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6 Trends in Well-Being: Our 2021 Predictions (Part 2)

Thanks for checking in for Part 2 of our 2021 well-being trends to watch. As we discussed in Part 1, the pandemic has underscored the importance of well-being and led to a greater acceptance that we need to care for the whole person, not just a few select aspects. In Part 2, we extend the discussion with three more trends about how employers can support caregiving, the need for better work boundaries, and a remote workforce’s physical health.

Trend 4: The invisible work of caregiving will receive the attention it deserves.

Before the pandemic, we understood that caregiving takes a huge toll on caregivers’ mental and physical wellness. We also knew that the majority of caregivers were womentwo in three, to be exact. Research we conducted last fall confirmed that caregiving status had a greater negative effect on women’s physical wellness than men’s, and found that women reported much higher levels of stress and loneliness than men.

So we were encouraged when results of a Northeast Business Group on Health (NEBGH) survey conducted in late 2019 and early 2020 found that 79% of respondents said caregiving would be an increasingly important issue over the next five years. In fact, in 2019, more employers began offering caregiving benefits and resources to help employees take care of young children, elderly parents, ailing spouses or partners, or friends.

Then the pandemic hit.

It now seems we can’t go a day without seeing articles about how the pandemic has magnified the burden and responsibilities of caregiving. As this recent caregiving study by Embracing Carers reports, “American caregivers are undercounted, unheard, struggling and feel all but invisible.”

And the statistics show it:

  • A recent Business Group on Health podcast, “The Case for Honoring Caregivers,” reports that since the pandemic started, 56% of unpaid caregivers are experiencing anxiety or depression (this is 2.5 times the rate of the general population), and caregivers have 10 times the rate of suicidal ideation.
  • The pandemic is causing members of younger generations to become caregivers for the first time and they are suffering. A Blue Cross Blue Shield study found that adjustment disorder and hypertension are 82% more prevalent among millennials who are caregivers than the general population.
  • Female caregivers are leaving the workforce, reducing their work hours, and not taking promotions—which could have long-term economic impacts. The Center for American Progress reports that four times as many women as men dropped out of the labor force in September, roughly 865,000 women compared with 216,000 men.

Women have taken on the lion’s share of extra duties brought on by COVID-19.

According to an article in Employee Benefit News: “Women who work full-time and have a partner are putting in 71.2 hours each week on housework and caregiving, while men are spending 51.5 hours per week on those tasks, according to LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey research on how COVID-19 is affecting women.” Women are “doers” and natural multitaskers, so in some ways it’s not surprising. But this “superwoman” tendency is leading so many of us to be stressed, depressed, burned out…it’s no wonder so many women who can afford to have simply opted out.

How will employers respond?

Here’s what we see happening as organizations step up support for caregivers:

Corporate culture will need examining.

Company culture should value caregiving as an important part of life—not something that needs to be “balanced” with work. Organizations will need to:

  • Ensure the culture supports the actual taking of leave, especially for moms.
  • Work to destigmatize those who opt for flexible schedules to accommodate caregiving duties.
  • Value performance and results over process, hours, or “face time” with superiors. This helps caregivers feel they can do their jobs when it works for them.

Benefits will expand.

We predict that caregiving policies and benefits will expand to include:

  • Family-friendly programs like subsidized or onsite childcare and back-up childcare.
  • Greater transition times and work flexibility—like working remotely—to help moms return to work more comfortably and efficiently.
  • The addition of life-stage benefits that support caring for aging parents in addition to children.

Managers will be expected to allow flexible work arrangements.

Managers must have the ability to engage in empathetic, supportive conversations with their staff, especially when it comes to having difficult conversations about work flexibility. And remember, a flex schedule that works for one employee may not work for another. It’s up to leadership to listen to their team members and work together to devise a mutually agreeable solution that supports their individual work and caregiving needs.

As we’ve said before, the pandemic has shed light on areas of well-being where support has been lacking. Caregiving is a big one—and it’s especially important to younger generations coming into the workforce. So take the opportunity to examine your offerings. Companies who do will certainly reap the benefits—because even once life has returned to normal, the challenges of caregiving will remain.

Trend 5: Employers will need to reinforce boundaries to protect employee well-being.

Worker productivity has skyrocketed since the pandemic began. According to a September survey by The Conference Board of 330 HR executives primarily from large US companies, almost half (47%) believe that productivity has increased for their workforce since the COVID-19 outbreak, compared to only 23% in their April survey. This may be why: the National Bureau of Economic Research calculates that the pandemic workday is 48.5 minutes longer for telecommuters; the number of meetings has increased by 13%; and people sent 1.4 more emails per day to their colleagues.

Truthfully, this “always-on” mentality is not new. Because of our smartphones, we’re able to conduct work anytime, anyplace, so it can be nearly impossible to set clear boundaries. Layer in that most of us are working from home, and you have a situation where you are likely never fully not working.

Not surprisingly, this increased productivity comes at the cost of employee well-being.

Companies surveyed by The Conference Board report that their employees are suffering more burnouts (42%), decreased work-life balance (46%), and more mental health problems (40%). Organizations also reported the erosion of both engagement and morale (31%), as well as high levels of personal well-being (35%).

So, how do we see employers responding?

Here’s what we predict will happen in the workplace:

  • Employees will be encouraged to set aside time for themselves each day. Managers can lead by example by blocking time for self-care on their own calendars. WebMD Health Services managers have been great about encouraging staff to take a break during the day to walk, meditate, or exercise.
  • Wellness challenges that inspire employees—and give them permission—to step away from their desks and move throughout the day will emerge.
  • Organizations may have to send out reminders to shut down at a reasonable hour and schedule “quiet periods” when employees should refrain from sending or replying to emails.
  • Vacation policies will be reevaluated to encourage R&R. We may also see more corporate-wide shutdowns before or after holidays to allow employees to really unwind.
  • Benefits to decrease stress and increase resilience will continue to be popular.

Actions like these will help boost corporate morale during this challenging time. And, of course, because of the link between a healthy mind and body, you will see a return on your investment in the form of a healthier, more engaged, and productive workforce.

Trend 6: Employers will have to get creative to sustain the physical health of a remote workforce.

Even though the focus on mental health is front and center right now, employers still need to be tuned into their workforce’s physical health and safety. Before the pandemic, corporate well-being was associated with in-office perks like gyms, group exercise classes, healthy food, walking treadmills, massages, and more. When the world pivoted to remote work for those who could, those perks suddenly disappeared.

Research conducted during the pandemic supports the fact that employees still want their employers to offer some sort of in-home access to fitness. According to a survey from Class Pass, a wellness class membership provider, 70% of global professionals rank fitness benefits as the most valuable benefit outside of healthcare and are the second-highest benefit requested by employees. Our research also shows that at-home fitness benefits are among the most highly used corporate well-being benefits.

The challenge is creating a well-being culture that supports the incorporation of fitness into the workday. Most employees view staying in shape as something we either do before or after work. A select few companies have a culture that encourages lunchtime fitness, but still, there is a stigma around doing something for “you” when you’re technically on the clock.

We predict the pandemic will play a role in changing that.

Without a commute and an office to walk around, employees don’t have as much opportunity to move, so it’s incumbent on employers to actively encourage physical activity during the workday.

  • Leaders can help by modeling healthy behaviors themselves, such as holding walking meetings or blocking fitness time on their own calendars.
  • Reimbursement for at-home fitness equipment and virtual fitness classes will continue to be popular–even when the pandemic is over.
  • Wellness challenges—like our steps challenge, The Invitational—will continue to be popular as a way for employees to keep moving and also stay socially connected.

Here at WebMD Health Services, I’m proud of our efforts to increase physical activity during this time. At the beginning of the pandemic, we started streaming fitness videos led by our health coaches and scheduled them on employees’ calendars like regular meetings. This sent a strong signal that it was OK to devote time to fitness. We also recorded them so employees who couldn’t make it could access the workout later on.

Recognizing that so many of our employees’ children were home, we made a point to include them in our workouts, too. We created all sorts of virtual programming for clients—from parenting coffee chats to healthy cooking demos to walk-and-talk coaching sessions. We also made sure that employees knew that turning on cameras during meetings was optional once Zoom fatigue began to set in.

All of these efforts have been incredibly well-received! We encourage all employers to think through how they can continue to support a culture of physical wellness even though we can’t fall back on the usual perks. We just can’t say it enough—supporting employees’ ability to stay mentally and physically well during this period—and beyond—makes smart business sense.

To sum up: well-being is more essential than ever.

Across all ages and generations, it’s become increasingly clear that employees want employers to provide support for mental and physical health. Younger generations in particular expect more from their employers regarding benefits, including programs for caregiving and social connectedness. They also want their employers to be inclusive, employ a diverse workforce, and support the causes they care about.

Employers will have to focus on delivering well-being services to a mostly remote and distributed workforce in the near term. As we move past the pandemic, we’ll see a continued emphasis on meeting employees’ well-being needs where they are—whether they’ve migrated back to the office or have opted to stay home indefinitely.

How employers respond to their employees’ needs right now—and how they develop plans to care for their well-being in the future—will have a significant impact on employees and their perception of an employer. If organizations don’t pivot to offer the support their team members need, we predict that their talent pools will find a different employer who will give them the programs they’re looking for.

We hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about our well-being predictions for 2021. If there’s one thing to take away from this discussion, it’s that well-being is more essential than ever.

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