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COVID-19 leads to rethinking incentives in wellbeing programs

Health and Benefits|Total Rewards|Wellbeing
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Greg Berger | June 11, 2020

How can employers reinvigorate incentive programs to support the changing needs of employees amid the COVID-19 pandemic?

Many employers continue to offer financial incentives to encourage participation in wellbeing programs. Although incentives may have fallen short in terms of altering long-term behavior and health, they can help direct employees to targeted programs (e.g. employee assistance programs (EAP), niche vendor offerings, etc.) and raise awareness of your wellbeing offerings.

With considerable spending on wellbeing incentives and programs, organizations had been increasingly focused on their effectiveness, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet Willis Towers Watson’s Global Benefits Attitude Survey found that only one in six employees highly recommend their employer’s health and wellbeing resources and initiatives.

Additionally, the survey findings revealed a dismal net promoter score (NPS) — a customer satisfaction measure — of -45 for wellbeing programs. NPS scores under zero are strongly negative. In comparison, world-class companies and brands can sometimes achieve NPS scores of 70.

Putting the COVID-19 pandemic aside, these findings suggest that employers already need to consider alternative approaches to maximize employee engagement and wellbeing efforts. But because the COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread challenges for employers and employees alike, now is an even better time to update an incentive strategy to holistically address the changing needs of your population.

Current efforts

With many of the highest priority and timely decisions in the rear-view mirror (such as transitioning to virtual working wherever possible and addressing COVID-19 treatment cost sharing), employers are looking to reexamine their benefit and wellbeing programs. Employers are beginning to question their benefit strategies, finetune their programs, search for low-hanging fruit and ensure employees are supported during this challenging time.

When considering whether adjustments are needed to wellbeing incentive programs, benefits professionals should ask themselves the following:

  • Given social distancing guidelines and health care access, can my employees safely earn incentive dollars based on the structure currently in place?
  • Are employees earning the majority of incentives available to them?
  • Which barriers are preventing more employees from engaging in the wellbeing programs that are offered to them?
  • Will my incentives be helpful for employees returning to onsite work?
  • Is my investment in wellbeing incentives generating the outcomes that meet my organization’s wellbeing guiding principles?
  • Is my wellbeing incentive strategy flexible enough to meet the unique needs and preferences of my population?
  • Is my program modernized to include meaningful programs that employees value to improve physical, financial, emotional and social wellbeing?
  • Should I offer any incentives at all?

After considering those questions, employers can then stratify approaches based on the short (reallocate), medium (revamp) and long term (reimagine). For each, we offer three practical ideas to consider when evaluating and modernizing your incentive program.

Reallocate – Short-term adjustments to optimize spending

  1. Remove incentives for in-person care to reduce strain on the health care system, reduce employees anxiety, and encourage social distancing guidelines.
    Consider reallocating to virtual care such as telemedicine, tele-behavioral health and wellbeing apps (e.g. resiliency, sleep, etc.).
  2. Decrease focus on incentives for self-directed wellbeing journeys and games, in light of the loneliness epidemic, currently aggravated by stay-at-home orders.
    Consider reallocating to group challenges or participations in virtual platforms (e.g. Slack, Yammer, etc.) to encourage connection.
  3. Reduce or suspend wellbeing incentives to expand focus on immediate needs. Consider reallocating to areas that are major pain points in light of COVID-19 (e.g. caregiving benefits, financial tools, emotional wellbeing support, time-off, etc.).

Revamp – Transitioning back to work

  1. Assess and re-think your incentive strategy and its relevancy and connectedness to your premium setting and wellbeing strategy.
  2. Expand focus and commitment to wellbeing by inventorying and encouraging actions to meet your employee’s needs across wellbeing pillars; physical, social, emotional and financial.
  3. Redeploy incentives for tools that will help employees transition back to work and bring awareness to high value benefits.
    Consider increasing allocations for resiliency, stress and financial programs.
  4. Provide “good news” amidst the pandemic by creatively communicating incentive money available.
    Consider a comprehensive communication strategy by a balanced message that maximizes participation and earnings but supports your most vulnerable population.

Reimagine – Adjusting to the new normal

  1. Place employees and their current preferences at the center of your decision making to ensure you’re delivering a personalized strategy.
    Consider extracting the employee voice, through personas, virtual surveys and pulse surveys when revamping your wellbeing strategy.
  2. Transition away from pre-scripted, activity-based incentives altogether in favor of flexibility.
    Consider adopting a wellbeing fund to allow employees to spend dollars on areas of wellbeing that are most meaningful to them (e.g. classes, activities, coaching, financial counseling, etc.).
  3. Discontinue your incentive program altogether.
    Consider re-investing dollars in meaningful programs that address employee preferences and improve health culture.

Employees and employers alike are relying on each other to optimize human capital and business performance, given fears of a global recession. While wellbeing incentives are minimal in terms of overall benefit, optimizing your strategy in light of COVID-19 can help foster total wellbeing, a strong company culture and better business results.


Associate Director, Health and Benefits

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