Unprecedented Times Increasing Focus on Holistic Well-Being Programs

Despite employers’ own financial strain, most are committed to expanding wellness programs to address increased employee needs during the pandemic.

Surveys released by Fidelity Investments and Alight both show that employers view financial wellness as being intertwined with physical and emotional wellness. Even as their profits are under pressure due to the pandemic lockdown, many employers remain committed to offering holistic wellness programs.

In fact, the Fidelity survey found that 95% of employers around the globe now include emotional and mental health programs in their well-being platforms. Examples of mental and emotional help programs include teletherapy, offered by 69% of employers this year, along with stress management (50%), resiliency programs (49%) and programs to help improve sleep (33%).

Seventy-eight percent of employers are helping their workers improve their work/life balance, with 46% offering caregiver support, 36% offering programs for new parents, and 35%, child care support.

Seventy-eight percent of employers also offer financial incentives to their employees to participate in their well-being programs, with the average maximum amount that can be earned at $757.

All of this assistance may be somewhat surprising, given the fact that Fidelity found that the average cost for well-being programs increased by 36% in 2020 to $4.9 million. Among large employers, those with more than 20,000 employees, the average budget is $10.4 million.

Robert Kennedy, health and welfare practice leader at Fidelity, says those figures do not surprise him. Eighty percent of the cost of offering a well-being program goes toward administration, regardless of whether it is being offered internally or through outside vendors, Kennedy tells PLANSPONSOR. The incentives that employers offer their employees to participate in the program and employee communication make up the remaining 20% of the cost, he says.

It is almost universal that employers think of well-being as including physical, financial and emotional and mental health components, Kennedy says. “Ninety percent of well-being programs include those three components,” he says. “Increasingly, employers understand the connectivity between all three and that they cannot think of them in silos. For example, exercise improves physical health and also helps people feel better about work, their financial health and overall life satisfaction. Taking on debt can be detrimental not only financially but also emotionally and physically. Employers want to help employees maximize their total well-being.”

While some employers that are struggling financially may have to cut back on their well-being programs, at least in the short term, he says, among those employers on sounder financial footing, there is a lot of interest in doing even more, especially in the area of mental health.

Ray Baumruk, vice president of employee experience research and insights at Alight, says his company’s survey found that 41% of people have sought emotional counseling, up 16 percentage points from the year before.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made people more uncertain about their futures, he adds. Sixty-one percent said they do not expect to retire at the age they want, up 17 percentage points from 2017. “Fewer people feel in control of their financial future,” Baumruk says.

Many people working at home actually are working longer hours, so this is why 40% of people reported they are experiencing mild forms of burnout, he says. “This is a bit higher than we would have expected,” Baumruk says. Another dramatic finding, he adds, is that 22% said they often feel lonely or isolated.

Like Kennedy, Baumruk says employers are starting to recognize the connection between financial, mental and emotional health—and how those factors affect physical health.

“This is increasing their desire to look at their employees’ well-being holistically,” he adds.

The Alight survey also found that “resilience” is a new area employers are focusing on during this uncertain period.

“Employers are facing a completely different set of well-being challenges this year as they and their employees try to adapt to changes to their physical work environment or their job status,” says Shams Talib, head of Fidelity workplace consulting. “The study results are consistent with the thousands of calls we’ve been having with plan sponsors since the pandemic began. The expanded focus on emotional well-being comes at a time when a growing number of employees may be facing increased anxiety and stress.”

The Business Group on Health, a non-profit association of large employers, partnered with Fidelity and Alight on both surveys.