A NEW LOOK FOR WELLNESS PROGRAMS
Addressing changes in the nature of work and employee health concerns
By Len Strazewski
Times have changed in the employee wellness arena. Wellness program manuals used to focus on diet and exercise programs, smoking cessation methods, and disease prevention guidelines. Many were administered by on-site employer clinics and health services.
Then COVID-19 drove most employees home to work remotely, and access to employer-based programs become more difficult. As a result, wellness has taken on a new level of importance, and mental health in particular has become a key issue of contemporary employer-based wellness programs.
Employee assistance programs, previously underutilized, have gained new importance, as employers look for new ways to respond to their workers’ remote employment stress.
The state of mental health
In October, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy published a comprehensive report on the state of mental health in the United States and the role of employers in protecting the health of their employees.
In the introduction to the report, Murthy said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of work and the relationship many workers have with their jobs. The link between our work and our health has become even more evident. Today, more and more workers are worried about making ends meet, dealing with chronic stress, and struggling to balance the demands of both work and personal lives.
“The toll on their mental health is growing,” he added. “The pandemic also sparked a reckoning among many workers who no longer feel that sacrificing their health, family, and communities for work is an acceptable trade-off.
“Organizations are also increasingly aware of another trade-off: When the mental health of workers suffers, so does workplace productivity, creativity, and retention,” Murthy noted.
The senior official also pointed out that employers have a critical role in the new mental health wellness movement. “The pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to rethink how we work,” he said. “We have the power to make workplaces engines for mental health and well-being.
“Doing so will require organizations to rethink how they protect workers from harm, while fostering a sense of connection among workers, show them that they matter, make space for their lives outside work, and support their long-term professional growth,” Murthy added. “This may not be easy. But it will be worth it, because the benefits will accrue to both workers and organizations.
“A healthy workforce is the foundation for thriving organizations and a healthy community,” he said.
The report cited the results of an American Psychological Society study that said 76% of surveyed workers report some symptoms of reduced mental health, an increase of 17 percentage points in the last two years, during the pandemic.
“Our wellness programs were fast-tracked during the pandemic; we moved to remote platforms practically overnight. We also had to recognize the changing needs of our employees.”
Director of Clinical Services
Sun Life U.S.
The report also identified five “essentials” that contribute to overall employee wellness that should shape new corporate wellness programs.
Protection from harm. Workplace safety and employee security continues to be an important issue, the report says, and must continue to be an employer priority.
Connection and community. Social connection has declined during the isolation of the pandemic, thus fueling isolation, anxiety and burnout and the report calls for employers to help restore connection and build senses of inclusion and belonging.
Work-life harmony. Remote work has taught lessons about work autonomy and the study calls for more schedule flexibility and predictability.
Mattering at work. After two years of remote work, employees may find difficulty in making their work meaningful, so employers need to build meaning and purpose in work; and an increased sense of meaning reduces heart attacks and strokes and improves productivity.
Opportunity for growth. Work should not just be the completion of tasks but should incorporate learning and a sense of accomplishment, the report says.
Employers already are responding to these goals, according to the Wellness Council of America, by investing in offerings from various mental health service providers, such as Koa Health and Unmind, as well as management services training to alert executives to the issues and symptoms of mental health.
Many insurers who had been leaders in the centralized physical wellness pro-grams have already redesigned their wellness programs to respond to the new needs of remote and hybrid (some remote and some in-office scheduling) workers. Some are exploring the prospect of offering the programs to employers, marketed through their agents and brokers.
Patricia Ward, director of clinical services at Sun Life U.S., says the company has been rebuilding its internal wellness programs to reach out to its remote and hybrid employees with pro-grams that don’t demand coming to a central workplace.
The insurer has been switching its emphasis to remote communication of wellness programs and providing financial incentives to remote and hybrid employees for their participation. The insurer provides gym membership reimbursements and other independent offerings.
“Maintaining a corporate gym in the headquarters doesn’t work so well when employees aren’t coming into an office,” Ward says. “The way we do our wellness programming has had to shift away from a central location and move more to online platforms.”
Changing to a remote or hybrid workforce has changed the company’s benefits vision, she says, and has called for new ways to deliver wellness benefits. Professional partnerships have become more important as the insurer seeks ways to reach employees across a broader geographic range.
“Our wellness programs were fast-tracked during the pandemic; we moved to remote platforms practically over-night,” she explains. “We also had to recognize the changing needs of our employees.”
Ward points out that soft benefits—things like help managing a remote work schedule, ideas for coping with new stressors related to working from home, and dealing with the temptations of a long work day—became more important.
Education also became more import-ant, and the wellness program evolved to include recorded Zoom meetings to encourage COVID vaccinations and counter-pandemic and vaccine misinformation, she says.
In addition, the company put a new emphasis on mental health, focusing on the development and promotion of mental health and “well-being” benefits and delivery of benefits that recognize evolving employee needs.
Nationwide Insurance Co. has always provided what Tina Thornton, associate vice president of safety and well-being, describes as a “very robust wellness program.” Thornton’s responsibilities include occupational health and leave management, as well as well-being and mental health.
She explains that there has been a shift in the way the company delivers wellness programs. “Content has also evolved to focus more on mental health and well-being,” she notes. “The company invites expert speakers and offers live webinars on various health and wellness topics. We also offer a ‘mindfulness’ podcast to engage employees in a broad-er way about their health.”
To reach its broad base of remote and hybrid employees, the company offers virtual fitness classes and person-al training sessions. “We try to reach out to our employees where they sit,” Thornton says. “We want to make it easy to access health and wellness resources, both inside and outside of our buildings.”
Nationwide has been lucky, Thornton notes, because of what she describes as the firm’s employee-centric culture. “We have a great culture, and we work-ed hard to make it okay for employees to talk about mental health in the work-place,” she explains. “Again, we make it easy for our employees to get help, including through on-site nurses, telephonic dedicated counselors, online resources, and texting capabilities to a counselor.”
The company increased its employee assistance program services to include 16 sessions per problem per year—up from eight. This gives employees more opportunity to address mental and behavioral health issues, as well as more general personal needs such as parenting and household management.
However, “communication is critical to alert employees to the benefits and encourage their engagement,” she notes.
For more information:
Sun Life U.S.
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.