Wellness has become the top most business issue in the last year. As the pandemic disrupted the world of work, business and HR leaders have grappled with new ways of working, remote work and enabling their teams to raise the bar. Willis Towers Watson’s in-depth diagnostic study on wellness shows unforeseen challenges that companies are facing and the way they’re mitigating them. In an exclusive conversation with People Matters, Vinod VK, Head of Health & Benefits, Willis Towers Watson shared insights on some of the key trends that are reshaping work now and in the future.
Vinod has over 18 years of domain experience in insurance, advisory & consulting. An MBA and an Engineer by education, Vinod brings with him a rich professional experience. He has been driving innovations in Employee Benefits, Insurance, Wellness and Healthcare space.
Q. Could you walk us through some of the key findings of the WTW Wellbeing Diagnostic Survey?
The WTW Wellness Diagnostic Survey polled more than 200 employers overseeing about 1.7 million employees. It gave us a clear cross section of the employee population ranging from anywhere between 500 to 50,000 employees.
The survey aimed to better understand organisations’ approaches to wellbeing in the workplace, and in particular: Identifying specific workforce health and wellbeing risks, Discovering roadblocks in the way of creating an effective and engaging wellbeing strategy, Benchmarking wellbeing programmes and priorities to peer organisations locally and elsewhere in the region.
Key findings of the report are as follows:
- A clear majority (85%) of employers in India plan to use their wellbeing programme as a differentiator in three years, compared to only 18% who are doing so today.
- Employers are increasingly looking to offer a holistic solution—all four pillars of wellbeing (physical, emotional, financial and social wellbeing) were rated above 80% on a priority scale.
- Stress has become a more severe issue for the workforce over the last two years—an increase of 10% in 2 years with large majority (65%) reporting employee stress as an issue.
- Two-thirds of employers in India were proactive in providing ergonomics and equipment support to employees to work from home during the pandemic. This included providing ergonomic workstations and offering employees’ subsidies to manage costs of working remotely.
- Looking forward, employers are expanding their use of data and analytics, and increasingly adopting a value-on-investment, rather than return-on-investment approach, to measure success.
- There’s been a significant jump in employers who believe that their senior leadership is genuinely interested in the health and wellbeing of employees and their families.
Q. The study has flagged stress as a major concern that is impacting the workforce. Could you speak about how companies are addressing this issue?
Employee stress has been on the rise in the past two years. But now, there’s an appreciable shift of over 10 percent. It has become a severe issue that’s plagued the workforce.
There’s an interesting correlation between the issue of presenteeism and stress. Logically, you’d expect the work from home option as enabling more freedom as employees now have the time to spread out work. But what’s effectively happening is that people are spending more time on their laptops.
If you look at the data point on the percentage of companies that have an organization-wide mental health strategy or action plan, it has moved from 29 percent in 2018, and it’s projected to be 86 percent by 2023. That’s a phenomenal increase. And they touch various concern areas including chronic mental health conditions.
Companies are doing various things to address stress – by driving different communication campaigns, employee assistance programs, financial wellness programs and various other mental health support structures are now enabled.
Q. What are some of the top challenges that you see among companies that are navigating this new era of wellness?
When you look at the structure of wellness programs, the rising costs, lack of data and fragmented delivery are all major issues.
The cost of benefits has been on the rise for a while, and now that wellness has been identified as a key area, companies are making sure that they are planning budgets and resources which focus on measurable insights and actions – that enable them to bring about the desired employee behaviour. So they are engaging different vendors who can provide technology solutions aligned to their goals.
Another key challenge area we’ve observed over time is on the shift from a disjointed program to a holistic and well thought out wellbeing strategy. The pandemic really has been a watershed moment. And we’re seeing companies approach a holistic model that integrates and addresses the six pillars of wellness – whether that’s physical, mental, emotional, family, social, financial all of it.
The third big focus is on measurement. You can’t improve something that you can’t measure. Organizations are beginning to invest resources and money in data and analytics, technology that can segment employees and measure what’s working. There’s a need for a mindset shift because ‘return on investment’ was a policy that made sense when you had disjointed programs, but now that the focus is on building a holistic and integrated strategy, you have to move to a ‘return on value’. There’s an appreciable change in trend on how companies are using employee experience measures to personalize messaging and products as part of their strategy.
Q. On the challenge of cost – do you see some kind of rationalization of cost? Is the cost rising because companies are engaged in providing a variety of programs?
Optimizing your wellness programs towards holistic approaches doesn’t necessarily mean that cost will increase. It just means it will be optimized. Organizations need to do three things here. 1) Have an overarching strategy and 2) Focus on better targeting of programs – so rather than a one to many approach, organizations can target programs to people that need it the most. And 3) Use technology to show the effectiveness of the programs.
This way, companies can prioritize their investments to vulnerable areas or specific groups rather than a complete overhaul. It leads to better segmentation and improved targeting. If you look at an issue like flexibility, it could be very different for different age groups.
Q. Are there specific areas within wellness that budgets are likely to rise? How are companies allocating any additional budgets? Is mental health going to be a continuous focus area?
Many organizations are actually now allocating budgets to extraordinary situations. The pandemic has shown how fragile our healthcare system is and employers are looking at ways of supporting employees in various aspects. So, we would not be surprised to see budget allocations that are redesigned or substituted for something like OPD benefits.
There’s also increased focus on long term ailment covers for certain sets of psychiatric and psychological assistance plans.
We are also seeing organizations looking at provisioning budgets for redesigning insurance programs or disease programs. A real focus area now is on disease specific insurance programs which are being actually encouraged.
We are also seeing organizations setting up benevolent funds with employer-employee participation. There are at least eight to nine such key areas in which, you know, a certain amount of budgets would also be flowing and that includes the following
- Forming internal employee response groups and supporting on the preparedness on certain critical support items
- EAP and Teleconsultation solutions
- Setting up managed care facilities
- Offering financial & non-financial support
- For Employees
- Salary Advances
- Interest Free loans
- Tweaked Leave Policy
- Paid Time Off for Recuperation
- Family Support
- 100% Coverage of out of pocket on Medical expenses
- For surviving family members
- Salary support for Fixed Period ( 1yr -5 Yrs )
- Children education support
- Spousal work support
- Structured insurance solutions catering for pandemic and related solutions
- Medical Insurance
- Structured covers for COVID-19
- Incremental sum insurance
- Separate COVID-19 policy for hospitalization
- Life Insurance
- Offering separate insurance cover for death due to COVID-19
- Additional sum assured for employees
- Annuity based Long term covers
- Medical Insurance
Q. There’s increased conversations on the rise of the hybrid workplace – with employees working partly on-site and part remote. How is this going to change the approach to the different dimensions of wellness programs?
The future is going to be hybrid and it's going to be a mix of on-site, off-site, work from home and work from anywhere kind of a model. Technology is going to be a key enabler here. So companies need to think clearly about the extent of the physical and virtual solutions – right from planning to execution – to make sure that all their employees can avail wellness solutions.
Q. If you could suggest three focus areas for business and HR leaders on their wellness strategy. What would it be?
1) Focus on a holistic wellbeing strategy and make sure you leverage expanded offerings that work for a diverse work population. 2) Leverage technology and data – and make sure you’re developing, designing and deploying sustainable wellness programs. 3) Leadership support – make sure your leaders are engaged and involved.