According to statistics from the Global Wellness Institute, around 76% of the 3.4 billion working adults globally report they are struggling with their well-being across a broad spectrum of mental, physical, social and financial elements. Around 52% are overweight, roughly 1 billion suffer from anxiety, and one in four experience a mental disorder. The global workforce is aging and becoming increasingly multigenerational — 18% will be over 55 by 2030. On top of that, 74% live with serious economic insecurity, according to “The Future of Wellness at Work 2016” study.
Most of the workers affected by these challenges are based in developing nations. Yet, for the 306 million living in developed nations that work for an employer that offers some sort of support, physical and mental stress is acknowledged as a key factor affecting personal health and performance.
This is important because the statistics show that at any one moment, a significant number of people in any organization around the globe are experiencing at least one issue with their wellbeing. In the short term, this can mean reduced productivity and over time, this can potentially lead to long-term absences, with some considering leaving the employer altogether.
The Domino Effect of Well-Being: When One Is Compromised, All Are at Risk
Employers often don’t have insight into their employees’ well-being, or worse, any idea how wellness factors affect job performance and productivity or workplace happiness and engagement. What is the impact of depression? Financial strains? Family stress? Since total wellbeing consists of four pillars — physical, mental, social and financial — it makes sense that each rely heavily on the other for support. The most common mental health issues among employees are generalized anxiety or depression. The average duration of clinical depression, if left entirely untreated, can last an extended period of time. What started as a mental health issue can have repercussions on a person’s social, physical and financial well-being as that person withdraws from social interaction, perhaps exercises less and seeks solace in spending or gambling, or another potentially addictive behavior. In another example, relationship counselors at LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell note that a divorce currently takes around seven to 12 months to complete and can wipe out up to 70% of a partner’s net wealth, having a substantial effect on other aspects of their well-being.
The same is true of any stressful situation, which when left unchecked can transform into a well-being affliction that lasts for an extended period. As reported by the Global Wellness Institute, the cost of unwell workers worldwide represents 10% to 15% of global economic output on an annual basis. In the U.S. alone, this amounts to $2.2 trillion a year. In countries where public and national health services are available, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, news reports will typically claim that these services are under severe strain and not properly equipped or capable of supporting the entire spectrum of health, especially mental welfare. In countries where health insurance is required, such as the U.S., an unhealthy workforce can drive costs up significantly for both the employer and the employee. This is further compounded by lower productivity and higher operating expenses — replacing a highly skilled worker costs up to 213% of their annual salary after considering the time it takes to offboard one, onboard another and get them to a place of effectiveness, according to a Center for American Progress “Cost of Turnover” report.
Employers Seek Solutions
Through this lens, the benefits of investing in employee well-being are clear. According to the Human Capital Management Institute, companies that invested just $1 per person in well-being initiatives outperformed their peers and experienced an 11.7% productivity gain.
That sounds like a strong return on investment. But it matters greatly how that $1 is spent. For many of these employees, typical support solutions at one end of the spectrum include biometric screenings, classes and counselling to help them cope with stress and its health impacts. At the other end, initiatives might include stimulating healthy habits by offering fresh fruit in the workplace or flexible working practices. Collectively, these initiatives are encouraging and a step in the right direction, but for the most part, they do little to address the modern workplace culture that very often is a key contributor to workers’ stress. According to the Global Wellness Institute, when wellness is not a strategic focus, support initiatives are conducted in isolation from the day-to-day operating environment of work and become merely a band-aid solution.
Bestselling author and workplace culture expert Chester Elton has been studying business culture and employee engagement for over 20 years, and has found that in the highest performing workplace cultures, leaders not only create higher levels of employee engagement, but they also create environments that support productivity and performance in which employees feel enabled.
“Furthermore, they help employees feel a greater sense of well-being, making people feel more energized,” he said.
In 2018, when Morneau Shepell carried out its most recent annual HR Trends survey, more than two-thirds of the human resources leaders that responded (67%) said that improving employee engagement was a top priority for 2019. Meanwhile, improving the mental health of employees was a priority for 48%, which is not surprising given the increase in awareness of the relationship between employee mental health and business objectives.
The World Health Organization defines health as “the state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of diseases or infirmity.” As such, the attributes that make up a person’s total well-being cannot be assessed in isolation because of their interdependency.
To this point, while many organizations will claim to have a well-being strategy, it is often one that has evolved piecemeal, with benefits sourced from multiple providers, internal communications and an employee assistance program (EAP) existing in separate silos. Not only does this make participation challenging for the employees, it makes it very difficult for HR directors to assess the impact of the strategy. The HR professional tasked with qualifying such initiatives would have to follow the trail of information breadcrumbs from multiple sources to try to take the measure of the organization’s health.
Many HR professionals are challenged by working with inconvenient or outdated tools and systems when working to improve and maintain employee well-being. With a workforce spread across geographically disparate locations, multiple shifts or time zones, and an environment that makes sharing and collaboration between employees difficult, this challenge can be amplified.
Consistent participation is a key part of the recipe for a successful employee engagement and total well-being strategy. But it’s difficult to see results if people don’t sign up, participate in the initiative and keep up with that involvement. It’s here that technology, when used correctly, can be a boon rather than a threat.
Turn on the Tech
We live and work in an era that is increasingly fast paced. The on-demand economy has been welcomed with open arms into both our personal and professional spaces as we strive to get more done in the now. But it has brought with it a plethora of distractions and new challenges in terms of our social wellness. Amazon, Spotify, Netflix, Uber, GrubHub — all darling brands of the tech sector — are focused on connecting consumers with suppliers, wherever and whenever. As consumers seek out convenience, this same phenomenon is changing the way we approach work, driven further by information intensity and the desire to share and collaborate.
Many of these tech-driven services learn from our interactions and deliver a more relevant and appropriate experience as a result, and this is something we’re coming to expect. According to Accenture, 75% of business buyers expect companies to be able to anticipate their needs and make relevant suggestions by 2020.
Replacing a highly skilled worker can cost up to 213% of that worker's annual salary.
In the developed world, the drive toward wellness is being adopted at scale, in the foods we eat through healthier options; in the devices we rely on through the likes of Apple, Google and Fitbit; and in the authorities that govern us, through guidance to be more proactive and aware of our well-being.
EAPs have been around for decades and are proven to be very effective at reducing absenteeism and reversing low productivity. Yet EAP providers like Morneau Shepell know these services only engage 5% to 10% of the workforce at any one time. Stigma around mental health may be fading, but it is still prevalent, and people still struggle with the concept of reaching out for support. It remains a challenge for people struggling with depression to take action. As a result, people typically engage with an EAP when they are already at crisis point and have been suffering for some time, which isn’t optimal for either the employee or the employer.
With the mass adoption of the internet and mobile devices however, driving social engagement with health and well-being initiatives through technology addresses the main challenge faced by more traditional well-being initiatives that deliver support reactively.
76% of the 3.4 BILLION working people in the world report struggling with wellbeing across a broad spectrum of mental, physical, social and financial elements.
A 2018 study carried out by LifeWorks across 750 workers in the UK, U.S. and Canada found that the majority of those surveyed would prefer mobile-first access to their company-sponsored well-being support services in order to be proactive about their wellness on their own terms. According to the study, around 65% of all respondents had accessibility issues with their current employee well-being services. Less than 5% of those surveyed accessed their employee wellbeing services through a smartphone app and less than half accessed it through a web-based service. Yet more than 75% of respondents expressed a desire to access these services from any place at any time.
Meeting employees, wherever they are on their well-being journey through mobile applications, means they can connect in their own time and receive education at their own pace. The anonymity afforded by a screen also means the interaction is less intimidating. In a 2018 survey, 63% of new users that connected with LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell through a newly introduced 24/7 instant chat service would not have reached out to a clinical counsellor through traditional methods.
Clearly, the demand is there for a more accessible experience to fi t in with our increasingly technology-driven lives. Preventative maintenance of well-being makes financial sense too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that more than 75% of healthcare costs are due to chronic conditions that are largely preventable, just by reducing behavior- based risk factors. The same authority also states that in the U.S., 25% to 50% of a typical employers’ annual medical care costs could be avoided by addressing such things as physical activity, weight management, smoking cessation and preventive health care.
With mobile-first applications that store access to the EAP, short- and long-form educational content and 60-second question- based health risk assessments in one place, it’s possible to drive small, incremental changes to people’s behaviors. LifeWorks records engagement rates of up to 65% with its mobile application, and as people swap negative habits for more positive ones, they are simultaneously kept further away from a well-being crisis and better able to bounce back should one occur.
By putting access and control over well-being in the palm of employees’ hands, wellness and work can and should become mutually enhancing in a virtuous circle. Research by Gallup found that people who are engaged at work report better health and lower rates of chronic disease than disengaged workers. They also eat healthier and exercise more, making them more engaged and productive — and so the cycle continues.
“Health and safety” is a well-acknowledged effort in employee well-being, but it’s an outdated and physical-led approach. Employers have a duty of care, not just to their people, but also to their shareholders and national economies to invest in their employees’ total well-being. It’s not enough to support employees only physically or in times of crisis alone. It’s time for organizations to invest in their culture, their people and their business.
Patrick Williams, LMFT, CEAP, is a clinical director at Lifeworks by Morneau Shepell. He specializes in workplace issues, helping employees learn how to balance their personal and professional stressors.