The Future of Workforce Well-being

A well-being strategy that resonates with organizational culture and mission is even more essential for employers as a relentless onslaught of stressors, pandemic-related and not, has affected our health, including our mental health, for almost 2 years. 

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November 05, 2021

A well-being strategy that resonates with organizational culture and mission is even more essential for employers as a relentless onslaught of stressors, pandemic-related and not, has affected our health, including our mental health, for almost 2 years. Addressing employee needs and prioritizing equity and inclusion are top of mind. Well-being and employee experience are recognizably linked, and whether owned by Benefits, Total Rewards, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion, HR or other leadership, a committed strategy with accountability across functions is becoming the new normal.

This resource serves as a companion piece to Employer Trends Across Six Dimensions of Well-being, which lays out how employers are reimagining their strategies by providing a snapshot of current offerings across six dimensions of well-being: physical health, mental health, financial security, social connectedness, job satisfaction and community.

Well-being Has Impact Beyond Health Care Cost

Well-being is strongly positioned as part of workforce and business strategy; top objectives are improving engagement, managing health costs and increasing productivity/reducing absence.1  Nine out of 10 large employers see well-being as either fundamental to or part of their overall business strategy.1 That may be because employers understand that well-being is critical to the employee experience and value proposition; surveys show that when managers support their employees’ well-being, they are more likely to be happy with their job and to recommend their organization as a great place to work.2

Data in support of well-being as a contributor to business outcomes are emerging.3 However, fewer than one-fifth of large employers see improving overall business performance as a top priority for well-being initiatives, likely reflecting the challenge of connecting health and well-being culture, benefits, programs and policies to business outcomes.1

OUTLOOK: Well-being will continue to evolve and broaden its scope and impact on corporate culture and practices through stronger connections to functions such as equity, diversity and inclusion along with sustainability and social responsibility. Employee, customer and community well-being will be integrated with sustainability goals, and over time, into shareholder reporting. At the same time, employee and family well-being strategies will increasingly reflect corporate commitments to people and the planet. The well-being of contracted employees and vendor partners, including the global supply chain, will grow in visibility and importance.

Well-being is Dynamic and Evolving

This is consistent with the #1 objective reported by large employers: to improve engagement.1 The top-down directives of years past are less prevalent, and employee priorities are increasingly weighted, with employee feedback used by 80% of employers as a means of evaluating the effectiveness of their well-being strategies.1 Mental health is front and center; 91% of large employers are concerned about mental health challenges caused or exacerbated by the pandemic, and 62% have implemented new mental health benefits they expect will be permanent.4 Employers are well aware that this aspect of well-being is the most important to employees right now and in turn are offering a variety of services to address a wide spectrum of needs, from teletherapy (88%), to mindfulness and sleep programs (72% and 45%), to pediatric focused mental health support (22%).1 This wide variety of offerings is reflective of a greater trend of providing employees with numerous resources so that they have ample choice, recognizing the individuality of employees and their diverse set of needs. It also recognizes choice as key to providing employees with a positive experience; surveys show that the greater the number of benefits and programs, the more employees feel cared for – and the more likely they are to stay with their organization.4, 5

OUTLOOK: Workplace conversations precipitated by waves of trauma - a global pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, a post-election attack on the U.S. Capitol, and the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 – mark a turning point. These conversations will continue, and feedback from team discussions and town halls, social media, employee resource groups (ERGs) and pulse surveys will influence the definition and framing of well-being going forward. And employees will chart their own well-being journeys, supported by data and technology tools that help them better understand their health and well-being risks and opportunities, along with the benefits and programs available to them.

Well-being Strategies Include a Focus on Health Equity

The movement for social justice has changed corporate well-being strategies for the better. Eight in ten employers report that equity, diversity and inclusion influence their well-being strategies, and 45% say they design initiatives to support traditionally marginalized populations.1 This is exemplified by employers’ expansion of family- forming benefits and coverage of transgender health care, as well as their interest in services that offer employees culturally competent care.6

Organizations are using a variety of tactics to better meet the health and well-being needs of Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and LBGTQ+ populations. Obtaining multistakeholder feedback is one way; 81% of employers currently solicit input from equity, diversity and inclusion leaders at their company, a best practice when making decisions about programs or building new initiatives. The employee voice - which has risen in prominence in the past year - has become paramount for inclusion efforts as a way to listen for needs and concerns and test assumptions; 78% of employers report that they request employee input from surveys, focus groups and/or ERGs.1 Auditing benefits and well-being initiatives for inclusivity is another tactic in place, with almost half of employers doing this. And while fewer employers (39%) currently create equity, diversity and inclusion standards for vendors and suppliers, this practice is likely to increase in the future.1

OUTLOOK: Employers and their vendor partners alike will continue to push for greater inclusivity in the programs, benefits and services they offer employees and their families, bringing them further down the path of reducing health disparities and promoting health equity. As part of these efforts, employers will apply an expansive lens of inclusion, incorporating the needs and challenges of disabled employees, neurodiverse employees, veterans and those with intersectional identities – in addition to BIPOC and LGBTQ+ employees - into their strategies. Well-being leaders will expand their criteria and expectations of vendor partners, and vendors will enhance their capabilities, with an eye to cultural competency as a critical element of any offering. As a backbone to these efforts, employers will increasingly use data on ethnicity, race, gender identity and sexual orientation and will strengthen their partnership with equity, diversity and inclusion leaders, working together to achieve shared goals.

Well-being is No Longer Just About Changing Behavior

The scope of employers’ well-being strategies has expanded to incorporate social determinants of health, reflecting increased organizational understanding that behavior change initiatives and medical benefits may prove ineffectual if underlying social and economic conditions that influence health aren’t addressed. Furthermore, addressing social determinants is an important pathway to reducing disparities and promoting health equity. The data illustrate this point; about one- third of employees say they have trouble accessing basic needs, such as healthy food and clean water, health services, and safe and affordable housing, transportation, and recreational space.7  In 2021, more than half of employers reported that they’re focusing on health care (61%), finances/income (60%) and racism (55%) as a part of their health and well-being strategy – three social determinants of health that impact employees’ physical and mental health, their ability to be productive at work and their overall quality of life.4 Further attention will be paid to these areas in the future, with additional employers reporting that they plan to address them in 2022 or are considering changes for 2023 or 2024.4 Social determinants of health that currently have less traction among employers but are emerging as areas of interest include childcare, transportation, food access/insecurity and housing.4

OUTLOOK: The incorporation of initiatives addressing social determinants of health into well-being strategies will lead employers to develop creative, and even first-of-their kind, solutions. While many of these solutions will seek to mediate the negative effects of community conditions where employees live or work (e.g., providing employees with benefits or programs that help them obtain nutritious food, such as take-home meals or grocery discount cards), some well-being and benefits leaders may take steps toward enacting community-level changes that have the potential to impact population health (e.g., putting in a new local playground or park). Both types of solutions will likely lead many employers to develop or strengthen internal and external partnerships.

Health and Well-being Initiatives Can Further Enhance Employee Trust

Employees trust their employer “to do what is right, more than government, non-governmental organizations and the media.”8 And when it comes to communication, employers are the most trusted source of information, considered to be “guardians of information quality.”8 This is good news for employers, as a top desired employer characteristic is trustworthiness.9  Well-being leaders strive to maintain and reinforce this trust, knowing that employees cannot thrive at work and at home without it, and that benefits and programs will go unused in its absence. Trust can be built through activities like manager and peer training to promote safe and empathetic conversations about mental health, something 65% and 33% of employers, respectively, are doing; enhanced support for work/life balance, such as through the provision of caregiver leave or updated PTO policies during the pandemic, offered by 55% and 44% of employers, respectively, in 2021; and actions to promote social justice and health equity.1, 4 For many employers, these efforts are paying off, reflected by employee sentiments: 81% say they feel comfortable having open and honest conversations about their well-being with their direct reports, and 71% say the same about their manager.5 Moreover, 76% of employees report that they’re comfortable sharing personal health information with their employer (or an appropriate third party contracted by their employer), a number that has risen since 2017.5

OUTLOOK: Employers will further enhance employee trust by consistently demonstrating a deep commitment to the well-being of employees and their families, who rely on them for their most personal – and sometimes pivotal – health and well-being needs. Promoting employee health and safety at the worksite, including measures to reduce disease transmission, are becoming table stakes. Beyond ensuring employees’ physical safety, benefit and well-being leaders will continue to create psychologically healthy workplaces, with an emphasis on senior leaders and managers modeling organizational values. They’ll continue to incorporate the employee voice into their well-being strategies, not only to meet their needs, but to show the workforce that the organization is listening and that their contributions matter. And employers will assess if and how well-being benefits, programs and policies align with the employee value proposition, an important way to honor the organization’s promise to employees.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Well-being Has Impact Beyond Health Care Cost
  2. Well-being is Dynamic and Evolving
  3. Well-being Strategies Include a Focus on Health Equity
  4. Well-being is No Longer Just About Changing Behavior
  5. Health and Well-being Initiatives Can Further Enhance Employee Trust