Apr 13, 2021

Why employee wellbeing should be your priority in 2021

employeeperks
employeewellness
mentalhealth
healthbenefits
Scott Birch
5 min
From wellbeing programmes to virtual self-care, HR leaders across America are redefining employee perks and benefits in the post-pandemic era
From wellbeing programmes to virtual self-care, HR leaders across America are redefining employee perks and benefits in the post-pandemic era...

When it comes to employee benefits, supporting physical and emotional health is top priority for most employers in the post-pandemic world. However, less than 3 in 10 employers say their wellbeing and caregiving programs have been effective.

That’s according to a new survey by Willis Towers Watson (WTW), which also found the majority of employers cite rising stress and burnout as the number-one wellbeing and mental health concern.

“The pandemic has taken its toll on employees especially in the areas of emotional and social wellbeing. In fact, the impact is so great that many employers expect these effects will continue in a post-vaccine environment,” said Regina Ihrke, Wellbeing leader, North America, Willis Towers Watson. 

“Therefore, many employers are now acting with urgency as they look to take their wellbeing programs to the next level. To achieve this transformation, they will ramp up listening to their employee needs, communication efforts and realignment of benefit programs with a focus on mental health and caregiving.”

Health benefits remain key

The reality is that COVID-19 has catalysed a new era, accelerating the shift from ‘traditional’ group insurance cover to employee health benefits characterised by health technology and a wider definition of wellbeing – that encompasses not just physical health, but increasingly mental health too. As businesses work to regain their footing post-pandemic, HR leaders will be looking to reshape company offers, adapting health, wellness and benefits programmes with the delivery of everything from enhanced sick leave and financial assistance, to adjusted hours of operation, childcare provisions and mental health support.

To address these challenges, 62% of those surveyed WTW said enhancing mental health services and stress/resilience management as a top priority over the next six months, compared with just 47% six months ago. Encouragingly, twice as many employers report developing a strategy for benefits in a post-COVID-19 environment as a top priority, suggesting a shift from crisis management to future planning.

Mental health support in focus

Even before the pandemic, prevalence of mental health had become a common workplace issue, leading HR managers to introduce wellness programmes into its benefit packages and insurers to deliver such policies. 

In the wake of the pandemic and its aftermath (a recent global study by Qualtrics and SAP revealed that 67% of respondents were experiencing heightened stress levels) and as workplaces adjust to the ‘new normal’ and the struggles that come with it, more organisations are recognising the importance of mental health and emotional wellbeing programmes.

“Employers have assessed their caregiving support was not as effective as hoped, and as a result the mental health of their workforce is suffering,” said Rachael McCann, senior director, Health and Benefits, Willis Towers Watson. “Many solutions were short term in nature, which contributed to their ineffectiveness. With the stakes so high, employers need a revamped approach to caregiving support that includes a holistic view of benefits, paid time off and flexible work policies.”

Such numbers are reflected in Pacific Prime’s Global Employee Benefits Trends 2020 report. While 34 per cent of businesses have already introduced additional private mental health support, 44 per cent have started to provide professional mental health support, and 35 per cent have introduced extra physical or mental training sessions.

“Increasingly, companies are offering programmes that help employees monitor and reduce their stress levels, provide apps to assist with relaxation and sleep, and hold workshops on emotional resilience,” states Pacific Prime’s CEO, Neil Raymond. “Employers are also progressively using telehealth programmes to provide mental health counselling and are more willing to offer counselling sessions through EAPs (emotional assistance programmes).”

The report highlights six global benefits trends:

1. Refinement and reassessment of group health insurance

2. Adoption of technology

3. Mental health benefits

4. Family-friendly benefits

5. Flexible working arrangements

6. Financial wellbeing

The long road to new normal

According to the WTW survey, two-thirds of employers (67%) expect to reach a ‘new normal’ in terms of returning to the workplace and bringing to an end pandemic-related policies and programs during the second half of 2021. One in four (26%) expect that to happen by Q1 2022 or later.

Leading companies are already doing their bit to tackle the stresses and strains created by the pandemic, and adjusting their health and wellness offerings.

Unilever has unveiled a 14-day mental wellbeing resilience programme, which utilises tools created by the Resilience Research Center to cover a wide range of topics, including dealing with negative thoughts. 

EY Global’s employees can participate in daily workouts online through the EY Exercise programme as well as attend online seminars covering topics like nutrition and sleep.

In addition to wellbeing programmes, businesses are considering and trialling other employee perks, from flexible hours to continued remote working, that take into consideration the demands of the pandemic and subsequent working habits, with a focus on promoting work-life balance.

Wellness delivered via technology

Driven by corporate demand, emerging self-help apps and digital health and wellness solutions have gained significant ground.

While mental health app Intellect supports users with a range of interventions, digital mental health provider Safe Space offers three tiers of service for corporates, from giving employees access to self-help resources, to letting corporates top up digital wallets so staff can attend counselling sessions to offering corporates curated employee programmes.

“Workplace mental well-being will be one of our top priorities going into 2021,” said Safe Space founder Antoinette Patterson . “Safe Space’s vision is to make digital mental healthcare and education accessible and comprehensive to businesses of all sizes, from startups to MNCs.”

Perkbox is a platform that offers a suite of products including Perks and Perkbox Medical. It serves companies of all sizes from SMEs to large companies such as Whole Foods and Levi Strauss & Co.

Many companies are also offering employees access to virtual doctors appointments. While this technology has been around for a few years now, demand has soared during the pandemic as access to face-to-face healthcare has been limited. 

These telehealth apps have been joined by a swathe of mental health apps in the past 12 months. Youper, for example, uses AI technology to help manage depression via their downloadable app. The AI assistant works by talking back and forth with you. The assistant will ask prompts that encourage you to think about your thought patterns and behaviours. It will then summarise your conversations and provide insights.

With the world cautiously inching towards the lights at the end of this dark tunnel, it’s reassuring to know that technology can help alleviate some of the problems both employers and employees are facing.

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