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The painful truth about your well-being programs


By Steve Nyce and Jonathan Gardner | February 16, 2018

Employers seem to be aware of the need to tackle employees’ health and well-being, and are investing more in the programs to do so.

U.S. companies have been leading the way by adding programs for much of the last two decades—in fact, the typical company in the U.S. today offers nearly 15 different programs to support the physical and emotional well-being of their employees. However, our recent Global Benefits Attitudes Survey suggests that the current approaches are missing the mark; fewer than one-in-three (32%) employees believe their employers’ well-being programs encourage them to live a healthy lifestyle and less than half (about 40%) say these programs meet their needs.

Despite the negative feedback, employees aren’t saying these initiatives are bad, just that they’re just indifferent to them. We used the net promoter score to assess the likelihood that employees would recommend their employers’ health and well-being initiatives. In nearly all countries, promoters are rare. But at the same time, few employees are actively resistant to their employers’ initiatives. In fact, less than one-third of employees say their employers’ well-being programs aren’t effective—the majority are simply unmoved by what they see.

Net promoter score bar percentage of promoters to percentage of detractors not at all likely, extremely likely to passers

Net Promoter Scores for Latin America, (-18) Asia Pacific, (-39) North America, ( -52) EMEA (-55)

Does this mean that the considerable effort from employers to introduce these programs has been a waste of time and money? Is it time for companies to abandon their well-being efforts? Not at all.

Employee health and well-being remains a top priority for employees and they want their employers’ help: About two-thirds of employees around the globe agree that employers have a role to play in helping them manage their health. So, it’s an opportunity for employers to take a step back and figure out why these programs are failing to resonate with employees, and look for ways to make those programs more effective.

What can employers do to ensure their well-being programs better connect with employees? Here are five things to consider:

1. Take a holistic approach

To date, well-being programs have targeted one particular problem at a time. Yet employees are often struggling with a range of problems, including physical health, emotional well-being and financial worries.

Take an employee who’s overweight, has difficulty sleeping and, as a result of his diabetes treatment, has significant financial worries. Some employers might offer five different programs to help this employee. While that is a tremendous resource, it presents a challenge as well. It could mean signing up with five different vendors that each create a different experience and offer a varied set of services, including access to different health coaches or online platforms, none of which are connected. Going forward, employers need to provide integrated programs that are tailored to the employee’s own unique set of circumstances.

2. Tread carefully with personalized communications

Current programs are frequently designed with a focus on reducing costs and highlighting employees’ problems — problems that employees often know all too well. Being constantly reminded about what’s wrong is a quick way to turn people away. Only around one-third of employees want personalized messages from their employers around their health, and prefer to manage it on their own. Employees want greater control in how they receive information and in how they address the problem.

3. Move on from financial incentives

Many employers, particularly in the U.S., offer financial incentives to boost participation. But while the carrot-and-stick approach can positively impact participation, particularly for discrete tasks, its impact is frequently short-lived. Once in place, incentives can be hard to remove – and can be seen by many employees as an entitlement. In fact, nearly half of U.S. employees say they won’t participate in a health and well-being program without a financial incentive – up from about one-third five years ago – which is the highest in any of the 22 markets we surveyed. Incentives have their place, but they’re a costly way to deliver slightly higher participation rates. Focusing on other options closer to home, such as creating a healthy workplace, will have a lasting impact.

4. Focus on technology

Our research shows that three-in-five employees are using apps and wearable devices to monitor and manage their health outside of work. This presents employers with an opportunity to drive participation and engagement. Where current programs are rarely tailored to the employee’s own unique situation, technology enables employers to personalize programs that span multiple areas of an employee’s life and deliver the kind of consumer-grade experience we’ve all come to expect in our daily lives. The right online tools, such as mobile apps that monitor a health condition, track activity levels, or increase resilience to stress help employees to make informed decisions about their health and well-being, based on their own needs and at appropriate times.

5. Use the workplace environment to promote healthy behavior

One key finding from our research was that having on-site or near-site health and well-being services is a significant boost to employee engagement around well-being. These services are valued so highly by employees that they are twice as likely to have positive things to say about their employers’ broader well-being initiatives as those whose employers don’t have them.

But it’s not just about providing convenient tools and services. It’s also about providing an environment that encourages healthy behaviors, where managers and peer groups are supportive and where nudges and social norms are used to make participation part of the workplace culture. We’ve dubbed this the “Human Centric Health” approach, creating an environment where it is easier to stay healthy.

The road ahead

So what comes next? Employers around the world are increasingly focusing on employee well-being. Now is the time to reflect on the mistakes of the past and to move beyond siloed approaches. Employers need to design integrated programs that link together multiple areas of an employee’s life. Doing so will be key to creating an experience that will attract and sustain employee engagement for years to come.

About the Global Benefits Attitudes Survey
A survey of over 31,000 private sector employees in 22 countries around the world. 

Global Benefits Attitudes Series: The painful truth about your well-being programs

Willis Towers Watson 2017 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey finds that three out of 10 employees have suffered from severe stress, anxiety or depression in the last two years.

About the Authors

Steve Nyce
Director, Research and Innovation Center

Jonathan Gardner
Senior Economist

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