By Nu Yang

Originally published by WorldatWork on January 12, 2023

It’s a new year, and for many of us, that means a list of resolutions to traverse. Look at any list and you can find goals like exercising more, learning a new skill or hobby, or saving more money. They all share a similar trait: taking care of oneself.

As we reviewed the past several years, we saw well-being trends in the workplace that signaled the need for more self-care (some brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic). In 2021, it was the Great Resignation. In 2022, it was quiet quitting. Due to stress and burnout, workers were either walking away entirely or putting up boundaries when it came to their job.

In 2023, well-being will no doubt continue to be top of mind for every employer, so we asked several HR practitioners and experts to share their thoughts on what they saw worked in 2022 and what they anticipate seeing in this space in the near future.

Reflecting on 2022

According to Gallagher’s 2022 Benefit Strategy and Benchmarking SurveyOpen in a new tab, for 79% of employers, emotional well-being emerged as the dimension of well-being that has become more important since 2020, driving new solutions in virtual or telephonic mental health counseling, stress management programs, time off for mental health and mental health training for managers.

“Employees come to work as ‘whole people,’ and whatever is going on with them physically, emotionally, financially, and importantly — at work — will have a significant impact on overall health and well-being, including healthcare costs, retention, and engagement,” said Kathleen Schulz, global innovation leader for organizational well-being at Gallagher.

“The U.S. Surgeon General’s warningOpen in a new tab brought additional visibility to the impact on toxic workplaces, and how they negatively impact both physical and mental health. The culture within an organization will influence employee behavior, employee behavior will impact risk and, ultimately, outcomes related to the business, their people, and the customers they are serving,” she continued. “It’s all connected.”

Bobbi Kloss, director of human capital management services at Benefit Advisors Network, agreed that emotional well-being was at the forefront for employers and employees in 2022.

“Today, the state of the nation in terms of fear, frustration, anger, isolation, loss of family and friends stemming from COVID, racial injustices, and political unrest, employers are realizing the urgent need for mental health solutions for their employees,” she said.

Kloss also said employers are seeking ways to transform their culture to show that employees are their greatest asset.

“Employers are once again turning to full-service Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), and supervisors are learning to inquire about an employee’s current circumstances when performance deteriorates, instead of automatically writing up that individual,” she said. 

By emphasizing teamwork, open door policies, and using programs such as DiSCOpen in a new tab for communication tools, policies are changing to show that the company and its employees are working together as an integral team to drive forward the company mission, Kloss added.

In addition, Schulz saw a rise in voluntary benefits. Gallagher’s 2022 Benefit Strategy and Benchmarking SurveyOpen in a new tab found 25% of employers enhanced their voluntary benefit offerings last year.

“With a multigenerational and increasingly diverse workforce, employee needs and expectations are changing,” she said. “Voluntary benefits allow employers to satisfy a wider variety of interests while avoiding additional costs and administrative requirements. Employees win as employers build a benefits package that aligns more closely with their employees’ needs, often at pre-tax dollars or discounted group rates.”

Allison Salkeld, director of global well-being at Delta Air Lines, saw a focus on resiliency, emotional well-being tools and resource and family care options to better support working parents returning to the office full-time. 

“There was also a big focus on equipping leaders to support the well-being needs of their employees while also caring for themselves,” she said. “And more thought into financial well-being tools and resources, and coaching and general awareness of social determinants of health.”

According to a SoFi at Work studyOpen in a new tab, 38% of employees said financial stress negatively impacts their mental health, 23% said it affects their ability to focus and 18% said it hurts productivity.

Record-high inflation rates and economic concerns have since compounded the issue, said Barrett Scruggs, SoFi at Work’s vice president of financial well-being. 

“Now, 84%Open in a new tab of employees believe their employers should be responsible for their financial well-being — and companies are listening,” he said. “As a result, businesses are acknowledging the shift in their employees’ financial situations and implementing new employer contribution plans beyond traditional 401(k) matching to directly support their short-term financial needs.”

Since the CARES Act passed in 2020, allowing employers to offer up to $5,250 of student loan repayment benefits annually through 2025, companies have taken a more prominent role in addressing employees’ student debt, Scruggs said.

And student loan contribution plansOpen in a new tab have grown increasingly popular, he said, as they allow employees to set aside a percentage of their paycheck toward student loan repayment with a match from their employer, similar to retirement contributions.

In October, the U.S. Surgeon General released his newest Framework for Mental Health & Well-Being in the WorkplaceOpen in a new tab report highlighting five essentials for workers in organizations and businesses to help leaders develop policies and practices that support the mental health and well-being of workers.

They include: 

  • protection from harm (creating the conditions for physical and psychological safety is a critical foundation for ensuring mental health and well-being in the workplace)
  • connection and community (fostering positive social interaction and relationships in the workplace supports worker well-being)
  • work-life harmony (professional and personal roles can create work and non-work conflicts)
  • mattering at work (people want to know that they matter to those around them and that their work matters)
  • opportunities for growth (when organizations create more opportunities for workers to accomplish goals based on their skills and growth, workers become more optimistic about their abilities and more enthusiastic about contributing to the organization). 

Areas of Success 

As employers develop their well-being strategies, the most productive ones are those that focus on the total well-being of employees, Kloss said.

“We never know what each person’s individual needs are, and employers have had a tendency to assume they know what their employees need without asking,” she said. “Now they are asking and recognizing that we all have different well-being needs at different stages of our lives. Being more intentional in meeting the holistic needs of their workforce has been a positive outcome.”

Salkeld saw more emphasis on resiliency tools and basic training on emotional well-being support for leaders. There was also more education on topics such as nutrition, resources and flexibility to fight fatigue, equitable access to healthy foods and physical activity.

“We are thinking beyond that though,” she said. “The other part is thinking about how well-being can be infused into your culture and people strategy, and how you think about the composition of roles, team dynamics and physical space where people work and refine so that each maximize the employee’s well-being and the company’s commitment to that.”

Concerning financial well-being, Scruggs saw an increase in employers offering education resources and tools to help employees get on track. For example, providing access to financial planning support or budgeting tools can be one of the most effective yet budget-friendly ways to offer support. These resources empower employees to take control of their financial well-being, especially when larger monthly payments like student loans and mortgages come into play.

Additionally, because each employee has unique financial needs, offering well-being benefits for employees at various life stages can increase job satisfaction, engagement and morale across a diverse workforce, he said.

“Employees have different financial goals, whether paying back student loan debt, building their emergency savings fund or preparing for retirement. HR leaders who create personalized, flexible well-being programs demonstrate they’re listening to their employees’ needs and have more success as a result.”

Room for Improvement

In 2022, 23.8% of respondents to Gallagher’s National Strategy and Benchmarking SurveyOpen in a new tab currently didn’t have a strategy for well-being (although they may have had some well-being resources in place). This was up over 3% from 2021, and only 24.7% had a comprehensive “whole person” approach that encompassed physical, emotional, financial and career well-being aspects, down slightly from 2021.

“Well-being can’t be thought of as a program,” Schulz said. “It needs to be a business and cultural imperative and modeled by leaders as they are influencing the behavior of everyone around them.

“Employee emotional well-being is an area that needs improvement as well. While progress has been made enhancing resources and reducing the stigma surrounding mental health, access to providers and treatment remains an issue.”

Scruggs shared that 83%Open in a new tab of employees were motivated to improve their financial well-being, but only 53% said they knew how to get started.

“Offering new benefits is only the first step,” he said. “To help drive employee engagement, HR leaders must also ensure resources are accessible, customizable and interactive. HR and benefits teams must also effectively and frequently communicate the benefits to ensure adoption.

“While financial literacy and student loan debt have been a big part of financial benefits conversations in the last few years, college planning is one area that has historically been overlooked. In the last 20 years, the cost of attending college with in-state tuition at public national universities has increased by nearly 75%Open in a new tab,” he said. “As a result, employers should consider offering a 529 college savings program that allows employees to save for education costs while also taking advantage of tax benefits.”

Delta Air Lines’ Salkeld added that defining workplace flexibility was also a need.

“Most people assume that it’s remote work arrangements, which is part of it, but the other part is actually thinking about why employees like remote work,” she said. “It boils down to flexibility, empowerment and choice in how they show up — what clothes they wear, where they take meetings, preparing their own meals and being able to care for themselves seamlessly as they complete their work.”

What to Watch for in 2023

As employers plan, there are several short-term and long-term well-being strategies they should invest in.

Kloss encouraged employers to consider emotional well-being programs, EAPs and training supervisors to manage and bring empathy to their staff. Furthermore, employers should consider programs where employees can turn their PTO into other benefits, such as on-demand wage payment solutions; social-employee engagement solutions, where not only supervisors are rewarding employees, but co-workers also encourage teams, have become beneficial; and health plan care coordinators who can tailor programs to individual employee needs as well as educate on benefit plans and available resources.

In 2023, Scruggs said employers should focus on long-term financial health benefits to help offset inflation, such as pay raises, 401(k) matching, HSA contributions and tuition reimbursement.

“We found that the top five financial benefitsOpen in a new tab employees want their company to add, improve or expand are emergency savings fund (64%), retirement matching/401(k) (64%), financial planning tools (62%), budget planning tools (61%) and homeownership assistance (60%),” he reported.

Scruggs also suggested employers monitor the federal student loan payment moratorium in 2023 closely and consistently communicate policy changes and their impacts to employees.

“Investing in educational resources such as student loan debt counseling in advance of payments resuming will also help ensure that employees’ short-term and long-term needs aren’t negatively impacted,” he said.

And as DE&I continues to be a major priority for companies, employers should consider equitable and inclusive well-being benefits that cover a diverse set of employees.

“Emergency savings funds are a great example of a benefit that helps employees at all income levels and life stages,” Scruggs said. “Everyone will face a costly emergency at some point, from a leaky roof to an unexpected medical bill. Offering an emergency savings program can help employees with their short-term needs.”

Evaluating What Works

Data and analytics will be the core tenets of any successful total rewards program in 2023, Salkeld said.

The view of effectiveness and ROI will also look very different than it would for a compensation program, she explained. When developing an incentive plan, you have a formula that tells you where you precisely come in above or below target performance goals and can allocate money accordingly. As a result, it’s a more nuanced approach to thinking about targeted performance and outcomes for this area.

“Companies will need to think about that balance in understanding economics, what employees truly want and need, what conditions they need to manage at the population level, and then think differently about measurements of success in this space,” Salkeld said. “It is a mix of health outcomes, and employee engagement, retention and satisfaction.

Overall, well-being is a broad category, and its meaning can be subjective, Gallagher’s Schulz said.

“Organizations need to identify what does organizational well-being means to them, what types of well-being initiatives will be most meaningful to their employees and what are the metrics that indicate progress,” she said.

In the short term, that means employers need to have a strategy in place for collecting the employee voice.

“It’s the only way to ensure an organization’s strategy and budget are focused on the areas that are most important and relevant to their employees,” Schulz said.

Longer term, Schulz said building connectivity between often siloed strategies will increase effectiveness and value to employees.

“Investing in financial well-being programs like coaching and student loan repayment can help reduce stress,” she said. “Evaluating and expanding absence management and leave programs can ensure compliance in an increasingly complex regulatory environment and also provide important time off for employees to recharge in a way that meets their unique needs.”

Furthermore, 67% of respondents in Gallagher’s 2022 Benefits Strategy and Benchmarking SurveyOpen in a new tab indicated the biggest challenge with well-being initiatives is getting employees to actually use them (participation) and value them as part of their employee experience, Schulz said.

“Investing in a comprehensive communications strategy that helps connect the hearts and minds of employees, while increasing awareness of total rewards resources,” she said, “will help employers manage and optimize benefit costs and enhance their competitiveness in this continuously challenging labor market.”

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