Apr 13, 2021

Why employee wellbeing should be your priority in 2021

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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Jun 6, 2021

Business Chief Legend: Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi

Kate Birch
4 min
As the first and only female CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi smashed corporate America’s glass ceiling and transformed the performance and purpose of PepsiCo

At a recent Asia Pacific-focused event, organised by P&G and UN Women, the former CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, shared why enabling a diverse and inclusive workforce can directly impact the bottom line.

“If 80% of our products are bought by women because they were the gatekeepers at home, or make all the purchases, why don’t we have a large number of women represented in our ranks,” she told a virtual global crowd of thousands. 

Such business advice may seem rather obvious today, but in 2006, when Nooyi put this business philosophy into practice at PepsiCo, it was both pioneering and progressive. Because not only did the performance of PepsiCo transform under Nooyi’s 12-year tenure as CEO, but so did its purpose and people, with Nooyi widely praised for transforming the firm’s diversity and inclusion agenda.

And who better to do so than someone who had herself smashed the corporate American glass ceiling. Because, when Nooyi became CEO in 2006, following 12 years as Chief Strategist, not only was she among just a handful of female CEOs leading Fortune 500 firms, and one of very few foreign-born executives, she was both the first female CEO to lead PepsiCo, and the first person of colour. Not to mention also being a wife and mother.

Proving performance and purpose can co-exist

And she more than got the job done, growing PepsiCo revenues by 80%, making the firm more global than it had ever been, so that by the time she stepped down in 2018, nearly 20% of net revenues came from MENA, Asia and Latin America, and expanding the business significantly with key acquisitions (Tropicana) and mergers (Quaker Oats).

But it was Nooyi’s strategic redirection of PepsiCo, transforming both its purpose and people, that really made an impact. As chief architect of PepsiCo’s pledge, Performance with Purpose, unveiled in 2006 and a precursor to the modern sustainability movement, Nooyi repositioned the firm to focus on what is best for the world and for its people, from sustainability and social responsibility to diversity and diet.

She transformed the firm’s D&I agenda, created a culture where workers were encouraged to stay with the company, moved corporate spending away from junk food and into healthier alternatives, redesigned packaging to reduce waste, and switched to renewable energy sources and recycling.

As she told Forbes in 2017, “I wanted to make sure that PepsiCo was not only delivering top-tier financial returns but doing so in a way that was responsive to the needs of the world around us.”

Indra Nooyi talking with US President Biden (then Vice President) in 2014

Smashing corporate America's glass ceiling

And it was this ability to realise a world in which business is both practiced and recognised as a force for good that has earned Nooyi a place in CEO history books and landed her numerous accolades, including 11 honorary degrees, the Hero of Conscious Capitalism award at 2017’s CEO Summit, consistent inclusion in the world’s 100 most powerful women (including #1 by Forbes in 2009/10) and most recently, induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Not bad for a girl from Chennai, India, who was expected to lead a conventional life as a wife and mother, but by her own admission was a bit of a “rebel”, with a passion for playing cricket and lead guitarist in a band. In the late 70s, she relocated to the US, earning herself a Master’s in management from Yale, and beginning a four decade-long strategy-focused career that was born at BCG in 1980 where she spent six years and ended in 2018 following 24 impactful years at PepsiCo.

And while she has now retired from corporate life, Nooyi continues to wield the influence that so positively changed the direction of one of the world’s largest companies. As well as serving on the board for ecommerce giant Amazon, she speaks at summits close to her heart, and has recently penned her memoir, advising corporates on better integrating work and family.

And while she has now retired from corporate life, Nooyi continues to wield the influence that so positively changed the direction of one of the world’s largest companies. As well as serving on the board for ecommerce giant Amazon, she speaks at summits close to her heart, and has recently penned her memoir, advising corporates on better integrating work and family. 

Indra Nooyi's memoir will be available from September 28, 2021, and can be pre-ordered. 

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