As we’re nearing the end of the pandemic, it’s time to take a new look at your benefits programs, especially health and well-being programs. According to a survey report from the American Psychological Association, the emotional, physical, and financial stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic could cause a “second pandemic — one that would persist even after the physical threat of the virus has been addressed.”
The fact is that the same benefits programs that worked before the pandemic may be insufficient to address the impact of the pandemic. Of course, those that weren’t working before the pandemic should be shuttered for good. Mercer’s MMB Health Trends: 2020 Insurer Perspective suggests employers “Think outside of the box” and “consider the full benefits ecosystem.” This includes, among other things, “COVID-19 return to work programs and other health and well-being resources.” The bottom line is that in our post-pandemic “new normal,” you can’t afford to settle for underperforming programs, especially health and well-being programs.
A growing problem made more urgent by the pandemic
Organizations across the country have been struggling to manage the growing costs of an increasingly sicker workforce for more than a decade. Besides escalating medical costs, they’re experiencing greater costs due to absenteeism and reduced productivity. The pandemic is likely to increase these costs if employers don’t take proactive steps now.
More than half of Americans surveyed say the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health, with the number of those reporting anxiety and depression quadrupling since the start of the pandemic. Although most companies offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), the number of employees utilizing EAPs is remarkably low; in 2018, the median utilization was just 5.5%. As Julie Wilkes, Senior Manager, North American Well-Being & Resistance Lead at Accenture says, “When our employees are struggling, it is our responsibility to be at our best because this is a time that we can really make a difference.” With mental health issues on the rise, employers need to take a fresh look at ways to increase usage of their EAP while also employing other programs that can influence mental health.
Another health factor that has been negatively impacted during the pandemic is weight. Sixty percent of Americans surveyed said they had had an undesirable weight change during the pandemic with the average weight gain being 29 pounds. The same survey found that parents gained an average of 36 pounds and essential workers gained an average of 38 pounds. Across all categories, men gained an average of 37 pounds and women 22 pounds. As we now know, being overweight significantly increases the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. According to the Centers for Disease, chronic health conditions cost employers $36.4 billion a year in reduced productivity due to absenteeism.
Habit change is key
Research has found that 60% of an individual’s health and quality of life are related to lifestyle choices and that 40% of their likelihood of premature death is due to behavioral patterns. When we look at the impact of months-on-end stress and social distancing during the pandemic, it is easy to make the connection between habits and lifestyles to weight gain and increased mental health conditions. This is why benefits managers should employ health and well-being programs that are focused on habit change.
Leveraging the power of habit change is the best way to ensure the poor habits created during the pandemic don’t become long-term chronic disease. For example, individuals reported eating more sweets during the pandemic, which can lead to an increase in pre-diabetes or diabetes. The best program for these individuals focuses on strategies for addressing cravings and creating new habits, such as grabbing a piece of fruit instead of a cookie.
The best health and well-being programs meet participants where they’re at and focus on building healthy habits that bring big improvements over time.
When choosing a program, look for those that are highly personalized. Factors such as personality, goals, social situation, living environment, and even genetics, all play a role in how a person creates habits—positive or negative—over time. The reason typical health and well-being programs so often fail to deliver positive results is that they don’t address these personal factors that influence an individual’s ability to make true, lasting health improvements. The best programs are those that incorporate all of these unique factors into a hyper-personalized plan for each participant. For example, genes can influence an individual’s predisposition for being overweight by as much as 80%. Optional genetics testing help inform the individual’s program strategy.
Health equity and Social Determinants of Health (SDOH)
Studies have found that “75-80% of health outcomes are directly related to SDOH.” These include non-medical factors like income, education, employment, housing, social networks, etc. Until recently, SDOH weren’t considered in the design of employer-sponsored medical insurance plans or health and well-being programs. But that’s changing as employers seek to become more conscious of their employees’ whole health.
The best place to begin is by identifying employee populations at high risk. These might include workers in high-stress or low-pay positions. This information can then be used to create a more wholistic and personalized program based on each employee’s specific health needs and goals—including social determinants.
Humans helping humans
Coaches are another important element that can influence a program’s success rate. Coaches help guide and support participants along their journey while also holding them accountable. Look for programs with coaches that are matched to participants based on personality and who understand all factors that influence an individual’s health. When coaches and program participants have complimentary personalities, it builds trust and improves collaboration, which ultimately leads to greater long-term success.
Measuring and monitoring mental health
Select a health and well-being program that incorporates PROMIS® (Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System). PROMIS is a tool that can be used to evaluate and monitor physical, mental, and social health. Measurements include things like resilience, mood, anxiety, sleep, and energy level—all key factors in reducing the health impact of the pandemic. Based on the individual’s scores, coaches can modify the program and better address current and ongoing areas of concern.
High engagement in the selected programs
Of all the components of a successful health and well-being program, perhaps the most critical is engagement. In many traditional programs, engagement starts out high but falls off over time because employees don’t see the results they’d hoped for and lose motivation. They may also lack a support system to help them stay on track. The success or failure of a health and well-being program depends on sustained employee engagement. The best way to ensure ongoing participation is to provide an experience that feels special to the employee and one that brings results.
A post-pandemic reality that cannot be ignored
Even before the pandemic, more companies were viewing health and well-being programs as “an integral element of their workforce strategy” and a way to reduce risk in the form of increased medical costs and revenue loss due to absenteeism and presenteeism. The pandemic has escalated the importance of having those programs in place and having programs that actually work. The best way to ensure this is to choose a program that meet individuals where they’re at, that incorporates all factors that influence a person’s health, and that leverages dedicated coaches and health measurement tools to better personalize and support each employee’s post-pandemic journey to better health and well-being.
How Can You Learn More?
Get inspired by how Nicole made health lifestyle changes (video link at the end of our blog): Insight from Genetic Testing Guides Food Choices.