HR executives embracing holistic wellness as top benefit in 2020

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As employers turn the page to a new decade, workplace stress is a growing problem that companies are becoming more invested in tackling. Indeed, employees are forcing the issue by becoming more vocal about the life issues they are having — and how they expect their employers to help.

Using specialized programs organizations are now expanding the traditional definition of wellness to include a host of offerings. These progressive companies are implementing benefits that help employees take on student loan debt, launching expanded EAPs, and offering savings vehicles beyond the traditional 401(k). But there is more that can be done.

All of these offerings fall under the umbrella of employee wellness, which is going to be at the top of mind for HR and benefits professionals in 2020, according to top HR experts forecasting the most important benefits for the new year. Going into 2020 employers may want to consider beefing up their wellness benefits to be more holistic, experts say.

When it comes to wellness benefits, employers tend to focus on one aspect of a person’s well-being, be it financial, mental, or physical. But the key to a more well-rounded wellness benefit is to take a wider approach and recognize the impact stress can have on every aspect of a person’s life.

“The link between mental and physical health has been increasingly recognized in the clinical world,” says Dr. Tista Ghosh, senior director of impact evaluation at healthcare company Grand Rounds. “As the clinical realm shifts to a more holistic view of the patient, employers should similarly model their benefits under the same mindset when it comes to wellness benefits. Financial, physical and mental health are all intertwined.”

See also: Experts predict 2020’s most in-demand benefits

The issues employees face in their daily lives can impact their physical and emotional wellness, causing a decline in productivity and increased absenteeism at work.

“It’s critical to invest in benefits that impact employees’ overall environment,” says Heather Lavallee, president of tax exempt markets and head of the Voya Cares team at Voya Financial. “Outside-the-box benefits provide a sense of caring on behalf of your organization, which generates loyalty and commitment. It also helps reduce stress for employees and, therefore, increases productivity across the company.”

About two-thirds of professionals say their stress levels at work are higher than they were five years ago, according to research by the Korn Ferry Institute, a leadership and talent consulting firm. Of the nearly 2,000 professionals surveyed, 76% say stress at work has had a negative impact on their personal relationships, and 66% say they have lost sleep due to work stress. Sixteen percent said stress made them quit a job. Stress can have a physical reaction on the body including headaches, muscle pain, chest pain, fatigue and mood swings, according to the Mayo Clinic.

More than half (58%) of organizations offer their employees a general wellness program, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Wellness benefits have been heavily discussed and marketed to employees over the last decade. Yet, wellness programs didn’t show any changing trend in the last year, SHRM says. In fact, five year trends show moderate declines in more traditional wellness activities. Preventative programs specifically targeting employees with chronic health conditions have decreased to 24% in 2019 from 40% in 2015, according to SHRM.

Student loan burden
A major financial stressor for many employees is student loan debt. The U.S. student debt balance has ballooned to more than $1.6 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. While employees will appreciate a debt repayment benefit, that one offering only addresses a single part of the problem.

Indeed, 53% of high debt borrowers have experienced depression because of their loans and nine in 10 borrowers experienced significant anxiety as a result, according to a survey by Student Loan Planner, a debt management service. More disturbing, one in 15 of the loan borrowers surveyed said they had considered suicide as a result of their debt.

This stress — which may not be alleviated with the addition of a single benefit — can result in a loss of productivity and increased turnover. But, if an employer were to couple that student debt repayment plan with access to mental health services, they’d have taken a real step in improving an employee’s overall wellness.

“Coupling student loan benefits with mental health benefits is going to be a burgeoning trend with employers in 2020,” says Greg Poulin, CEO of student loan benefits provider Goodly. “An emerging trend we saw from employers in 2019 was recognizing the impact such an astronomical amount of student debt takes on the productivity and mental health of employees.”

One of the main drivers of the stress and anxiety that go along with student loan debt is that employees don’t know where to turn for help, Poulin says.

“Many employers are recognizing this and adding student loan benefits and mental health programs to their benefits packages, which is a trend we expect to continue throughout 2020 based on the demand we've seen from employers,” he adds.

Parental Stress
Another tactic employers can take is to offer a paid parental leave benefit coupled with a backup child care benefit. Child care benefits are uncommon, and have shown little change in the past five years, despite a steady increase in services supporting new mothers, according to SHRM.

Becoming a new parent and then trying to navigate returning to work can be another factor that contributes to an employee’s physical, mental and financial stress — especially for women. About 40% of women will exit the workforce after they have their first child, says Shadiah Sigala, CEO of Kinside, a child care benefit provider. About 75% of them say the top reason they leave has to do with child care needs, she says.

“Once paid parental leave is over and you’re back in the office, there’s an expectation that all goes back to normal,” Sigala says. “Of course, nothing feels normal about placing a six-week-old child in the hands of a stranger, paying 20% of your annual salary to do it and a good amount of your mental fortitude to withstand it.”

More than half (52%) of new moms surveyed by OnePoll say one of their top five concerns while at work is if their baby is safe. Women’s labor force participation has stagnated and reversed since 2000, according to The Brookings Institution, a public policy research organization. The cost of child care can make center-based care and even employment itself difficult for working mothers, Brookings says. The average center-based program for infants can cost more than $16,000 per year. By offering a back up child care benefit, employers are uniquely positioned to help alleviate this financial and emotional burden.

“American businesses are losing $12.7 billion every year because of employee childcare challenges — complementing paid leave with child care is a benefit duo that pays back,” Sigala says.

Companies that offer benefits that target multiple stressors in their employees’ lives will see an increase in employee loyalty and productivity. But more than that, employees are truly grateful when their employer shows them they care.

When Danielle Moore, director of communication at Noodles & Company, started her career with the restaurant organization three years ago, she was nervous to tell her new employer that she was expecting her first child.

“I was really hesitant about what becoming a new mom and being a director at a company would look like for me as far as lifestyle and balance,” Moore says. “I was completely surprised by how easy Noodles has made this adjustment for me and the other new moms.”

Noodles offers its employees an array of family and wellness benefits designed to help them get a better handle on their work-life balance, including a health and wellness reimbursement program known as balance bucks.

“There were a lot of stressors that I wasn’t anticipating as a new mom,” Moore says. “Having access to the balance bucks and our company being really flexible with how we exercise those is really helpful.”

Moving into 2020 employers should consider beefing up their wellness benefit offerings as a way to fully invest in their employees’ overall well-being, according to Kate Ryder, founder and CEO of Maven Clinic.

“The bottom line is, by prioritizing wellness programs in 2020 and beyond, employers can demonstrate their commitment to employees’ overall health and well-being, while driving satisfaction and productivity, improving health outcomes, and lowering costs,” Ryder says.

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Voluntary benefits Health and wellness Financial wellness Retirement benefits Student loans Student loan debt Employee benefits Employee relations Employee productivity