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Corporate wellness trends 2019: approaches to employee well-being

We speak to Aetna International’s Director of Health and Wellness Solutions, Pamela Berger, to see what we can expect in corporate wellness next year.

Employee well-being continues to grow in the employer mindset: look after your employees and they’ll look after you; if they’re happy and healthy they’ll be more productive and more likely to stay with the company longer.

This article offers employers a view on what’s coming in the next 12 months. It ranges from how they can use corporate health and wellness programmes and ensure employee success with international assignments to productivity and profitability perspectives. It will also address:

  • Wellness programmes as a strategic decision
  • The expanding definition of what ‘wellness’ means
  • How we use data
  • Technology and personalisation
  • Social determinants
  • Social media
  • Investment

Click here to find out more about Aetna International’s international health care plans for employers.

An introduction to corporate wellness

Corporate well-being has been on the radar of many corporations for many years. It was always talked about as something that is a priority or should be a priority, but it’s now entrenched in a lot of corporations’ cultures. We’re seeing more and more companies investing in wellness programmes but also incentives to help keep their employees engaged. These programmes can increase productivity, decrease absenteeism and help make corporations stronger from a market/stockholders’ standpoint. If corporations have employees that are healthy and happy, they are going to have better product outcome.

Investment in corporate wellness continues to grow and we have seen more and more companies prioritising it as part of their corporate strategy.

Employee demand

Ideas about well-being are changing in many areas of the world. People are less cynical and skeptical about how things such as mindfulness and meditation can impact general well-being, and there is a growing demand for health and wellness support from employers. This includes corporate fitness centres, nutrition programmes and coaching programmes. The mindset shift is proved when companies remove programmes and there’s an outcry from staff.

Change in corporate culture

There is increased diversification with different programmes being offered. We’re transitioning from talking about wellness in a traditional sense — eating right, exercising more and making sure you’re taking necessary medication — to looking at holistic health and the trend towards talking about well-being as wellness.

As such, Aetna International as a health insurance company — are providing programmes to encompass holistic health from a mind, body and spirit perspective. Within this, it’s not just exercise, nutrition and medication — the physical side — but also behavioural health, social connectedness, sense of purpose, character strength, meditation and mindfulness. We’re using these components that comprise well-being to make sure that we offer solutions that will help individuals achieve a better state of well-being.

Employers are starting to embrace this as well — going beyond traditional corporate wellness programmes to address emotional health, from both work and personal perspectives, and the need for social connections.

How do you measure success?

There are two key aspects to gauging the success of corporate wellness programmes. Are we collecting the right data to show whether people are happier, healthier and more productive? And, are we getting the right people on to the right programmes?

Up-front analysis of an individual’s needs is essential: defining personalised care at the right time. The second element is measuring whether they are achieving their health goals, being more productive at work and are less absent. Is the employer seeing lower turnover of employees, are they seeing better performance as a result?

This is the way the industry is moving as a whole: looking at individuals holistically and providing well-being solutions that meet them where they want it, when they want it.

The growing role of social determinants

An important aspect in how we look at and assess the health of an individual is social determinants. Only 10% of your health is determined by the health care you receive, 90% is determined by lifestyle choices, genetics and social determinants.1

For example, socio-economic status, education and where an individual lives impact much of an individual’s health prognosis. As such we’re not just looking at medical history and weight, we’re looking deeper into people’s lives for the things that determine health outcomes.

Expats on assignment are educated individuals who aren’t struggling as much with economic conditions, so different social determinants influence expats. As such organisations with international teams and globally mobile employees will need a different focus for corporate well-being, one that is focused on chronic condition management as well as mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Social connectedness

A social determinant that affects expats is social connectedness as they’re often moving to a new location on an assignment with or without their family. If it is with their family, it’s usually the immediate family so they may not have the support of the rest of their friends and extended family that they have back at home. Social connectedness is amplified as an issue for people on assignment. It’s one of the main reasons why assignments fail — they or their family are struggling to assimilate into the culture they’ve moved into.

This is an area of focus for us. We want to better understand the social factors because of their impact on the emotional and behavioural well-being of the individual and their family. Corporations should work with health insurers who do more than just offer medical benefits, but work to support and manage an expat family’s emotional health and well-being.

Large multinational companies are often those helping to build communities and support networks for those employees who don’t have that support in place — such as those who are on international assignment and therefore new to a given location. Some offer gyms, health care and clubs such as softball and baseball. They have groups that plan social outings and different types of kids’ programmes such as nurseries.

Many very large companies in Silicon Valley here in the U.S. have adopted that kind of family-oriented atmosphere. It can be implemented to ensure they get their employees’ full attention in the office, where they’re not worrying about childcare issues or whether their partner is lonely because they sometimes work long hours.

Risk assessment

Corporations large and small should be looking at their demographic to understand where there are areas of risk. This needs to go beyond eating right and exercising, to include ‘do you have a part of your population that can’t pay their bills?', 'do you have a part of the population that’s unhappy at work or is really struggling in the workplace or at home?’. Work to understand their character — strains, strengths and traits. Are these people in the right jobs based on who they are? Is their personality a good fit for where they are? Are they struggling with their boss or co-workers?

Understanding a lot of these will involve a shift for many corporations and they will need support in this. They’ll also need help deciding what to do with this data, how to build the best health and well-being packages for each person.

Technology and personalisation

There is an increasing demand for personalisation in many industries and digital tools are helping to deliver it — and at scale.

Currently, corporate wellness can be personalised to the level of specific groups rather than individuals. Many people think personalisation means ‘individual’ — ‘me and my specific needs’. And while we use a lot of data and insights - your age, basic health details, even personality information about what makes you happy or sad — this is only used to define which wellness programme is best suited to you. This means individuals are enrolled in a wellness programme with like-minded others and those with similar well-being issues.  However, as we discover more with data and build out solutions we will have programmes that have more and more bespoke aspects — tailored to individuals.

There are so many new digital wellness and well-being tools on the market, but the key is that, for them to work, they need to be entertaining, interactive and engaging — and they need to mean something to the individual.

The other keystone to wellness tech is consolidation. There are so many apps and services and sites for every different need, person and condition — it’s overwhelming. How does a person know what’s good or bad, or what they need for their current state of health? Health care companies need to better help members navigate the options and help employers choose and implement the right tools for their members.

Aetna International has a key role as educator and guide to ensure employers and employees are getting the very best from their health care provider.

Social media: a double-edged sword

We’re learning more and more about the impacts of social media on well-being — particularly emotional well-being. A lot of social platforms aren’t always a positive influence. People aren’t necessarily getting ‘increased happiness’ from spending a lot of time on a social platform.2

If you’re on a social platform and all your friends are having a great time and you’re sitting at home, you’re now experiencing loneliness. One major multi-year study examined social media and its impact on happiness. It found that the feeling that you get after being on a social platform or connecting with individuals over social media, makes individuals as happy as commuting to work.3

As a health care company, we have to be ready to navigate all of these digital innovations as they arrive. We have to ensure they create value and happiness to people, rather than anxiety and social unconnectedness. We have to make sure we’re not promoting something that could negatively impact our members.

Increasing investment

Investment in corporate wellness is shifting. More corporations are supporting wellness programmes, adding them as part of their benefits — including components of well-being and incentives programmes

For the corporations already offering well-being initiatives and programmes, it is unclear whether a significant amount are increasing their funding of these programmes. But they are definitely shifting their budgets into different areas of corporate wellness and expanding their offerings. This is often to offer a more diverse range of programmes — often based on learnings from previous programmes.  

How much should companies invest in wellness programmes? While firms can’t do enough to support employees to make sure they’re living as healthily as they possibly can, there is always going to be an employer benefits ceiling as far as budget allocation in concerned. And so, it’s important not to waste the budget. Companies should seek to learn and improve their programmes to support the best health outcomes for their employees that, in turn, boost productivity and profitability.


Adoption of corporate wellness is growing but there remain challenges.

One challenge is how we prove success. The outcomes from programmes and tools are long-term — life-long — so it’s very hard to measure whether one specific programme or group of programmes has been successful from a health and health care standpoint.

Companies want to know: ‘Is this mindfulness programme actually reducing my costs?’

Answering this is a challenge because while we can measure engagement, satisfaction, even stress and blood pressure reduction, it is difficult to directly tie that to claim cost avoidance. I don’t know whether we’ll find the perfect way to do that in the next 5 years, but we’ll make good strides.

Speak to one of our experts about how you could benefit from Aetna International’s corporate wellness programmes.

About the author: Pam Berger

Pam Berger is Director of Health and Wellness Solutions at Aetna International. She has been with the company for 18 years starting out in the U.S.-based Aetna Enterprise before moving to Aetna International nine years ago. Pam played a pivotal role in developing Aetna’s first wellness tools in 2002 and 2003.

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

Additional sources:

1 Artiga & Hinton, 2018
2 Shankya, H., & Christakis, N. A. (2017, February 1). Association of Facebook Use With Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study. Retrieved from American Journal of Epidemiology:
3 Killingsworth, M., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Retrieved from American Association for the Advancement of Science.:

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