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Corporate wellness and workplace wellness trends 2021

This article details our experts’ predictions for corporate wellness and workplace wellness in 2021 and beyond.

Contributors include Dr Hemal Desai (Global Medical Director) and Simon Miller (Senior Director of Customer Proposition), Dr Sneh Khemka (Vice President of Population Health) and Kate Karwelies (Head of Health Services).

Demand, adoption and utilisation will leap forward

The most important trend, one that is driving almost all of the others, is demand. To many people before the pandemic, corporate wellness and health benefits were a nice-to-have for employees — though often underused. The provision of benefits showed that a company took its duty of care seriously. They were also used to attract talent.

Covid-19 changed this.

Suddenly personal health and health care was front and centre for employees. They wanted benefits and support for specific things: mental health support, remote access to care, testing.

For expats this was often made worse by a lack of access to quality care in certain regions where health care systems had been overwhelmed by the pandemic — in some instances, ceasing all non-COVID-related treatment.

Many of the trends in this article are a continuation of those we have discussed in previous years, others are new. The key prediction for 2021 is that adoption and utilisation of corporate wellness and, in particular remote tools, will leap forward, driven by specific demand and the ‘forced’ use that has introduced many — now happy — users to a variety of new platforms.

In many cases, the tools already exist, it is increased adoption that’s new.

Digital, remote tool use — such as virtual health and telemedicine — driven by necessity has reassured reluctant adopters that tools are comprehensive, easy and convenient. There is trust.

Adoption of some services such as virtual health has risen by up to 400% and while this may dip after the pandemic, adoption will return to a far higher level than it was before the pandemic.

The demand and delivery of specific benefits will mean expectations will change. People will ask for more than just access to a GP remotely, but to therapists, nutritionists. They will want to get order prescriptions online and have them delivered. They may want tests and treatment at home.

This means employers have an opportunity to provide benefits that actually get used, and actually drive better health.

Vaccines and testing will take time

Demand for corporate wellness benefits such as mental health support can be instantly met by the inclusion and use of existing tools, testing and vaccinations will take time. At the time of writing, only a few countries have rolled out vaccines and elective testing remains inaccessible to many.

Vaccinations and testing will take time to become a part of benefits.

Monitoring long-term trends will be essential

It is going to be important to watch the long-term impact of those people who have delayed check-ups and preventative care such as mammograms. Will we see a long-term impact of the swathe of people who didn’t get their regular check-up this year? Will figures rise in 2021 as things weren’t caught before due to missed tests?

Scotland has seen a 10% increase in excess deaths for stroke and heart disease compared to the previous five-year average. Our experts believe this trend will be replicated across many conditions.

As well as missed check-ups and delayed treatments, our experts point to the long-term impact of reduced mobility, poor ergonomic working spaces and drivers of a forthcoming ‘NCD tsunami’ — a rise in non-communicable diseases.

While figures for heart disease and stroke start to come in, we don’t know the long-term effects of COVID-19 on mental health yet. However, UK mental health charity, Mind, found that 22% of people who had no previous experience of poor mental health said that during lockdown they were having poor or very poor mental health. Our own research supports this with employees saying that their mental health has become a key concern during lockdown.

Monitoring the delayed impact of these and other factors will allow decision makers to guide the right elements of their corporate wellness programme.

Employees need to get active

Many people have moved less in 2020. Home working and lockdowns have increased sedentary lifestyles. It will be important for companies to promote physical activity to reduce the impact of muscular skeletal conditions (MSK) and obesity.

Mental health will become the main priority

In May 2020 the United Nations said that the pandemic led to widespread psychological distress in populations with mental health services in 93% of countries affected by the COVID-19 crisis. 74% of our respondents in our own study say their mental health has been impacted by COVID-19.

Our survey also revealed the extent to which demand for mental health support has risen:

  • Is mental health care provision from your employer now more or less important to you?
    • More – 68%
    • Same – 21%
    • Less – 11%
  • Is physical health care provision from your employer now more or less important to you?
    • More – 63%
    • Same – 25%
    • Less – 12%

2021 will see the expansion of mental health support as part of corporate wellness programmes. This will include digital tools such as virtual therapy and sleep aids, as well as non-digitals tools such as increased ‘sponsorship’ of social events and activities to deliver the community needs of workers (especially those still working remotely). Other innovations may include remote monitoring of software use to curb always-on culture and reduce burnout.

Read: The Covid-19 pandemic and workplace mental health [LINK] for a comprehensive look at how the pandemic has impacted employee mental well-being. It also includes specific advice on:

Holistic approach will re-emerge

Companies need to take a step back and look at the whole person: their physical and psychological needs — but also the social needs. This holistic approach to health was emergent but exasperated by the events of 2021. However, it will become a focus again.

Businesses must recognise the connectedness between these three aspects of well-being when it comes to health — especially in light of the ongoing impact of the pandemic: home working, home schooling, lack of exercise, recovery from other illness. These three factors will become the pillars of strategic well-being programmes — and health care provision is a very important part of that.

The key is that one size doesn’t fit all. The best strategies will start with listening — listening to the needs of employees. The suite of benefits will then be based on the needs of the group.

It will be important to remember that at a time when every month seems to bring a new shiny app for some aspect of health and fitness, technology should be an enabler, not the solution itself. Too many businesses have been choosing the technology and then retrofitting it into a framework — rather than selecting tech based on a specific employee need.

Preventative care will become a focus

Preventative care is another trend that was already emergent in corporate wellness and health benefits. Many businesses supported general and ongoing good health with gym membership, in-office yoga and mindfulness exercises. Our 2019 research showed that people knew what they had to do to stay healthy, they just didn’t do it. The pandemic has changed this and employees are engaging with benefits like never before. Covid-19 has shown people the need to maintain general good health to reduce the risk of catching the virus and reducing its potential impact if infected.  

Businesses will start thinking earlier in an employee’s health journey - not just being reactive to illness. Strategies will include getting healthy and health maintenance as well as curative benefits.

Many businesses will have to build these strategies to include remote workers. What do they need to help them get and stay healthy? How is it different from those in the office? For example, how can businesses help home workers create ergonomic workspaces? How can they facilitate social networking to help maintain good mental health?

Strategies will include the addition of remote support services, self-help and self-care. Businesses will also use tools such as digital physiotherapy to provide early intervention cues that can be captured for referral to a GP.

Technology will find its place

The problem with a lot of early digital health care, was the belief that it could replace doctors. This drove a mistrust of the technology — not the doctors — which resulted in a lack of adoption. Digital innovators have shifted their goal, aiming to support doctors and facilitate health care journeys — make them shorter, easier to navigate less complex.   

Hardware such as wearables are great, but they are only indicators, not solutions. We may also see adoption not just by individuals, but by clinicians who can use the data to provide diagnosis and advice. Wearables may also then be able to provide alerts and triggers for clinicians and patients alike — providing onward condition management. The rules around data sharing will remain a challenge as some people remain reluctant to share their personal health data.

There are dozens of new apps and innovations in health care generally, and many may impact corporate wellness space. The key for businesses is not which apps they select but choosing a benefits partner who can tailor a solutions package, to suit the specific needs of that business. Partners that can pull t hat together in the most meaningful way will deliver the best outcomes.

Read: Health care tech trends 2021 for a comprehensive list of the innovations that we expect to see more of in 2021, including:

People will demand health care security

For many expats, health care — and therefore health insurance — was not a priority. Especially when in the mix with moving to a new country, settling family, finding schools and getting to grips with a new job. The view was, local free health care or our basic insurance package is probably fine for our low level of need — emergencies only, paying the bills. Covid has decimated many national health care systems as well as shown individuals a new vulnerability. As such, people want health care security — to know that they have everything they may need if what is now more likely to happen, happens.

People will look to their employer to support this — their own health as well as that of their family. We have witnessed this as, over 2020, many policy holders added family members and/or expanded their own cover.

Benefits will adapt for remote working

Remote working has had a significant and significantly different impact on different people. Some people are thriving, others aren’t. And this may change with the season or the time of day — for example, those with children. And benefits need to reflect these different needs.

Businesses should recognise these complex needs in their strategy. They will acknowledge that one size doesn’t fit all and include solutions for a multitude of contexts.

For example, the lines between work and non-work time are blurred while working from home. Fatigue and burnout is a risk for these individuals — especially at an executive level — and solutions to tackle that need to be addressed. Businesses may include remote mental health support and allow downtime to explore these benefits and how to use them. They may also include training for line managers to pick up on the cues of poor mental health in remote workers.

Some large software companies are developing parts of software to help anonymously identify habits of people prone to burnout by monitoring access timings. For example, are certain people accessing email in the evenings or weekends? 

Visit our remote working resource for advice and guides for employers and employees.

Businesses will offer top ups and add-ons

For employees in some countries, employers will provide the basic cover, and employees will independently get ‘better’ cover or cover to include other countries or benefits.

Companies are starting to ask, should we provide that as standard, or as a top up option? Especially as people want to work remotely from other countries.

By offering more comprehensive benefits, especially international private medical insurance (iPMI), companies can widen the talent pool and hire in other countries. Companies who provide that will have the pick of global talent for certain roles.

Office culture will change

Businesses won’t just be focused on office culture, but on the culture of working from home, because not everyone who worked in an office is going back to one. We will shift from building culture around a group of people who sit and work together, to digital and remote culture.

Many businesses implemented initiatives like Aetna’s own ‘Let’s Get Talking’ where groups no larger than eight met online to discuss non-work topics. Things like this that have worked well during the pandemic will continue, especially with global workforces who would never be in a room together anyway.

Video will play a key role in this, but the key will be to recognise the role and importance of people’s personal lives for their well-being. When people are happy and feel supported it can positively impact productivity.

Some companies will provide benefits as a tick-box exercise, others believe benefits can help with recruitment, retention and play a role in nurturing more productive employees. The latter companies will work to build a culture of well-being, rather than simply providing benefits.

Read: Regulation, policy and culture for more on how Covid-19 will impact corporate health care

Corporate investment

Investment in corporate wellness has been increasing over the last few years. The pandemic has proven their power and value, and we should we expect accelerated investment in 2021. Investment levels will depend on the arrival and impact of the predicted forthcoming recession.

Many companies may find it hard to find the money to invest in corporate wellness programmes. Organisations will be pushing for return on investment (ROI) so results will need to be more measurable than ever.

The long-term trend remains increased investment with the largest businesses leading the charge and driving change that smaller businesses to follow.

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