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What Employees Want in a Well-Being Program: 5 Areas To Address Right Now

As the “Great Resignation” continues, or “Great Reshuffle” if you prefer, employers are understandably scrambling to find ways to retain key talent. Well-being programs have long been known to help with employee engagement and retention. But which well-being program elements are essential to employees right now? In this week’s blog, we zero in on five high-impact areas to focus on.

Well-being programs are more critical than ever.

Even before the pandemic, data showed that workplace well-being programs positively impact employee health, productivity, loyalty, and retention.

Now, given the pandemic’s physical, mental, emotional, and financial challenges, these play an even more critical role in supporting employee well-being. While the goals of an employee well-being program were initially focused on physical health, like exercise and nutrition, employees now expect and require well-being programs to support other areas of their lives—like mental health, social connections, finances, and more.

Having a robust holistic well-being program these days is simply table stakes. Recent research conducted by Paychex and Future Workforce revealed that 60% of employees say well-being benefits will be a top priority when applying for their next job. This is particularly important for members of Gen Z and millennials, who now make up over half of the workforce. Research we conducted mid-way through 2020 supports this—across all four generations, millennials are the most actively engaged with employer well-being programs.

Our research also supports the notion that employees across all generations now expect more from employers when it comes to ensuring well-being. For example:

  • 7 of 10 employees surveyed believe employers should offer a mental and emotional health program.
  • 54% feel caregiving support should be an employee benefit.
  • 40% of respondents believe it’s an employer’s role to help foster social connections.
  • Over 42% felt that companies should provide at-home fitness benefits.

And yet, there is still a disconnect between employers and employees in terms of feeling supported. A study by MetLife in April 2021 found that many employers are not living up to their employees’ expectations of well-being programs, with workers saying their organization hasn’t helped them enough during the pandemic.

So how do you make sure your benefits line up with what employees expect in a well-being program right now? We offer the following five insights into what employees really want to be included in a well-being program.

1. Mental health resources that are easy to access.

The stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated what was already a mental health crisis in the U.S. As a result, some of your employees may be newly at risk for clinical diagnoses like depression and anxiety disorder. Others may simply be “languishing.” Whatever the situation, employees want immediate help—not a list of mental health providers they have to sort through.

Support for mental health in the workplace can come in many forms. For example, younger employees want apps that connect them instantly to a mental health provider via chat or video. They want to quickly tune in to a podcast on a mental health topic of interest. And they want access to tools to help with meditation and sleep. Finally, they want the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace to lift—to the point where they’ll be comfortable saying they need a mental health day without being perceived as “weak.” Managers can talk openly about mental health, demonstrating that doing so is not taboo but encouraged and supported.

2. Help with financial stress.

Like mental health, financial stress was a huge employee concern before 2020. Now, research by PwC finds 63% of employees feel their financial stress has increased since the start of the pandemic. Employers have traditionally limited their involvement in the financial aspects of employees’ lives to help them prepare for retirement, but today it’s clear that employees need more than that. In fact, a 2019 MetLife Financial Wellness Programs report found that 68% of millennials and 66% of Gen Z feel it’s an employer’s responsibility to help with financial wellness.

Some of the most in-demand financial benefits include access to trained counselors who can help create a plan to pay down debt, start a savings program, or consolidate student loans. As we’ve written about before, financial stress can lead to an employee being distracted and less productive—not to mention the effects financial stress can have on physical health. So building financial wellness benefits into your employee well-being program is critical.

3. The flexibility to work when and where they choose.

Employees are now calling the shots on their work hours and where work gets done. While some employers through the nature of their business require employees to be in a physical location five days a week, many that are able allow some flexibility for days worked at home versus in the office. As people continue to grapple with child and elder care, employers have also had to become more accepting of alternate work schedules.

It’s part of the trend toward a more “human workplace” that acknowledges we all have a life outside of work and allows for a greater balance between the two. Employers who don’t offer this flexibility will likely pay the price. A ManpowerGroup Solutions survey found that “nearly 40 percent of global candidates report that schedule flexibility is now among the top three factors they consider when making career decisions.”

4. Ways to stay socially connected to coworkers.

Of course, the downside of remote work is that it’s hard to keep up connections with coworkers. It’s all too easy to retreat into a home office, keep your camera off, and rarely engage in “chit-chat” with your colleagues. While some may say they’re fine with this arrangement, we know that our well-being—specifically our mental health—and the organization’s culture will suffer if we don’t nurture these social connections. Studies conducted by Microsoft indicate that this is already starting to happen nearly two years into the pandemic, especially for young people who may have been hired remotely and never even set foot in the office.

Well-being programs can play a key role in helping people stay connected even when they’re apart. Examples include workplace social media groups, community service, participating in wellness challenges that rally coworkers around a common goal, in-person or virtual group fitness classes, and building in time during meetings to get to know colleagues.

5. A real change in work culture, greater acceptance, and more time off.

It’s no secret that the pandemic gave people time to think about what’s really important—like spending more time with family, pursuing a passion, or getting serious about health and well-being. And now they are asking for employers to support them in these endeavors.

They’re looking to leaders to model a true well-being culture by blocking time on calendars for exercise or meditation, setting boundaries and a clear end to the workday, and being more open about their own mental health struggles. And they’re asking for more time off to recharge and support their well-being. In the Paychex/Future Workforce study, 35% of respondents cited additional time off as the number one action that would improve their well-being. It’s all about creating a more positive work culture that acknowledges that we are humans first and employees second. This is what will entice people to stay with an employer going forward.

To sum up, there are many reasons people are leaving their jobs right now, and we may not be able to convince them all to stay. However, I think we should look more deeply at what employees truly want—to be seen, heard, and valued for being their authentic selves. In our ever-shifting world, they want connection and to feel supported and encouraged in work and in life. Employees expect this to be reflected in workplace well-being programs. And ultimately, it’s our job as leaders to provide that authentic, human-level support that employees want, because these expectations are here to stay.

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