Skip to main content

What do your employees really think of your workplace wellness benefits?

The Polarised Perceptions in Corporate Health and Wellness study revealed that while employers think they’re doing a good job of supporting people’s physical and mental health, employees don’t agree. These are the findings of our ongoing research into the divergence between employers’ health and wellness benefits strategies and the views and needs of employees.

  • 70% of employers believed they provide good access to health and wellness benefits and support, but only 23% of employees agreed
  • 82% of workers were concerned that mental health issues could impact their ability to work, but only 25% believed that their company provides good support for mental health conditions.

Part of this was down to the benefits themselves, part of it was that employees were unaware of what was available.

Then COVID-19 happened. The pandemic has affected most people in many countries in so many aspects of daily life.

In mid-2020, under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked employers and employees the same questions to see if people still felt the same way (read the report here). Do employers think their health benefits are hitting the mark? Do workforces agree? This article examines the shifting perceptions of both parties and offers advice for employers including ways to develop their health plans and communicate with and engage employees to help build healthier, happier, more productive teams.

Health becomes a focus

To many, especially healthy people, personal health is often taken for granted. The pandemic has been a terrible leveller, revealing our vulnerabilities and has brought health, hygiene and lifestyle choices sharply into focus. As Google Trends shows, there was a huge increase in the number of people looking for information to help them stay healthy as the first wave of the pandemic hit the West.

Aetna International Workplace Wellness Benefits Graphic Showing Employees Seeking Aetna International Workplace Wellness Benefits Graphic Showing Employees Seeking

Graph from Google Trends shows UK search volumes for ‘get healthy’ (blue) rising as the pandemic spread and ‘stay healthy’ (red) spiking during the same period.

Travel restrictions, health and safety recommendations, confinement and ‘lockdown’ forced businesses to revise their health policies and well-being strategies, adopt remote working practises, tailor workspaces, rotas to fit the ‘new normal’.  UK Google data shows the explosion in people searching for:

  • ‘Coronavirus advice for employers’ (blue)
  • ‘COVID work safety’ (red)
  • ‘COVID 19 guidance for employers’ (yellow)
Aetna International UK Google Data Graphic Showing COVID-19 Related Searches Aetna International UK Google Data Graphic Showing COVID-19 Related Searches

This may also have played a role in driving the increasing interest in ‘workplace wellness’ (red)

Aetna International Employees Increasing Interest in Workplace Benefits Graphic Aetna International Employees Increasing Interest in Workplace Benefits Graphic

Closing the gap and meeting expectations

The pandemic prompted companies to swing into action and improve their health and well-being strategies. Which conditions and which points on the care continuum have they tackled? And, importantly, have these changes met the needs of employees and do they perceive them as an improvement on last year?

Our 2020 study allows us to compare topical data to suggest improvement, decline or stagnation of employee perceptions.


  • 2019: 38% employees rated the support provided for stress as poor.
  • 2020: 25% employees rated the support provided for stress as poor.
  • Verdict: Improved

Mental health

  • 2019: 25% of employees (working from home or the office) said their company’s support for mental health conditions was good.
  • 2020: 52% of office-based employers rated the level of support they provide for mental health issues (such as anxiety and depression) as good, compared to just over a third (36%) of employees working from home.
  • Verdict: Improved (an increase of around 40%).

General health and wellness

  • 2019: 70% of employers thought they provided good access to general health and wellness benefits and support, but only 23% of employees agreed.
  • 2020: 55% of employers said the support they provide for general wellness is good, whereas the number of employees who thought so is 38%.
  • Verdict: Improved.

Physical health

  • 2019: 84% of employers thought access to support for back pain and similar physical issues was adequate or good. The number of employees who said the same was 75%.
  • 2020: 93% of HR directors rate the level of support provided for conditions that affect your bones, muscles and joints as adequate or good, compared with 77% of workers who work from home.
  • Verdict: No significant change.

We also asked direct questions about changes to workplace policies in response to the pandemic:

  • 49% of employers believe that flexible working arrangements have improved since COVID-19 began
  • 43% of employees agree their employer has improved support for achieving better work-life balance by offering flexible working times.

Employers have improved employee perceptions of health care, whether through new and improved initiatives, by communicating them to employees effectively, or both.

In light of heightened public awareness of the importance of healthy behaviours and hygiene, employers are now speaking to a more receptive audience in 2020 — one looking for health advice and support; one prepared to engage.

While there have improvements, communication remains a key challenge:

  • 34% employers believe that communication about the health support available has improved recently, but only 27% of workers agree their employer has regularly communicated about the support available to them.

This is important as it shows a key opportunity for employers — improve communication and your employees’ opinions and levels of trust will improve.  As Simon Miller, Senior Director, Customer Proposition at Aetna International explains, the gap between what employers feel they’re providing and what employees think is on offer, has narrowed – and these views will continue to converge as employers become increasingly focused on the health and well-being of their people.

Employers adapt

“Well-being has gone from a ‘nice to have’ to a necessity for organisations,” explains Simon. “Things such as telemedicine and mental well-being services aren’t valuable just because they’re part of a well-rounded well-being package, but because there are people on a cliff edge.

“As a result, we’re experiencing a surge of demand from customers asking for help to improve the way they structure, promote and measure utilisation of their benefits. Employers are trying to provide a structured, holistic benefits package that is tailored to answer a very visible, obvious need.”

As COVID has shifted people’s thinking, so have conversations with employers changed. More frequent conversations about health with line managers and HR and reporting up the chain are influencing real change in the senior leadership strategies. As Simon says, “we’re seeing a top-down culture shift - more humane, more empathetic leadership.”


While employees might not know as much about your organisation’s health and wellness benefits as you would like, or share their employer’s view on what is useful and necessary, it’s clear this gap in employer-employee perceptions has improved significantly in the last 12 months. COVID-19 has laid bare the many vulnerabilities in corporate wellness strategies, but it has also expedited much needed change. We will continue to investigate this gap in the coming years, helping employers better meet the needs and demands of their people in the coming years. In the meantime, here are tried-and-trusted means of engaging with your employees and fostering positive change — Read: 9 steps to creating a meaningful, effective health and wellness benefit strategy.

If you’re interested in corporate wellness, you can subscribe to our Fit For Duty podcast? Or you can listen right now.

Why not contact us to see how Aetna International can support your employees’ physical and mental health now and through all the stages of the pandemic? Get in touch in your region.

Aetna® is a trademark of Aetna Inc. and is protected throughout the world by trademark registrations and treaties.

We use cookies to give you the best possible online experience. See our cookie policy for more information on how we use cookies and how you can manage them. If you continue to use this website, you are consenting to our policy and for your web browser to receive cookies from our website.