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COVID-19 requiring employers to step up, expand wellbeing programs

By Regina Ihrke , Katie Hansen and Lindsay Stortz | February 25, 2021

With a direct connection between employee wellbeing and business success, wellbeing should be at the center of most human capital discussions.
Health and Benefits|Employee Experience|Ukupne nagrade |Ευεξία
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About the series

Transform 2021: Solving for new health and benefits imperatives

This series covers opportunities for employers to transform key elements of their health and benefits program to generate greater value to the company as well as improve the employee experience.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, people and organizations have shown extraordinary resiliency. Facing numerous stressors — child and elder caregiving, financial struggles, social justice issues, loneliness, burnout, and physical and emotional health challenges — employees have been put to the test of putting their anxieties aside to stay focused and engaged in their work.

Here are the stark facts: COVID-19 has led to a decline in many employees’ physical, emotional, financial and social wellbeing. For example, according to Willis Towers Watson’s 2020 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey, 29% of employees feel their mental health has worsened as a result of the pandemic and 36% of employees have experienced anxiety and/or depression within the last year. Nearly two-in-three (65%) of employees under 25 report suffering from anxiety or depression over the past two years.

Transform 2021: All about wellbeing

Regina Ihrke, North American Wellbeing leader, talks about how organizations can evolve their wellbeing programs.

These unique and multidimensional challenges have shifted the focus for many employers from traditional wellness programs to broader platforms that focus on the health, safety and holistic wellbeing of both employees and their families. The shift is driven by the idea that an employer’s success in improving employee wellbeing will ultimately improve the success of the whole organization. Our research supports this claim.

Supporting employee wellbeing is now a business imperative

With a direct connection between employee wellbeing and business success, wellbeing should be at the center of most human capital conversations. According to Willis Towers Watson’s 2020 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey, one in seven employees report issues in all pillars of wellbeing (physical, emotional, financial and social). They are four times more likely to be disengaged, miss 12 or more days of work per year due to presenteeism and are three times more likely to work past age 70. Additionally, employees suffering from poor physical and mental health are significantly less likely to appreciate the benefits and resources offered by their employers, likely contributing to lower satisfaction.

Wellbeing is now an integral component of the broader employee experience and the foundation of an effective benefit strategy.

So, how are organizations rethinking wellbeing strategies?

Rising from the simpler concept of “wellness,” wellbeing is now an integral component of the broader employee experience and the foundation of an effective benefit strategy. In fact, many companies consider wellbeing to be the thread that creates consistency and stability for all employees. When wellbeing is supported successfully, it can be the engine that drives cultural change. It can assist in workforce reskilling and the transformation of how and where work gets done. It can also underpin diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives, Total Rewards programs and the talent value proposition of the organization.

Circular graphic with employee wellbeing at the center. - Description below

Circular graphic with employee wellbeing at the center.

  • Second layer clockwise: thriving, balanced, secure, connected.
  • Third layer (clockwise): Physical, emotional, financial, social.
  • Fourth layer (clockwise): Equitable total rewards, compensation, career, benefits.
  • Fifth layer (clockwise): Desired culture, community involvement, healthy work environment, effective teams, inclusion and diversity, corporate social responsibility, company values.
  • Sixth and final layer: purpose-driven organization
Figure 1. The transformation of wellbeing: Providing a holistic approach to meet the diverse needs of employees

For a successful wellbeing program, an organization must:

  • Make their employees the principal focus of their programs
  • Understand their experiences
  • Consider not just the impact to the organizational culture, but also the effect employee has on families and the larger community

Wellbeing is not a singular pursuit. It is a range of challenges and needs with varying degrees of difficulty. Understanding disparate needs and dealing with them on their own terms can go a long way to improving wellbeing. While one individual might dream of running a marathon, another might not be taking 3,000 steps in a day. While one individual is planning retirement travel, another is deciding pay either the water or electric bill. Considering employees’ diverse situations, wellbeing cannot focus on behavior change toward one “ideal state” that is the same for everyone, but rather help individuals meet individual goals.

Supporting this vision requires examining wellbeing through multiple lenses that include reward and benefit programs, I&D and the overall employee experience — all of which require leaders to demonstrate commitment, vision and equity. This is not a one-and-done exercise; it requires constant vigilance and fine tuning.

Companies must also change how they approach wellbeing to meet the ever-changing needs of their increasingly diverse workforces.

From equality to equity

Aligning stakeholders across an organization with an emphasis on equity — not equality — is a critical first step in refreshing the wellbeing vision and objectives. Companies must also change how they approach wellbeing to meet the ever-changing needs of their increasingly diverse workforces.

Most wellbeing offerings were based on equality, assuming all employees have similar needs and, in the interest of fairness, should be given similar support and resources. In contrast, equity, which is typically referenced in pay discussions and the gender pay gap, recognizes the varying needs of individual employees.

Furthermore, the importance of delivering wellbeing equity can drive significant results and support an entire workforce. Each employee needs something unique to them, whether influenced by gender, family circumstance, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, generation, socioeconomic status and geography.

Another consideration to achieve wellbeing equity is to broaden the ways in which employers provide support. Wellbeing is influenced by home, work, neighborhoods and the broader community, as well as by having access to social and economic opportunities. There are many basic life barriers that hinder employees from improving their wellbeing. The strategies previously adopted by employers have taken a blind eye to these barriers.

Start by asking the following questions to overcome such obstacles:

  • How are we facilitating quality health care for those without transportation to get to a clinic or hospital?
  • How do we help employees eat healthier if they can’t afford healthy options?
  • How do we encourage positive relationships if people don’t have safe home environments?
  • How do we provide support to improve financial stability if some do not use financial institutions due to access issues, financial problems or a strong distrust of financial institutions and professionals?
  • How do we deliver information if employees do not have a permanent home address or access to broadband internet?

While there are no easy answers to these questions, employers must try to incorporate these social and economic concerns into their strategies and initiatives, if they are to support the wellbeing of all employees.

Defining your wellbeing journey

No matter how your organization thinks about wellbeing — e.g., as part of its benefits program, Total Rewards approach or overall human capital vision — there are three critical steps for defining and prioritizing the wellbeing strategy and to meet employees’ high expectations:

  1. Agree on the vision and objectives of wellbeing across a diverse set of business stakeholders, including HR, Total Rewards, benefits, safety, I&D, corporate social responsibility and, importantly, business leaders. Alignment and understanding of the wellbeing objectives across the organization will help connect initiatives with your organization’s culture. And, understanding your objectives allows you to view the current state with a broad perspective to strategize and implement changes that evolve with your workforce.

    Defining success metrics in wellbeing will also drive prioritization and focus for each organization from improvement in health outcomes, reducing the stress level of the population through financial, emotional and social support, or increasing productivity.
  2. Gather data from multiple sources, including a program inventory and organizational priorities to understand gaps and mitigate duplication. Over the last year, organizations used employee listening strategies — including surveys and virtual focus groups — to help them react and respond to employee needs. We expect organizations to continue to use surveys, focus groups and other listening tools to inform wellbeing strategies. By researching the social factors in the communities where your employees reside, employers will also be better positioned to understand their employees’ access to quality health care, mental health services, transportation and nutritional foods.
  3. Understand and achieve impact through a high-performing employee experience. A high-performing experience is created through delivering holistic support (programs, policies and environmental changes) that addresses how employees are experiencing wellbeing in their daily lives, meets them where they are and builds trust with the organization. For example, programs are best delivered and communicated by life moments or events, such as caregiving, financial stress of accumulated debt, experiencing a personal health scare, or feeling alone or depressed. With a smartly constructed communication and change management strategy, wellbeing can be a natural foundation of your organization’s purpose, mission and culture. This will translate to employees through visible leadership and manager support, personal stories and messages incorporated into business rituals.

Make it easier for employees to be healthy (across all wellbeing pillars) by delivering support in multiple ways, from using digital tools and personalized communication all the way to foundational cultural norms. Examples of this for mental health might include:

  • Providing expanded access to virtual therapy
  • Developing a communication campaign to destigmatize mental health
  • Establishing quiet, private spaces for employees who need time alone or supported breaks if working virtually
  • Equipping managers to identify issues and know how to offer appropriate support

Finally, build a robust measurement strategy to inform the continuous evolution and optimization of programs and resources. As we adapt to a post-pandemic world, there will be increased interest in measuring the impact of wellbeing initiatives and understanding where to get the most value. As organizations adjust and thrive, wellbeing will be the foundation of an organization’s culture and an integral component of human capital metrics and environmental, social and governance (ESG) evaluation.

Organizations that effectively drive cultural change will create a sustainable culture of wellbeing.

Implementing these changes requires vigilance and perseverance. Yet those organizations that effectively drive cultural change will create a sustainable culture of wellbeing and gain the competitive advantages associated with improved engagement, satisfaction, productivity, retention, safety (physical and psychological), reduced workplace stress and disability costs, and business and financial performance.


Senior Director, Health, Equity & Wellbeing Leader – North America
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Director, Health & Benefits
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Senior Director, Talent & Rewards
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