Business of Well-being

What's Ahead in Wellness for 2018? Last Year's Trends Offer Some Answers

To get a sense of what to expect on the employee health and wellness front in 2018, it's useful to look back on the trends that were gaining momentum last year. To better understand those trends, Optum surveyed 240 human resource professionals in large companies (3,000 or more employees) and discovered five fundamental shifts in their approach to well-being at work. Those shifts in strategy, according to Optum's eighth annual Wellness in the Workplace study, were driven in part by three persistent concerns:

  • Health ownership: Just 24 percent of surveyed employers strongly believe that employees take responsibility for their overall health and well-being.
  • Employee confidence: Just 28 percent of employers strongly believe that employees know how to navigate the healthcare system.
  • Financial security: Just 18 percent think their employees feel they have enough money to pay for health care in retirement.

To address those concerns, large employers are making five shifts to help boost employee engagement and support their employees' well-being.

1. Expanding the concept of wellness.

Although physical health is still a significant priority of employee wellness programs, large employers are increasing their focus on financial, social and behavioral health. Slightly more than half of the employers address employees' financial health, up from 38 percent in 2015. Forty-seven percent address employees' social health (compared to 37 percent in 2015) through tactics such as team-based activities to increase feelings of belonging and connectedness. Additionally, 68 percent address employees' behavioral health, up slightly from 65 percent in 2015.

2. Improving access.

According to the research, large employers are also expanding emerging programs that can help employees navigate the healthcare system, as well as increase their access to it. For example, one-third offer telemedicine services, up from 22 percent in 2015, and 31 percent provide access to an on-site health specialist, an increase of five percentage points from 2015.

3. Pumping up budgets.

Employers are committing to employee well-being by ramping up investments in health and wellness program budgets and staff. For example, nearly one-third say they are increasing their wellness program budgets (up from 28 percent in 2015), while 72 percent report that they employ a dedicated wellness professional (up from 59 percent in 2015).Employers are relocating budgets too - focusing more on communications, program evaluation and changes to the work environment.

Nearly half of employers recently made changes to their environment, with 52 percent electing to offer healthier food and beverage options in vending machines, followed by healthy catering options for meetings, promoting a smoke-free campus, healthy options in the cafeteria and ergonomic or standing desks.

4. Strengthening financial incentives.

Use of financial incentives to engage employees in health and wellness programs remains a core strategy among large employers. Incentives are becoming more valuable and family-friendly. The average value of incentives offered by large employers is $532, a 17 percent increase from 2015. Nearly three-quarters of employers also offer incentives to family members and nearly half report that they plan to expand the scope of their incentive strategy over the next two years.

Among incentives offered, health account contributions continue to be favored for their role in helping employees address gaps in their financial well-being. Half of the employers made reward contributions to HSAs and other health accounts, up from 38 percent in 2015. Other less-traditional yet employee-friendly incentives also saw significant gains, such as offering increased vacation days and programs that convert points into rewards.

Another trend that the research uncovered is that employers have started focusing more heavily in recent years on rewarding employees for making progress towards a health goal - such as tobacco cessation or weight loss.

5. Embracing digital.

Large employers are using multiple digital engagement strategies to communicate key health and wellness initiatives to help employees take ownership of their health. Since 2014, the use of online competitions, activity tracking devices, social networks, mobile apps and mobile messaging to help engage employees has trended up. The prevalence of technology, coupled with the popularity of competitions such as walking challenges, has facilitated increased employee social interaction.

This social connection is an increasingly important component of promoting overall health. As the new year unfolds, employers will continue to support and invest in their employees' overall well-being. Employers of all sizes should think more holistically about employees' health, and offer programs that encompass physical, mental, social and financial wellness. Doing so may help address some of their most significant employee health concerns.

Author: Seth Serxner, Chief Health Officer, Optum

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