The pandemic has strengthened the demand for wellness resources and benefits for employees looking for help with a wide range of physical and mental health issues. In a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, more people than ever report experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Before the pandemic, 15% to 20% of people surveyed reported living with a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety. By October 2020, that number had risen to 53% of people reporting that they were suffering from mental health issues due to stress from the coronavirus.

The ongoing stress related to the pandemic has also had a negative impact on lifestyle choices. Some 42% of people who responded to an American Psychological Association (APA) poll noted that they had gained weight during the pandemic, with an average weight gain of 29 pounds. Alcohol use has also increased, with around 23% of people who responded to the APA poll saying they were consuming more alcohol to cope with stress. Smoking and vaping as methods of coping with stress are also on the rise.

All these behaviors have a negative effect on employees’ health, increasing the risk of a range of health problems including diabetes, heart disease, heart attack, stroke, cancer, anxiety and depression, and substance use disorder. They also impact employers’ healthcare costs. Healthcare costs for employees living with a chronic health problem are five times higher than employees without those conditions. Productivity can also suffer because of absenteeism and presenteeism related to employees’ physical and mental health problems.

A robust health insurance plan can ensure employees have access to the care they need to manage these issues. Adding an array of wellness benefits to your offerings can help change the behaviors that increase the risk of health problems developing and encourage employees to take ownership of their health.

How to design an effective wellness plan for employees
The first step in designing an employee wellness plan should be to ask employees what resources and benefits they want. Getting employee input on the front end helps employers tailor their offerings to employee needs, increasing the likelihood that the benefits will be used and appreciated.

A review of aggregated health insurance claims data is also helpful. That data helps employers target high claim costs health issues that are affecting a larger percentage of employees.

The most robust wellness programs approach the issue from two directions — supporting and encouraging behavior change to lower the risk of health problems and managing existing chronic conditions to reduce the risk of more severe health problems.

Behavior change resources can include:

  • Weight management resources and programs
  • Smoking cessation support
  • Stress management tools including integrative medicine options such as acupuncture, yoga, and meditation
  • Connections with sleep specialists for employees living with insomnia and other sleep problems
  • Low or no-cost access to nutrition and exercise specialists and behavior change support subscription apps
  • Streamlined access to mental health providers

With many employees still working remotely or working a hybrid schedule, making these resources available both virtually and via in-person events helps ensures that you’re reaching all employees.

To help employees better manage existing chronic health problems, consider offering one-on-one support through a nurse-staffed phone or video chat program. These programs help ensure employees are taking the appropriate medications, seeing the physician who manages their condition regularly, and making any needed lifestyle changes. It can also be helpful to provide employees with a confidentially accessed online educational resource library so they can learn more about their condition and treatment options.

Other ways to enhance employees’ ability to manage chronic conditions include onsite clinics for biometric screenings and vaccinations and discounted or free tools and supplies like glucose meters and blood sugar tracking apps, heart rate and rhythm trackers, and financial incentives or credits against the cost of health premiums that reward consistent engagement with the provided disease management resources.

The positive impact of wellness benefits for employers

The right wellness offerings can help employees be healthier and reduce the costs associated with chronic conditions and their complications. Healthy employees are more engaged and more productive. Wellness programs can also be effective tools to improve employee retention and recruitment because they highlight a company culture that values employee well-being.