READ the November 2021 issue of our magazine: Well-Being By Design
First, there were fears that benefits would be slashed as part of cost-cutting strategies, as organisations struggled to cope with the economic upheavals in the first half of 2020.
Then, companies moved to enhance their benefits and well-being programmes instead, recognising how much stress the pandemic was placing on the workforce, and also realising that they would have to overhaul their approach to workplace wellness in order to attract and retain talent.
That shift in emphasis kept the corporate wellness industry up and growing while other industries were hit by the pandemic – various estimates value the global market for corporate wellness at over US$50 billion as of 2020, with growth projections ranging between 7-9 per cent annually for the next few years.
Three major industry trends stand out as people strategies and employee expectations change.
The demand for more strategic well-being offerings
The pandemic 'stepped on the emergency button of many employers', says Pheona Chua from the corporate health and well-being practice of Willis Towers Watson Asia Pacific. Workplace wellness was already on the rise before 2020, driven globally by younger generations' expectations and a rise in chronic health conditions, but the pandemic accelerated that growth, she adds.
'Well-being has thus been pushed to the forefront of many employers’ minds, being now a key business agenda,' she explains. 'More employers are also adopting a more strategic and long-term approach when it comes to well-being as compared to the previously tactical or short-term approach.'
Corporate wellness providers concur, saying they have noticed a much higher tendency to view benefits strategically since the pandemic began. For example, employers are increasingly thinking of benefits in terms of engagement, productivity, and even overall business approach.
In terms of demand, this means they are moving to much more inclusive, flexible, and personalised wellness packages, citing reasons ranging from employee expectations to environmental contingencies and even cost management.
``We are seeing many employers move to programmes that offer a holistic and personalised approach where all employees feel included, regardless of their health profile,'' observes Jay Boudou, the regional lead for APAC at Virgin Pulse. This focus on overall employee health, he feels, is one of the biggest changes in the industry – prior to COVID, employers would be more likely to take a one-size-fits-all approach.
Personalisation also extends to changing usage, according to Chris Teo, CEO of Mednefits, who has found that companies now want greater flexibility in product offerings. 'They want to provide employees with plans that are less rigid and can cover a range of benefits,' he says – citing how, during lockdown periods, employees became less likely to visit the GP and more likely to use dental, optical, or wellness services.
Not only that, he adds, employers want that flexibility in the payment model as well: even as they enhance their benefits packages, they are seeking ways to control the cost. 'We do notice that companies are more mindful of their cash flows and thus opt for a pay-as-you-go model to ensure that their funds are mindfully utilised.'
The shift to digital well-being and virtual services
The second major trend in the industry is the growth of telehealth as an accessible and acceptable alternative. Last year, hospitals and clinics scaled back their services to deal with the influx of COVID patients and to comply with health and safety regulations; wellness providers faced delivery constraints for similar reasons.
'Some providers have not been able to deliver on-site support to employees as they did in the past,' says Boudou. 'This has meant a lot of service providers have had to diversify their offerings using Zoom or webinars to deliver their services.' At the same time, a combination of digital acceleration and changing usage patterns made employers and employees alike more open to virtual healthcare. Virtual consultations, mental health programmes, and online informational programmes, just to name a few, are far more popular than they were a year ago, and even assessment and triage for COVID-19 patients has successfully gone online.
Chris Ferruzzi, head of product marketing at MyDoc, says that telehealth is being used both as a way to reduce the risk of COVID infection and to help take the load off the healthcare system. For example, in Singapore, where a home recovery option has been developed for COVID patients, telehealth is used to help assess, triage, and check in on these patients.
Ferruzzi also points to changes in user behaviour, especially in countries that have seen rises in COVID-19 cases. 'Users are generally more cautious and aware of their health,' he describes this shift. 'They are seeking out digital-based care options to reduce the potential risks of transmission. The magnified importance of leading a healthy lifestyle is met with more demand for virtual care options that go beyond a doctor consultation.'
Unsurprisingly, corporate wellness providers have been pouring resources into their digital capabilities. They are stepping up investment in their digital platforms, ranging from integration with other workplace platforms to introducing more advanced AI features, to overhauling their dashboards and broadening their content offerings. Some, like Virgin Pulse, are even adding social features to their wellness apps or expanding existing features.
The boom in mental health services
The third major trend, and possibly the most visible one, is the emphasis on mental well-being. In 2020, employers realised that workforce burnout is a serious risk, and this quickly developed into the realisation that employee mental health can be a major factor in a company's ability to compete for talent. As a result, the demand for mental health services as part of benefits packages shot up in 2020 and is projected to continue rising.
``We've noticed a sharp rise by corporates in the request for mental wellness-related webinars and HR initiatives relating to wellness for their employees,' says Lim Wai Mun, founder and CEO of Doctor Anywhere. 'While the increase in mental wellness awareness has been part of a larger ongoing trend, COVID-19 has certainly accelerated it.'
On top of this, he has observed more insurers and self-insured corporations actively looking to include mental wellness services in their programmes and benefits packages.
'This has been really heartening to observe. Because while in the past, mental health coverage was largely an afterthought, employers are now proactively approaching providers like us to request for mental health coverage and programme support,' he says.
Virgin Pulse's Boudou has similar observations to share: 'Whilst mental help support has been a priority for a number of years, we have seen an increase in requests from our customers in the last twelve months. Use of Employer Assistance Programs has increased, and we are also seeing an increase in the use of our resilience tools such as digital coaching topics on reducing stress,' he says.
But despite that demand, several providers have noticed that employers still seem reluctant to really get behind the mental well-being agenda. The main obstacle appears to be cost combined with a general lack of knowledge about where to start with mental well-being, according to Jennifer Solitario, SVP for corporate health at Medibio.
'There has been an increase in the uptake, but not as much as you would maybe expect given the spotlight that mental health has taken in the last two years,' Solitario says. 'While many companies are placing their values behind supporting the mental health of their workers, there are still budget limitations and hesitation to invest in long-term mental health solutions. In our experience, wellness budgets are one of the first to be cut in times of financial uncertainty.'
What's the path forward?
For the next few years at least, the corporate wellness landscape seems likely to continue developing around these three trends. Willis Towers Watson research shows that integrating well-being into the benefits package has become the top strategic objective for two-thirds of all Asia Pacific organisations over the next two years; employers are looking at mobile apps to drive physical well-being and planning to find better ways of monitoring mental and emotional well-being.
Wellness providers, meanwhile, are looking into increasingly innovative and/or customer-focused products and services. Some, like MyDoc, are working on expanding the virtual or home-based care services in their portfolios, including chronic disease management – the top concern pre-COVID, and one that has not diminished in urgency despite the pandemic. Others, like Doctor Anywhere and Medibio, are concentrating their efforts on mental health, including developing assessment tools and self-learning programmes or engaging in clinical research studies to expand their capabilities in the field.
'A lot of digital providers will emerge to fill in the gaps of services and solutions needed,' predicts Willis Towers Watson's Pheona Chua. There may even be policy implications, she adds: 'Previously regulated services such as telehealth might see policy changes in some markets in order to cater to the new needs.' For wellness providers, the industry today is filled with opportunities as new expectations emerge, and also with competition as more products and services come on the market. For employers and HR practitioners, that just means more and better options, suited to the organisation's and the workforce's specific needs. The real winners in this evolving corporate wellness landscape, though, are employees; who will, ideally, be much better looked after than they were before the pandemic.