Article: Employee wellness: From benefit to necessity

Corporate Wellness Programs

Employee wellness: From benefit to necessity

How did 2020 change the landscape of employee wellness? How are employers working towards employee wellness for a distributed workforce post-COVID? Why is leadership advocacy and reinforcement crucial for wellness? What does 2021 have in store for employee wellness? Let’s find out!
Employee wellness: From benefit to necessity

Recalling the emergence of employee wellness, in conversation with People Matters, Bratindra Sanyal, Senior Vice President HR, Lendingkart shared, “The concept of employee wellness was not even known a few decades ago. 1980s marked the rise of the “yuppies”—a new generation of ambitious young men and women entering the workforce seeking wealth and status. The First employee wellness program started out as employee perks at large corporations, and in the last 35 years, the concept of health and wellness of employees has evolved and seen more traction as a result of more contribution and productivity being witnessed from a healthier workforce.”

Sanyal believes that today, employers are keen to take a closer look at their employee wellness programs to better meet their employee expectations and needs. “76% of employees think their workplace has responsibility for their health and well-being, while 87% of employees expect their company to help them balance their work and personal lives, according to the Metlife and Glassdoor survey respectively. This shows the surge in well-being perks shifting from perks to necessities...Also, the focus for wellness is not limited to only physical health-related programs, but also Mental Health, Financial Health & Social Health related wellness programs, with evolving roles demanding different skills and capabilities than just physical labor presence,” he noted.

Employee wellness. What was once a segment of the benefits package offered to employees, has today become a non-negotiable priority for businesses that hope to sustain and grow in the long run. Fuelled by the outbreak of the coronavirus, people safety is now accompanied by severe warnings to address the mounting mental health concerns, over and above the physical well-being of employees. While holistic wellness had begun to make its relevance felt across businesses much before the pandemic, what has emerged as the most critical component of the wellness umbrella today is mental wellness.

Mental health is often looked at as a standalone piece of wellness, when it actually is an outcome of several factors that are constantly changing in any individual’s environment, both at home, as well as at the workplace. So at the unprecedented pace of change today, how can organizations work towards employee wellness, ensuring holistic wellness and a mentally healthy workforce? How responsive have health and insurance providers been to in providing access and covering expenses when it comes to mental well-being? What is the role of leadership in destigmatizing mental health and boosting the efficiency of mental health initiatives?

Let’s find out!

What changes did 2020 bring about in employee wellness?

Employee wellness, as shared above, buckets several components of well-being. 2020, bringing upon the worst health crisis the existing generations have gone through, forced one and all to rethink and reset the importance we place on wellness.

The ongoing pandemic is a threat to life, however, what has now surfaced as a critical concern of a similar magnitude is the acceleration of a psychological pandemic.

Post shifting to remote working overnight, several organizations emphasized communication, connection and collaboration as focus areas, to the extent of incorporating over-communication, not realizing the long-term impact of the excess conversations and timelines on the blurry work and home boundaries, and consequently, the well-being of employees, which has in recent months resulted in excessive stress and burn out, and deteriorating mental health.

Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index report brought how the pandemic impacted well-being at work globally with five key findings: 

  • The pandemic increased burnout at work – in some countries more than others
  • Causes of workplace stress differ for Firstline and remote workers
  • Six months in, there are more communications and fewer boundaries
  • No commute may be hurting, not helping, remote worker productivity
  • Studies show meditation can fight burnout and stress during the workday

According to the report, over 30 percent of firstline and information workers stated the pandemic has increased their feelings of burnout at work. The report also highlighted that everyone is experiencing this time differently—44 percent of those in Brazil are feeling more burned out compared to 31percent in the US and 10 percent in Germany. In terms of how longer workdays impact feelings of burnout—workers in Australia saw the highest increase in workday span in Microsoft Teams (45 percent), with a medium increase in burnout. While workers in Germany saw very little change to workday span or feelings of burnout. Among all the surveyed markets globally, India was found to have the longest workday span.

Highlighting the criticality of ensuring mental well-being, SVP and Head of HR (Global) & Corporate Quality, CSS, Corp Satyanarayanan Visvanathan, said, “Uncertainty breeds anxiety, and we are living in uncertain times. Since the pandemic began, 36 per cent of India Inc. employees reported that their mental health had worsened, found a recently concluded survey by HR and well-being firm - The7thFold. It goes without saying that it is the need of the hour to have our minds healthy and hearty to overcome the isolation, fear and agony caused by the pandemic.” 

Speaking of the much needed education about mental health to effectively address it, Shefali Garg, Senior Director, People Strategy, Publicis Sapient, said, “We need to create spaces at work that are inclusive and non-discriminatory. To do this we must empower ourselves with the right knowledge about mental health, practice empathy, and help to create a safe space where people can open up about their mental health issues, instead of feeling judged for seeking help or wanting to seek help.” Garg added that despite mental health being a pressing subject, most healthcare providers don’t share it in their plans voluntarily. “At Publicis Sapient, we worked with healthcare providers to include mental healthcare as part of the insurance cover, over and above the Employee Assistance Program services we provide.” 

"We must empower ourselves with the right knowledge about mental health, practice empathy, and help to create a safe space where people can open up about their mental health issues, instead of feeling judged for seeking help or wanting to seek help."

Pranali Save, CHRO, Icertis, shared how the pandemic makes one realize the importance of public health and brought into focus the resources we use to secure it. “Physical and mental well-being issues became major areas of concern. Several companies transformed their Employee Assistance Programmes into a vital platform to engage, empathize and safeguard employees. In 2021, companies will pivot from a reactive to an active focus on employee wellness.” Most programmes so far tended to focus solely on employees, reckoned Save, adding that the blurring of lines between work and home across 2020 means more companies will expand the definition of employee wellness by extending benefits to the immediate family. “Expect this trend to be fully normalized through 2021.”

Save believes that while health providers have moved swiftly towards holistic wellness offerings that include mental well-being options, there is still a long way to go. “I feel we are yet to see a big change in the covering of expenses related to mental well-being, this space remains unfortunately quite traditional.”

Beyond mental well-being, the year saw significant changes in healthcare costs for organizations as well, especially when it comes to covering costs for employees who contracted COVID-19. In fact, employer-sponsored health care benefit costs are expected to increase by 8.5 percent in APAC in 2021, given the significant impact of COVID-19 on health care utilization and overall costs, according to a survey of medical insurers by Willis Towers Watson.

Speaking of 2020 wellness trends, what also came to the forefront was access to telehealthcare. Talking to the media, Suzanne Delbanco, Executive Director, Catalyst for Payment Reform, a company that works on behalf of employers and other healthcare purchasers to improve healthcare services while reducing costs, said “Because of the pandemic, many more people have had a chance to try telehealth even if they didn't want to. The hope is that now that they've experienced it, it becomes part of the way they think about how to use the healthcare system.” Teleheathcare has seen a dramatic increase in utilization globally. According to a CDC report, "During the first quarter of 2020, the number of telehealth visits increased by 50%, compared with the same period in 2019, with a 154% increase in visits noted in surveillance week 13 in 2020, compared with the same period in 2019." How these numbers and healthcare benefits for scale and evolve will unfold in due time. 

Special wellness initiatives led by organizations

From organizations like Oyo, L’Oréal offering an extended weekend on Independence Day, to Google offering an extended weekend with Labor Day, several organizations stepped up to the occasion and recognized the need to value the mental well-being of employees and give them an extra day-off. Some even introduced a new working culture with ‘Meeting Free Days’ and no calls after 7 PM'.  

What began for many as an extended weekend, evolved into offering a voluntary mental health day off, more open conversations around mental health, and many more such initiatives to support employees through these challenging times.

An Uber spokesperson shared with People Matters how the new normal accelerated the need for employee wellness, with the new remote working environment opening up immense possibilities in the future of work. “Our check-in surveys indicated that employees were having difficulty coping in a remote environment -- face-to-face interactions and positive affirmations were missing. We realized  receiving a simple genuine compliment was a fantastic positivity boost. Among several initiatives at Uber to help employee wellness, we provide free access to an independent digital platform via an app, which is voluntary and completely confidential, with scientifically-backed tools designed to help with mental health.”

The Uber spokesperson added that due to the impact of COVID, employees at Uber felt the urge to act and help drivers through this difficult phase. “We enabled employees to voluntarily donate their transport credits as cash donations to drivers and we saw an overwhelming response impacting and supporting hundreds of drivers’ families. Another example was the Uber Care Driver Fund, which saw generous contributions from employees to help drivers in distress. Employees felt a deep sense of satisfaction while ‘giving back’, which made for an interesting change in how we see well-being programs. Sometimes, it’s not about linear programs that are run, but about the experiences that employees create; it creates a culture of involvement and empathy.”

Icertis CHRO, Pranali Save, said that as soon as the pandemic hit, the leadership’s first response was to create Icertis’ ‘Four Rings of Responsibility’, a framework which put employees’ physical and mental well-being and that of their families and communities ahead of their business responsibilities. “The Four Rings of Responsibility were developed as a response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Icertis realized that there can be no business continuity without employee safety. Hence, it pushed employees to prioritize – self, family, community and business, in that order. The solid internal response has since led to the ‘Four Rings’ model forming the crux of every crucial decision at the company.”

L’Oréal India’s Director - Human Resources, Roshni Wadhwa shared, “Our biggest priority throughout the pandemic and lockdown has been ensuring the health, safety and well-being of our people. To address the anxiety, isolation and other stresses arising out of the pandemic and lockdown we launched several virtual initiatives branded under #wellnessneverstops, offering online fitness classes, wellness webinars by expert speakers, mindfulness sessions under each stream to keep employees motivated and engaged.” Wadhwa added that these initiatives offered people at least one daily opportunity to take some ‘me-time’ and reconnect with their emotional and physical health. 

For deeper mental health assistance, L’Oréal India also introduced a 24*7 Employee Assistance Programme with Wysa, an app based mental health service that uses an AI coach to address anxiety, stress or other mental health issues.

An interesting insight that L’Oréal received directly from employees was when they said, ‘help’ needs to be on their fingertips as challenges present themselves when they are in the middle of something important and cannot get on a call with an EAP counsellor.

“We understood the barriers and the need of a text-based service, in the form of a ‘4 am friend’. Employees also shared that they are more comfortable talking to an AI based bot rather than an actual counsellor with an appointment. So, while the EAP offers confidential counselling to employees and their families as per their requirement and convenience, our ‘bridge’ program with Wysa acted as a ‘first aid’ in case of a mental health emergency.”

Satyanarayanan Visvanathan, SVP and Head of HR (Global) & Corporate Quality, CSS Corp, highlighted the importance of building minds that are focused, empowered and fit and shared a host of initiatives that the organization undertook. “Our exclusive CHEER framework (where ‘C’ stands for Communicating with employees, ‘H’ for Highlighting their accomplishments, ‘E’ for Energizing them, ‘E’ for Engaging with them, and ‘R’ for Recognizing and Rewarding them) and initiatives to ensure multi-channel employee connect and employee assistance, not only puts a smile on our employees’ visage but heightens their mental strength. We have dedicated employee assistance programmes that aim at fostering and strengthening the mental well-being of our employees through 24/7 counselling and guidance sessions. Turning Point - a platform (that we had launched earlier was the need of the hour when the pandemic struck) where employees can directly speak to experts and mental health practitioners, and seek their help towards alleviating the rigours and stress that emerge from working in today’s new normal. “ 

Role of leadership in normalizing wellness conversations 

Irrespective of awareness campaigns and warnings from global institutions like the WHO, mental health remains a silent battle. Despite EAP services, wellness initiatives and efforts to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health, sharing experiences on company forums or even with team members and superiors continues to expose one to the threat of a biased perception of their ability to perform and function. This is where advocacy, and visible support and reinforcement from leadership becomes crucial. 

Deloitte’s 2021 Global Human Capital Trends report states, “The incorporation of well-being into work must be done symphonically, championed by leaders at every level and in every function if it is to make a meaningful difference. As technology becomes ingrained in every aspect of how people work, technology leaders will face a growing responsibility to work with HR and the business to ensure that those technologies, and the workflows and processes that complement them, are designed and executed in a way that promotes worker well-being.”

Icertis CHRO Pranali Save believes that the leadership at any company plays the most important role in normalizing wellness initiatives and actually ensuring its implementation, “but just having leaders speak on the importance of mental health, without actually walking the talk is counterproductive. Employees identify better with their leaders if they are more open about their struggles. Our leaders frequently share their professional struggles in open discussions within the company and try to encourage their teams to dissociate any notions of a stigma associated with speaking up.”

"Leadership at any company plays the most important role in normalizing wellness initiatives and actually ensuring its implementation, but just having leaders speak on the importance of mental health, without actually walking the talk is counterproductive." 

Echoing a similar perspective, L’Oréal India’s Roshni Wadhwa said that mental health needs to be culturally driven. She spoke about the approach behind L’Oréal's multiple platforms created for constant communication and feedback with employees. “These mechanisms help in alleviating any work-related stress or anxiety through various forums, allowing for an open expression of issues and concerns and placing high importance on listening. We have been consistently making efforts to ‘normalize’ the mental health conversation through various programs over the years; and to ensure a psychologically safe workplace, we encourage leaders to be empathetic towards teams and individuals expressing concerns/issues and manage difficult situations sensitively.”

What the future looks like for wellness? 

Shefali Garg, Senior Director, People Strategy, Publicis Sapient reckoned that wellness mostly gets mistaken for ‘Being free from illness’, whereas wellness is a way of life. “It is an active process where the individual is making informed choices towards a healthy and fulfilling life. 2020 disrupted our ways of living, working and educating. Change brings a lot of anxiety in people and when the change is fast, the significance of wellness rises. With the onset of the pandemic, mental healthcare services got disrupted this year, however, the need towards counselling grew multi-fold and will continue in the following years. As corporates, we play a huge role in this space. Our investment in wellness initiatives ensures a healthy and engaged workforce adding to productivity even in a remote work environment. One of the effective ways to create a culture that supports mental health is to ensure people experience their jobs with meaning and purpose.”

"With the onset of the pandemic, mental healthcare services got disrupted this year, however, the need towards counselling grew multi-fold and will continue in the following years. As corporates, we play a huge role in this space."

"Well-being overall has a direct impact on every single part of an employee life cycle, recognizing its importance and making wellness programs an indispensable part of every workplace should be integral for every organization," insisted Roshni Wadhwa, Director – Human Resources, L’Oréal India.

Lendingkart’s Senior Vice President, HR, Bratindra Sanyal believes that employee wellness is evolving to be a "must have" and more inclusive, i.e., across individuals, levels, hierarchies and being considered as a cornerstone for productivity, creativity catering to modern workplace work culture. "Organization's employee wellness programs and benefits have become one of the key differentiators for its positioning as a preferred employer. I think the future of wellness will include a holistic approach on Mental health, stress management, mindfulness and meditation, and financial wellness programs, which will become hygiene factors of employee compensation and benefits guidelines."

With several fitness and wellness apps and websites available in the market that might discourage employees from availing organization led programs, it becomes a concern for organizations on how to then redesign and promote key initiatives to demonstrate a positive impact of investing in wellness initiatives. However, it is evident that initiatives alone cannot foster a supportive environment for mental well-being. There needs to be an undeterred focus on creating a culture that promotes and enables wellness, while also being respectful of those who are willing enough to be vulnerable and open, and trust the workplace for honest conversations.

From a work design perspective, it appears that a majority of the organizations are planning infrastructure, policies and culture for a hybrid workplace, with both remote work and return to office being important constituents. How employers ensure employee wellness for a distributed workforce through these uncertain times, keeping wellness holistic yet focused, will determine their ability to build a healthy and productive workplace, one that isn’t just profitable and gets the job done, but one that has a purpose, with sustainability - of both people and business - at its core.

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Topics: Corporate Wellness Programs, #Rewind2020

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