One of the most significant impacts of the pandemic has been the prioritisation of employee well-being by employers across regions and industries. Organisations have also put their money where their mouth is, as 80% of Indian companies increased their spending on employee well-being in 2023, compared to 2019, as per the Aon India Primary Care Benefits Report 2023.
However, with this welcome change, there are growing concerns about adoption and engagement rates in well-being programmes. Organisations are finding it hard to understand why employees who stand to gain from the benefits offered are not participating as expected. Gartner’s EVP Benchmarking Survey shows that despite 87% of employees having access to mental and emotional well-being offerings, only 23% use them. This trend was also evident in physical and financial well-being programmes.
This contradiction of growing investment and falling participation indicates that something is amiss. In this article, we will analyse some of the top challenges employers face to enhance participation and adoption and also list some best practices that were prevalent in 2023 to resolve these issues.
Challenges to ensure sustained adoption and usage of well-being benefits in 2023
Here are the top employee wellness challenges that organisations grappled with in 2023:
A narrow framework of well-being
A common challenge plaguing many well-being programmes in 2023 was the inability to cater to a diverse workforce's different needs and expectations. Health and well-being are multi-dimensional subjects with intertwined metrics, needs and solutions. Traditionally, well-being programmes have focused on physical health, and although the ambit of such programmes has expanded of late, a lot more needs to be done.
The wellness journey of every individual is different, and categorising different groups based on their age or health issues as a monolith can be fatal for adoption and engagement. Organisations struggled to address different people's needs, interests, abilities, sensitivities and backgrounds to build inclusive and flexible programmes.
Inadequate organisational and leadership support
In the absence of active leader participation and managerial support, employee wellness programmes became less credible and evoked subdued enthusiasm. Additionally, organisational support and cultural commitment are essential to reduce resistance, particularly if any aspect of the program disrupts existing processes.
A misalignment between the organisational values and the program objectives is likely to result in reduced buy-in from the senior leadership, management and employees, which will eventually hamper the longevity of the program. The problem is rampant and significantly hinders building long-term wellness goals. As the MediBuddy-People Matters Wellness 360 study shows, only 17% of the companies claimed that their wellness programmes achieved more than 50% of their goals; out of this, only 4% reported achieving 75% to 100% of their goals.
Lack of effective motivators
With the world leaving the disruptions of the pandemic behind, the well-being initiatives introduced in 2020 and 2021 to an initial excellent response witnessed lower engagement this year. This is because, at their very core, all employee well-being programmes are behavioural change roadmaps that nudge people to take actions that improve their health. Failing to incorporate effective motivators, or worse, choosing the wrong incentives, can be detrimental to the program. For example, many programmes launched as an emergency response to the pandemic did not consider increasing participants' self-efficacy to motivate them to act and stick with the changed behaviours.
Without a psychological and neurological understanding of how people behave, programmes often depend on incentives or penalties to an unhealthy degree. This carrot-and-stick tactic is usually effective in initiating change, but its utility diminishes over time. It becomes difficult to sustain adoption or utilisation based solely on incentives without internal drive and motivation. Overly competitive or result-oriented programmes can also impact stickiness, making people more likely to feel discouraged or overwhelmed.
Privacy and data security concerns
The barrage of news about data leaks and hacks that made the headlines also impacted the sentiment of employee well-being over the past year. Personal health and well-being information are sensitive, and people may hesitate to share such data with employers or third-party service providers. The challenge is particularly compounded if an individual experiences the symptoms of a stigmatised health issue, like mental health challenges or sexually transmitted infections. Similarly, people may consider diagnostic assessments that record detailed health parameters of individuals intrusive as this sensitive personal data is usually shared or analysed with third-party vendors, such as insurance providers.
Best practices implemented in 2023 to build engaging and accessible well-being programmes
Given the complexity of challenges, HR leaders and organisations used multiple strategies to create inclusive and engaging wellness programmes:
Clear, targeted and direct communication
Studies have shown that most Indian employees remain unaware of employer-sponsored healthcare plans and benefits. Thus, clearly communicating the program's details, benefits and incentives across a diverse workforce and locations was a prime focus for HR leaders. This was recognised as a priority due to the increasingly customisable and flexible nature of well-being programmes, which made explaining the design more challenging.
In tandem with service providers and team managers, the HR function developed comprehensive communication strategies to promote different features of the program using a multi-channel approach. The goal was to attract, inform, encourage and engage people at every step in the program journey. This revision in the communication strategy focused on consistently highlighting the different options. Another critical aspect of this approach was gathering employee feedback regularly and making the program responsive to their needs.
Gamification of well-being journeys
Modifying the conventional incentives system, organisations started integrating gamification elements into the employee well-being journey. Through these design changes in the program, the goal is to strengthen people's internal drive and motivation to continue their participation. Through public leaderboards, redeemable points, digital badges, lotteries, competitions and achievement bonuses, organisations are trying to build sustained momentum by helping employees achieve larger health goals through incentivised short-term actions.
Gamification has been the chosen strategy to convert passivity into activity for the past year. It has also allowed HR leaders to strengthen internal team processes, improve organisational culture and understand the behavioural drivers for employees effectively. An integral aspect of this process was recognising the success stories and milestones achieved by employees. Doing this regularly, publicly and sincerely can be an excellent way to maintain participant interest, encourage employees to perform better and enhance adoption rates.
Data-intensive program design
Organisations broadened their data collection strategies to include new sources to understand the pulse of the workforce and accurately measure the impact of wellness programmes. HR leaders leveraged the services of wellness vendors with a digital-first approach to gather high-quality data, integrate information from different sources and analyse complex datasets.
The importance of having the correct data is evident across all stages of the program, as measurement and evaluation frameworks are being built into the program design, right from setting the goals to collecting employee feedback. Similarly, wellness service providers have amped up the use of technology in their products by offering AI-driven diagnostic or counselling tools, using wearable technology to monitor health data and providing users with an intuitive interface.
Furthermore, due to evolving data security tools and encryption technologies, 2023 also saw well-being service providers pay special emphasis on securing employee personal data and ensuring anonymity by limiting access to it. Organisations attempted to build trust by providing services that gave employees the flexibility to avail them confidentially.
Behavioural, cultural and leadership support
Facing headwinds in obtaining desired returns from their wellness programmes, organisations realised that employee well-being can no longer be an isolated component of the workplace as it ties in closely with the company culture, values and processes. This recognition can help high-pressure industries understand why employees may find it tougher to commit extra time and energy towards company-driven wellness programmes in the face of tight deadlines and long working hours.
Hence, the movement to integrate well-being initiatives into regular work processes, cultural practices and internal policies was more apparent in 2023. Given their newfound seat at the business decision-making table, HR leaders were able to better convince senior leaders about the value of wellness programmes and why the top management needed to join in. In addition to increasing the participation of the company’s top leadership, there was an enhanced focus on educating the middle management as they are crucial to implementing many program interventions and helping overcome employee resistance.
Well-being stickiness and adoption: A look back for a better tomorrow
With well-being becoming an unshakable part of the larger employee workplace experience matrix, it’s essential for employers and HR leaders to review the existing challenges, listen to their workforce and adapt current offerings for maximum utilisation. With lessons from 2023, one can expect the top well-being trends in 2024 to focus heavily on similar themes of accessibility, personalisation, digitalisation, and simplification.