In 2019, 84% of large companies and 50% of small businesses that offered health benefits to their employees also offered some type of wellness program. These were mostly aimed at assisting workers stop smoking, lose weight, or provide workers with other lifestyle and behavioral coaching.

Employers have encouraged improved health and provided a variety of employee wellness programs for a long time. It’s nothing new. Healthy employees miss less work, exhibit greater engagement, and are more productive. An added bonus is lower insurance premiums for the business.

Simply put, a healthy workplace is a more profitable workplace.

Traditionally, most employers focused on providing benefits for their employees that helped them stay physically healthy, including monetary incentives to lose weight or quit smoking – some even offered on-site gyms and free, healthy meals.

More recently companies began to embrace the idea that you can’t separate physical health care from mental health care. Even before the pandemic, employers started to venture beyond employee wellness to consider employee wellbeing.

Employee wellness and employee wellbeing are not the same thing

Wellness refers to a physical state. According to Gallup, “wellness describes a healthy lifestyle beyond acute illness.” It is something that can be managed by the choices we make concerning the food we eat and how much exercise and sleep we get.

Wellbeing goes beyond that. Gallup describes wellbeing as encompassing “the broader holistic dimensions of a well-lived life.” They identify five elements of wellbeing that make up a thriving life: career wellbeing, social wellbeing, financial wellbeing, physical wellbeing, and community wellbeing.

According to Gallup, people who were physically fit and ate well but were missing the five elements of wellbeing:

  • miss 68% more work each year due to poor health,
  • are about three times more likely to file a workers’ compensation claim,
  • are five times more likely to seek out a new employer in the next year,
  • are more than twice as likely to actually change employer.

Employers need to realign their wellness focus

Not only are gym incentives not currently practical, but there has also been a shift in what needs immediate attention because of the pandemic. In a June 2020 survey conducted by the U.S. Center for Disease Control, more than 50% of adults reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom.

COVID-19 has gone beyond causing respiratory illness, it is at the root of a global mental health crisis.

This has put mental health at the top of the list of what’s trending in employee benefits. Beyond telehealth offerings, employers are starting to address stress management, financial wellness family wellness, and personalized wellness.

Also trending in human resources planning right now are flexible work-from-home options, digital wellness platforms, remote team-building activities, regular surveys to keep a pulse on how employees are coping, and team bonding initiatives.

Wellbeing is top of mind for everyone.

Forecasting needs beyond the pandemic, employers must plan for an uncertain future

And it’s not easy. No one knows when the stressors of the pandemic will ease up and what our new normal will be. Employers need to remain flexible to the evolving external factors which are impacting their employees and allow workers to remain flexible as well.

Sudden moves to bring everyone back to the office or other rigid rules can destabilize an already precarious situation.

We are all just managing right now. We are taking things day by day in a world where some people are still dealing with children attending school remotely, caring for elderly parents who no longer have a safe alternative for care, family illness, family grief, community grief, and the list goes on.

An abundance of tools exist which employers can leverage for their workforce. It’s a matter of bringing together the right resources and keeping the focus on being helpful rather than trying to control the situation.

For smaller businesses, these benefits don’t need to add a lot of cost. Some useful and low-cost employee benefits can include financial tools, flexible work hours, family leave, and paid time off.

Many businesses have already started offering virtual exercise classes, on-demand wellness videos, and digital wellness platforms. Some are increasing the healthcare benefits they offer to encourage proper management of chronic illnesses and expand proactive initiatives that encourage healthy lifestyles.

It’s hopeful to think things will go back to normal soon. But, it’s also naive.

A business can’t run on hope. Instead of the traditional one-size-fits-all employee benefits offering, employees need to be empowered to customize benefits based on personal need and their personal experience with our global crisis.

Top leaders looking to get the best performance from their workforce will provide employees with the tools and flexibility they need to manage their lives and their health.