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2024 Employee Well-Being Trends

2024 Wellbeing Trends Webinar Part 1

Watch the 2024 Trends Webinar On-Demand.

In the past few years, the world of work has seen unprecedented change. The pandemic forced a rethinking of work itself and how it fits into our lives, pushing employers to recognize that a job is more than salary and benefits. There is rich discussion about employees’ ability to manage the dual demands of work and life and the role of the employer in this space. We are talking about the impact of managers and organizational culture on our well-being, as well as the role that the workplace plays in fostering belonging and social connections. In short, there has been a more universal acknowledgement among employers and employees that the workplace has a profound impact on all aspects of our well-being, full stop.

It is clear that employers are in a position of influence here and that workforce well-being and culture have emerged as the essentials to drive business value. Over the next year employers will be asking the tough questions, like:

  • How do we make work and the workplace better?
  • What adjustments to workplace culture and the employee experience do we need to make retain employees, engage employees, and be successful?
  • As an employer, how can we best enable our employees to navigate ongoing struggles that affect their holistic well-being?
  • How can we best harness the power of new technology in ways that enhance well-being, rather than detract from it?

Of course, all of this is taking place against an extraordinarily tense backdrop of economic, environmental, and geopolitical uncertainty that creates higher stress and financial strain on our employees, solidifying what we’ve known for many years: employees need holistic well-being that encompasses more than just their physical health.

There is no going back now. Employees increasingly want employers to support them with their well-being. They’re looking to employers to help them solve the caregiving crisis, to assist with health concerns like obesity and provide equal support for menopause, and to allow for better work/life integration. Technology (AI) is being evaluated for the role it will play in bringing some of these solutions to employees.

We’re rounding up the discussion of all of these issues with our annual well-being trend analysis. Let’s dive in to our first trend for 2024.

Trend 1: The inextricable link between workplace well-being and employee engagement forces a sharper focus on work culture.

A wake-up call for employers.

Focusing on employee well-being isn’t just a nice-to-do, but a must-do. However, the last several years have convinced a critical mass of employers that well-being is inextricably linked to the engagement and productivity of the workforce and, consequently, the bottom line.

Employees themselves deserve much of the credit for pushing employers to think differently. The pandemic enabled workers to more openly question the traditional practice of treating the employee who logs off at 5PM as separate from the human being at home. They began to demand to be treated as a whole person and to insist that their overall well-being was something employers should care deeply about. And, as the Great Resignation proved, employees were willing to walk away from employers who didn’t respond to these expectations.

This is not to say that employers never cared about worker well-being. Many did. The difference is that they sometimes treated employee engagement and employee well-being as two different things, often looked at in isolation (think an engagement survey and a well-being survey). Yet what we know—and what Gallup noted in a study way back in 2015—is that workers with high well-being also tend to be highly engaged.1 They’re less likely to miss work because of poor health, less likely to change employers, and more likely to report “excellent” performance in their role at work.2

Moving from simply offering employee well-being initiatives to integrating with workforce strategy.

So, it stands to reason that organizations that focus on improving the well-being of employees will likely achieve higher engagement. But are employers increasing their commitment to employee well-being? The data suggests that they are.

  • Aon’s 2022-2023 Global Well-being Survey found that 87 percent of organizations have at least one well-being initiative, and 83 percent have an actual well-being strategy, an increase of more than 25 percentage points since 2020.3
  • Mercer’s recent study found that 64% of employers plan to enhance health and well-being offerings in 2024.4

We’re also seeing signs that well-being is now viewed as a key part of workforce strategy, not a separate endeavor. Fidelity and Business Group on Health’s 2023 Health and Well-Being Survey found that in 2021, 42% of employers viewed their health and well-being strategy as an integral part of their workforce strategy. In 2023 that figure jumped to 66%, an increase of over 57%.5

Just as importantly, we are also seeing employers link well-being to broader business objectives. For example, the Aon study found that more than 80% of organizations are integrating well-being into their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I); Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG); Health and Safety; and Total Rewards programs.

What the reevaluation of work itself means for well-being.

Yet another shift is the reexamining of all aspects of the workplace that contribute to or detract from employee well-being. Workers are questioning long-held norms around work itself. Why should we prioritize work above all else? Who said we need to be available for work requests on nights and weekends? Why can’t work fit into life—instead of the other way around?

This shift has been fueled in part by younger generations who aren’t blanketly accepting that one should be defined by what they do for a living. They are setting boundaries around their work and their life. They want to feel connected to the organization’s mission and vision and to feel a part of something bigger than themselves.

And workers in general want workplaces to acknowledge that work plays a critical role in our mental well-being. A global study from the Workforce Institute at UKG found say their job is the biggest factor influencing their mental health. That same study found that managers have a greater impact on our mental health than doctors and therapists, and equal to that of spouses and partners.6

Employers will begin to expand the scope of what drives employee well-being.

Most organizations have recognized the link between employee engagement and well-being. But if employers don’t take that critical next step of examining work culture to uncover the underlying root causes that contribute to so much worker stress, burnout and poor mental health, it will be difficult to move the needle closer to a true culture of well-being.

We’ll see employers begin to address issues that we haven’t traditionally associated with well-being, but contribute mightily to it, including:

  • A lack of trust between employees and the employer
  • Norms around expected working hours and unrealistic workloads
  • Social determinants of health
  • Poor work/life balance
  • Mismatch between skills and job requirements
  • Lack of a sense of purpose/feeling disconnected from the organization’s mission/vision
  • Poor managers
  • Lack of recognition
  • An environment that is not psychologically safe
  • A lack of social connections or belonging at work

We’ll see an effort to focus on the things that employees need to feel valued, supported and engaged across all aspects of their well-being, including physical, emotional, and social connectedness. Enlightened employers in 2024 will focus on the elements of work that will help employees thrive, like these five factors identified by employees in a Mercer Global Talent Trends 2022-2023 study:7

  • Feeling valued for my contributions;
  • Work that fulfills me;
  • Having fun at work;
  • A sense of belonging; and
  • Having a manager who advocates for me and provides meaningful feedback.

Trend 2: Obesity management, menopause and healthy aging are evolving priorities to support the holistic well-being of employees at work.

The objective of many programs with an employee well-being strategy is to keep employees healthy while reducing health care cost spend. But we know we can’t achieve that if we maintain a status quo approach. As new treatments, research, and trends come to the forefront, it’s our job to evaluate and re-evaluate solutions in order to recommend the right program expansions. For 2024, we’re looking at three new priorities around three long-standing challenges to support holistic employee well-being: obesity management, menopause and healthy aging.

Obesity management.

Obesity continues to be a major health concern in the United States:

  • According to the CDC, 42% of U.S. adults are obese.8
  • By 2030, it is estimated that 1 in 2 adults will be obese by 2030 and 1 in 4 will be severely obese..9
  • Obesity prevalence rates are projected to be higher than 35% in all states and above 50% in 29 states.10
  • Obesity is linked to heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer which are among the leading causes of preventable, premature death. The CDC estimates this translates to a medical cost of nearly $173 billion annually in the U.S. 11

Newly available prescription drugs to treat obesity will shape the obesity discussion in the coming year.

Prescription drug options for treating obesity continue to dominate the media. This class of prescription drugs, known by several brand names, mimic the effects of a hormone that can help people feel full.12 When used appropriately and with correct dosing in conjunction with appropriate lifestyle behavior modifications, these prescription medications can result in a significant amount of weight loss. Unfortunately, when lifestyle modifications and regular medication use are abandoned, weight loss may reverse. There are still many aspects of weight-loss medications to sort through, like the long-term effects of usage. Even so, the emergence of these drugs has started to change the conversation around obesity.

Obesity has long been thought of as a personal failure and a lack of willpower, a condition caused by eating too much and not exercising enough. Now, attitudes are starting to shift and there is general acknowledgement that obesity is a disease. As Dr. David Rind, chief medical officer for the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, noted: “It’s become more and more obvious over the years that obesity is a medical issue, not a lifestyle choice,” Rind said. “We’ve been waiting for drugs like this for a very long time.”13

According to new research released by Mercer, less than half of large employers currently cover the new generation of obesity drugs. But, an additional 18% are considering adding them to prescription drug coverage.14 Reducing the prevalence of obesity in the employee population can lead to a reduction in health care costs, which is inarguably good for employers, but many are worried about the short-term costs and how to develop reasonable policies around who gets access to these drugs. It will be interesting to continue to monitor the inclusion of these treatments under employee medical plans in the coming year.

Menopause.

Despite the fact that every woman will go through menopause at some point in her life, there has been shockingly little discussion about it. Until now.

A recent Mayo Clinic study found that the potential direct and indirect costs of absenteeism, lost work productivity, increased health care costs, and lost opportunities for career advancement caused by menopause are staggering. Additionally, according to the study, menopause costs American women an estimated $1.8 billion in lost working time per year.15 Moreover, menopause often takes place at a time when women are most likely to move into top leadership positions and be contributing meaningfully to the organization.16

So while millions of women have suffered in silence—enduring common menopause symptoms like hot flashes, brain fog, joint pain, insomnia, weight gain and anxiety that can last for six to 10 years—relief is on the horizon. Much of it is taking place in the workplace.

Progressive employers have realized that helping women during this phase of their life isn’t just a nice thing to do—it’s also critical to retaining and sustaining the engagement of a critical component of their workforce—women. Put simply, it’s not just an issue of gender and age, it’s a business issue.

We will see employers stepping up efforts here, including offering additional health care benefits, forming Employee Resource Groups, training managers to be more educated and empathetic about menopause, and offering workplace accommodations like additional leave and more flexible work schedules. These employers will break down the stigma of talking about menopause in the workplace, much like we have done with mental health. At WebMD Health Services, our Health Coaches are trained in women’s hormonal concerns and have been dispensing good advice regarding menopause for years. We’re excited that this issue is being more openly discussed in well-being circles like ours and in society in general.

The average life expectancy in the U.S. now exceeds 73 years for men and 79 years for women, and many people are living vibrant lives well into their 80s and 90s.17 Research by AARP18 and McKinsey19 finds that older adults view age as “just a number,” and are optimistic about their future. As the McKinsey study notes, it’s important to focus on capacity, not age, and recognize the potential that older individuals have to contribute meaningfully to the workplace long past 65, once considered the traditional age of retirement.

McKinsey found that purpose, stress, physical activity, lifelong learning, meaningful connections with others and financial security are the factors that most strongly influence our health as we age. Well-being programs are well-poised to deliver many solutions to help older employees age well and increase their healthspan, or the period of time individuals are enjoying good health as they age. Expect to see targeted campaigns focused on this cohort in 2024. Given that the 50-plus age group is expected to contribute $12.6 trillion to the U.S. economy by 2030, it’s easy to see how focusing on keeping this employee cohort happy, healthy and engaged is an important priority.

But it’s not just older workers we should be concerned about. By 2030, it’s estimated that Gen Z will make up about 30% of the workforce in the U.S.20 By focusing on their well-being now, we’re investing in the longevity and sustaining power of our people.

 

Trend 3: Employers are taking a more proactive, preventive approach to employee mental health.

While the pandemic may have subsided, we’ve emerged into an uncertain economy, high inflation, escalating climate events, social discord at home, and war in Europe and the Middle East. These factors, combined with job-related and financial stress, are taking their toll on workers and leading to unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression in the workforce. Business Group on Health’s 2024 Large Employer Health Care Strategy Survey found that 77% percent of large employers reported an increase in the mental health needs among their workforce, with another 16% anticipating that mental health needs will continue to increase in the future.21

Workers also increasingly expect employers to support them with their mental health. A 2023 study by the American Psychological Association found that 92% of workers said:

  • It is very (57%) or somewhat (35%) important to them to work for an organization that values their emotional and psychological well-being; and
  • It is very (52%) or somewhat (40%) important to them to work for an organization that provides support for employee mental health.22

As we discussed in Trend 1, employee well-being is linked to engagement and productivity. And so, in 2024, we’ll see employers step up with increased access to mental health support and services and a deeper, more considered approach to employee mental health that goes beyond simply checking the box, including:

  • A year-round focus on mental health. There is considerable work to be done to continue break down the stigma of mental health in the workplace. For example, 43% of employees reported worrying that if they told their employer about a mental health condition, it would have a negative impact on them in the workplace. In 2024 we’ll see a more sustained effort by employers to reduce the stigma through campaigns that go beyond Mental Health Awareness Month. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) will play a key part in expanding awareness and acting as a liaison between leadership and employees.
  • Manager training. Managers play a critical role in tackling workplace mental health concerns. Not only are they the front line to employees when it comes to educating them about the resources available to them, they can also be a major source of the stress employees experience. We’ll see stepped-up efforts to educate managers in recognizing mental health issues among their workers (think mental health first aid training); support to help them become more flexible, empathetic leaders; and encouragement to more openly address mental health in all-employee forums.
  • Expanded EAP services. In addition to increasing the number of free counseling sessions, employers will continue to promote the EAP’s services and make it easier for employees to access them. Part of this will entail communicating about what employees should expect when they call the EAP and emphasizing that the EAP is not just for serious mental health concerns, but also for everyday challenges that affect our well-being.
  • Supplemental networks for virtual or in-person care. While most health plans provide some support for behavioral health services, it comes with restrictions that limit the amount of coverage and care people can receive. And, given the mental health provider shortage, it can be difficult to locate mental health providers who are taking on new patients. By expanding to networks that specialize in mental health services employees can gain greater access to care in a way that suits them—either in-person or virtually.

 

Trend 4: Artificial intelligence (AI) and the future of well-being solutions and their delivery – cautiously embracing.

 In 2023, it seemed AI was all we could talk about. Now that the dust has settled a bit, we’re reflecting on how AI may be applied in the well-being sector in 2024.

How AI will impact the future of workplace well-being.

From using AI-generated data to deliver the best possible well-being intervention at the right time and in exactly the right way, to enhancing and augmenting services that previously required human intervention, to being able to detect health risks early, there is certainly excitement about the possibilities AI brings to the world of well-being, but not surprisingly, some hesitations as well.

  • Personalization. Well-being is inherently personal, so anything that enhances our ability to deliver personalized solutions is a game-changer. AI will allow well-being providers to provide more sophisticated and unique data-driven recommendations to individuals that incorporate their health status, preferences and behaviors. Additionally, employees can receive more information about their progress, which can sustain motivation and increase satisfaction and engagement. This will help organizations deliver solutions that truly resonate with participants and ideally lead to greater behavior change and overall satisfaction with the well-being program.
  • Virtual well-being “assistants.” From nutrition advice to exercise suggestions to tips for managing stress, AI-based chatbot solutions can offer 24/7 tailored, personalized support while helping to build motivation to keep participants engaged in their well-being. And, given the shortage of mental health providers, these chatbots can serve as a short-term intervention while waiting to see a therapist. Plus, AI assistants continuously refine solutions based on user input, ensuring that recommendations are always on point.
  • Early detection. AI-powered wearable devices have the capability to monitor biometric data like heart rate, sleep patterns and physical activity and determine if any of these indicate a potential health problem. If a risk is identified, the individual can receive the right intervention, potentially warding off a more serious (and costly) condition.24 New AI solutions can also use people’s voices to detect signs and severity of mental health conditions to connect people to the right type of resources. These applications can also track mental health over time to determine whether specific interventions are effective.25

Finally, AI can enable employers to become more targeted and efficient in their approach to employee mental health. For example, algorithms can analyze text-based communication (like employee surveys, chats, or emails) to detect signs of stress, burnout or other mental health issues, allowing companies to target the appropriate support to their workforces.26 AI may even be able to foster a more inclusive work environment by helping organizations identify and address potential biases and discrimination that may be impacting employee well-being and mental health. AI can also help EAPs become more efficient in finding and recruiting counselors, processing new patient requests, and matching people with the right therapist.27

Potential downsides of AI.

While there’s no doubt that AI presents interesting opportunities to maximize the value of well-being solutions, we’d be remiss if we didn’t address some of the pitfalls of AI when it comes to well-being. We know that AI is not foolproof and is only as good as the data it is trained on, so inaccuracies can happen. And, as we know, human behavior is unpredictable and complex, so even the best AI application may not be perfect. AI may also generate incorrect information or biased content. Therefore, quality assurances and validation should still be performed by human experts before leveraging AI content. There is also the trust factor. Well-being data is personal and employees may draw the line regarding how, when and where their private health information is utilized by their employer.

Finally, there will be situations where AI cannot take the place of genuine, thoughtful human interaction. As Brian Evergreen, founder and CEO of The Profitable Good Company, related in a recent podcast: “There are organizations who will automate anything and everything possible. And they’ll learn by feedback from the market that there are certain touch points of human experience that are critical.”28 So, in the end, it will be up to us to decide how we can best channel the benefits of AI to address the well-being needs of our populations.

Stay tuned next week for Part 2, or watch the 2024 Trends Webinar for the full list.

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