Employers are increasingly moving from traditional wellness programs to a more comprehensive, total well-being approach.

Earlier this month, Aetna’s CEO, Mark Bertolini, announced that the company is paying its employees to sleep. Specifically, employees can earn several hundred dollars annually for logging at least seven hours of sleep per night.

While this might seem to be a unique approach, it is part of a greater trend — a growing list of employers are moving beyond the standard “one-size-fits all” approach to wellness and toward a more holistic view of total well-being.

[Image credit: Bloomberg]
[Image credit: Bloomberg]

In this post-ACA era, employers are facing the reality of ever-increasing medical costs and the need to engage their employees in their personal healthcare decisions. To achieve these goals, more and more are turning to wellness strategies, with over two-thirds of U.S. employers now offering some type of wellness program.

In the past, many implemented turnkey programs that focused purely on physical health. Who among us hasn’t heard about a company that did a 10,000 steps challenge or “Biggest Loser” competition?

Although these programs were a strong first step in the right direction — accepting the critical role that employers can play in improving the health of their employees — the current understanding is that physical health is only one small component of total well-being.

In our drive to promote employee engagement, we are likely missing the mark if we don’t realize that many employees have more urgent needs that divert their attention from focusing on physical health. An employee may have the desire and intent to attend the onsite biometric screening, but it ends up taking a backseat to more urgent needs — financial stress, an aging parent who needs to be cared for, or exhaustion from late nights caring for a sick child.

If our goal is to really move the needle — to increase productivity, enhance engagement, reduce healthcare costs, and position ourselves as employers-of-choice — we must take a more holistic approach to well-being. It is time to move beyond the singular focus on physical health, and begin to address the financial, emotional, spiritual, and social aspects of total well-being.

Luckily, with recent advancements in technology tools, and our greater understanding of employees’ needs, today more than ever employers have the ability to do just that.

Aetna has identified sleep, or lack thereof, as a major issue for its employees, and offers this program as an investment in its people. Mr. Bertolini believes that this will lead to more productive and mindful employees, and eventually, a better bottom line for the company.

Similarly, companies across the country are implementing other all-encompassing “well-being” programs — such as financial education, yoga and meditation classes, volunteer opportunities, and flex-time — all of which are aimed at helping their employees be more engaged and productive.

Whether your company is already well on your way to developing a comprehensive well-being program or just beginning the journey, many best practices apply to both:

1. Assess your population and offer programs that fit your employees’ unique needs and interests. Just because Google offers a certain program doesn’t mean that it would work well for your company. If you have an older population, a financial education program about saving for retirement will have higher engagement than a program for college loan forgiveness.

2. Ask your employees about the causes of stress that impact them and their families. You can get firsthand feedback about the types of issues that are most relevant in their lives, and then tailor your program to target these high impact areas.

3. Take a multi-year strategic approach. At the outset, determine your desired end-result. Then set goals and implement programs along the way that ensure consistent progress and engagement toward those ends.

4. Use technology to interact with the employees in their preferred social medium. Whether it is a smart phone mobile app, their Fitbit or Apple watch, a Facebook page, or face-to-face contact, employees are more likely to engage if you connect with them through their social channel of choice.

5. Move away from a check-the-box approach in favor of more robust program. Programs with the highest levels of engagement tend to be those that allow employees to personalize their experience and choose from a variety of options and activities.

6. Provide consistent and frequent messaging. Your communication should continue throughout the year and align with your company’s culture and brand.

We’re moving “beyond biometrics” to a more holistic view. Is your company ready to embrace the change?

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Suzannah Gill

Suzannah Gill

Gill is a benefits strategy consultant with EPIC's Employee Benefits practice.