How employers are transforming wellness

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Say goodbye to wellness programs as you know them, and say hello to the future of well-being at work. Today, two pivotal changes are transforming the industry. First, employers are broadening their focus from physical health to multiple dimensions of well-being; and second, employers are demonstrating that the value of employee well-being includes — but far exceeds — healthcare cost savings alone, and can positively impact business performance.

Taken together, these changes will elevate workplace wellness from a healthcare strategy to an organization-wide priority that is central to the company’s workforce strategy. Here is what employers should know about these two changes.

Change 1: From wellness to well-being. Wellness programs that focus solely on improving employee physical health are a thing of the past. Workplace initiatives that address multiple areas of employees’ lives are the new norm. According to 2017 data from the National Business Group on Health and Fidelity Investments, 87% of employers include the promotion of emotional and mental health in their well-being strategy; 84% help employees become more financially secure; 73% include options for employees to involve themselves in the community and 58% incorporate ways to enhance an employee’s social connections with their peers and loved ones.

This change to focusing on the whole person is happening for good reason: A growing body of research shows that employees’ physical health is just one of a number of factors that influence key outcomes valued by employers such as productivity, work performance and turnover. Additionally, human capital experts agree that well-being programs that focus on multiple areas of employees’ lives are essential to creating a positive workplace experience.

Hand in hand with the transition from wellness to well-being is increased emphasis on employee choice. Rather than prescribing what employees should do (as wellness programs have been doing for decades), modern well-being programs encourage employees to embark on self-improvement initiatives based on their interests, goals and needs. LinkedIn, for example, gives employees $2,000 per year to engage in the health and well-being activities that matter most to them. Employees can choose to be reimbursed for services such as massage, gym memberships, personal trainers and classes like yoga, Pilates, golf and swim. Even childcare, pet walking and pet day care are included. Walmart twice a year hosts the “ZP Challenge”— a six-month competition where associates make better choices in one of four areas: fitness, food, family and money. Participants can make better choices in one, two, three or all four areas and the choices they make are self-defined.

Another way employers are enhancing choice is by expanding the ways that employees can earn incentives. Volunteering, participating in financial well-being classes, practicing mindfulness or engaging in resilience training are just a few of the ways that employees can earn cash, gift cards, contributions to their health accounts, or charitable contributions to their favorite philanthropy.

Change 2: Shifting the focus from cost savings alone to the broader impact on business performance.

When it comes to demonstrating the value of health and well-being initiatives, employers are setting their sights higher than just healthcare cost savings and productivity gains. A small but growing number of employers are working with research and vendor partners to show that employee health and well-being influence business performance. For example, working with UnitedHealthcare, Delta Air Lines has correlated employee healthcare decisions with a number of key performance indicators: On-time departures and net promoter scores are higher, and baggage mishandling and injury rates are lower at airports with employees who exhibit above-average health decision-making.

UnitedHealthcare also helped a manufacturer show that better healthcare decision-making is correlated with lower customer complaint rates, along with decreased absenteeism and improved return-to-work rates. And Walmart demonstrated a statistically significant correlation between stores that participated in the ZP Challenge and store performance. Although these examples don’t prove cause and effect between well-being and positive business outcomes, they point strongly to a causal link.

The future: Well-being as a key aspect of the workforce strategy

As health and well-being initiatives gain a reputation for their positive impact on the employee experience and for offering value in many areas of the company, they have the potential to become an organizational priority equal in importance to other human capital initiatives. In practice, this means that well-being will no longer be a program executed by one department, but a shared venture deployed by multiple business units.

Early examples of this come from several companies whose human resources and real estate departments have combined forces to build or redesign their offices in a way that improves employee health and well-being. At other companies, businesses throughout the organization (e.g., learning and development) are turning to HR for ways to incorporate aspects of well-being into their strategies. And still more are exploring how they might infuse well-being into all aspects of the employment lifecycle, from onboarding to retirement.

Regardless of how an employer integrates well-being into its workforce strategy, the path ahead is bright. The role of well-being professionals may become more prominent. Companies will experience short- and long-term benefits that further their business goals. And most importantly, employees are bound to have more opportunities to improve their lives for the better — and even go home healthier than they came in.

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