,” she says. While on-site clinics had been growing in popularity before the pandemic, they were never really seen as contributing to the employer’s bottom line. And now fewer employees have access.
Instead, employers are more likely to provide support for wellness and health services from insurers and individual sources that their remote-working employees find more accessible.
Agents and brokers have an important role to play in this evolution, Dr. Hammill says, by identifying more wellness resources that have a broader reach to connect with remote workers.
“Agents and brokers need to reinforce to their clients what’s available,” she explains. “They need to communicate that the focus of wellness has moved beyond biometric screening and worksite programs to employees’ children and family wellness and additional issues, such as financial planning.”
Many employers had already offer-ed Employee Assistance Programs and behavioral health programs, she notes, but they were notoriously underused. Now, she says, the need has increased, and agents and brokers need to help promote their availability, just as they do traditional medical benefits.
She calls the new movement “whole-person wellness,” which includes broader aspects of employees’ lives and personal needs, as Sun Life offers to its own employees.
“The bottom line is that employers didn’t always see the value of wellness programs, and absenteeism and productivity wasn’t always being measured relative to wellness programs,” Dr. Hammill explains, “but now, even with employees working at home in individual environments, physical issues such as ergonomics and environmental design are recognized as making a difference.”
Deborah Largoza, a registered nurse with both Master of Public Health and Master of Business Administration degrees, is president of Amalgamated Medical Care Management in Salem, New Hampshire, a division of Amalgamated Life. She says that many employers understood the importance of wellness, but the COVID-19 pandemic “added another level” to that understanding. As employees became more and more concerned about their help and how it related to their employment, “employers want to capitalize on that new awareness.
“Employees who used their employer’s wellness benefits were already healthy, but the rising health awareness of the pandemic created an opportunity to focus on wellness in a new way,” Largoza says. “The pandemic drove employees to become more savvy users of wellness services” and drove them to make broader use of medical and wellness benefits.
Telehealth and other remote medical services boomed during the pandemic and employees became more comfortable with seeking advice over telephone and video, she notes, incorporating more nurse practitioners and diabetes education.
As part of this movement, practitioners became comfortable introducing technology, such as remote biometric monitoring for cardiac issues, blood glucose monitoring which helped hospitals cope with the lack of beds for noncritical cases and cardiac monitoring that gets heart cases out of hospital beds and into their homes.
Agents and brokers have a reinvigorated role as the agents of change. “They need to look around and raise awareness of new programs that meet the needs of employers in the present era,” Largoza notes.
Return on investment will continue to be a major factor in the employee benefits planning process, she says, but costs are reflected in claims data and better wellness results yield a better ROI.
“Agents and brokers will need to help promote programs that will have results over the next two to three years,” Largoza says, as the evolution of wellness programs continues and seek validations.
At least one of the bigger brokers has identified the new approaches. Arthur J. Gallagher in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, has dug deep into the issues with its Gallagher Health subsidiary. According to Gallagher’s 2021 Workforce Trends Report: People & Organizational Wellbeing Strategy, wellness into well-being is a trend that is already booming.
“The migration to working remotely during the pandemic has changed the way people think, not only about where they want to work but also what is important to them in their life and in their workplace,” said William F. Ziebell, chief executive officer of Gallagher’s Benefits and HR Consulting Division, in a Gallagher newsletter.
“Millions of Americans are looking for a better job and that can include increased rewards, better benefits, working from home as well as their professional development. This has forced employers of all kinds to re-examine their employee value proposition, including compensation, culture, engagement, agility and, of course, their benefits. This is a very tough market for employers and any weakness in their offering can have them chasing their talent out the door or having to overpay to get or to keep their people,” he explained.
“Employers understand the importance of believing in health issues and taking action to improve employee health.”
—Tracy Hammill, M.D.
U.S. Medical Director, Clinical Claims
Deploying an employee well-being strategy promotes a stronger work culture, the Gallagher newsletter says. Most employers invest in a well-being strategy. They either focus on traditional physical healthcare options (32%) or take a comprehensive approach to the whole health of their employees (25%). Among those currently without a strategy, 20% still provide some well-being resources to employees. Separately, 48% plan to launch one by 2023.
All aspects of well-being have become more important to at least a third of employers. Significantly, an 11-point increase to 64% for the social aspects of emotional well-being, in the past year alone, stands out as a material shift driven largely by pandemic stressors. More unique ways of promoting emotional well-being include adoption assistance (14%), on-site meditation rooms (13%) and affinity groups (8%).
Flexibility is increasingly offered to support work/life balance. Up five points from 2020 and accelerated by the pandemic, 56% of employers allow eligible employees to choose a flexible work arrangement. This includes a 23-point jump in full-time telecommuting within the short span of one year, now offered by almost half (49%). Similarly, over half (54%) have part-time telecommuting policies, up from 32%.
“Organizational well-being is the balance of having the right talent at the right cost structure. When employees feel good about their physical and emotional, career, and financial well-being, they are more likely to be engaged and productive. Employers often have the right components for an attractive employee value proposition but fail to organize and effectively communicate what they have to offer,” Ziebell said.
“Now, more than ever before, employers need to take a strategic approach to promoting the well-being of their workforce, leveraging HR technology and employee communications to address today’s volatile talent market and successfully attract and retain employees,” he added.
Amalgamated Medical Care Management
Len Strazewski is a Chicago-based writer, editor and educator specializing in marketing, management and technology topics. In addition to contributing to Rough Notes, he has written on insurance for Business Insurance, Risk & Insurance, the Chicago Tribune and Human Resource Executive, among other publications.
“[T]he rising health awareness of the pandemic created an opportunity to focus on wellness in a new way. [It] drove employees to become more savvy users of wellness services.”
Amalgamated Medical Care Management