The Scope of Physical Wellness Programs Is Broadening

The attention the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to mental and social well-being and the expansion of telemedicine services will transform employer wellness programs.

The emphasis on physical wellness programs is shifting, experts say, as employers and their workers engage in digital channels now more than ever.

The rapid move to remote working caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has led employers to push mental, financial, emotional and even social well-being activities. Thanks to advanced app-based channels, employers are hosting virtual coffee breaks, happy hours and movement breaks to bring those in isolated environments together.

An Xpert HR report says employers are using email, employee newsletters, information sessions, webinars and e-learning platforms to communicate with employees on topics including wellness initiatives, with email being the largest source of communication and the most effective, according to plan sponsors. Almost 65% of employers selected email as their most active source. Now, these communications platforms and wellness initiatives are even more important to employees, says Andrew Hellwege, surveys editor for Xpert HR. “There is a greater need for wellness initiatives today, especially in light of new challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic,” Hellwege says. “Stress levels are rising, and companies of all sizes need to address these issues or they risk a negative impact on employee well-being and productivity.”

Among these wellness initiatives are telehealth services, which have become more popular after the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in late March. The relief bill makes telehealth services available under high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) until December 31, 2021.

A Willis Towers Watson survey found 86% of employers are encouraging their workers to use telemedicine, and 58% are increasing access to telebehavioral health. “Many employers are thinking hard about how they may want to change their well-being programs, and how they may want to realign their incentives,” says Jeff Levin-Scherz, North America co-leader of Willis Towers Watson’s health management practice. “What else is there that they can do to make sure their employees are maintaining their health, even when they’re alone?”

Telemedicine services can cover multiple medical practices, including therapy sessions. The profusion of financial insecurity over the past several months, along with heightened anxiety due to fears about illness and periods of isolation have led many individuals to seek out therapy via telemedicine. To ease concerns among employees, plan sponsors are also relaxing drug restrictions, Levin-Scherz adds. “Employers are trying to ensure people aren’t losing access to other medications, including psychiatric medications,” he says.

Nick Patel, founder and CEO of Wellable, a provider of employee wellness programs, says he believes well-being plans are broadening beyond physical well-being platforms and extending to all-inclusive care. “It’s more about holistic well-being, financial well-being, nutrition, sleep,” he explains. “Given the current health and economic crisis we’re in, there’s a big shift towards mental health.”

Moving forward, Patel expects telemedicine will have a long-lasting presence in employer-sponsored well-being programs, even after the December 31, 2021, deadline under the CARES Act. Employees may prefer to check in to an appointment online rather than wait in an urgent care clinic. And as onsite clinics are temporarily closed in some areas, people can still gain access to their providers electronically.

Because employees have now been forced into using these programs, plan sponsors can presume that they are likely to be adopted in the future. “It’s a medium that people in some cases are being forced to adopt, because people can’t see their doctor but still need care. Due to that experience, people are seeing that telehealth isn’t that bad,” Patel adds. “All those considerations that people were probably reluctant to adopt, they now have been forced to do so. I think this expansion into telehealth is going to have a long-standing impact.”