Behavioral health, workplace demographics, chronic disease management, and health technologies are guiding employers’ pursuit of better wellness programs.
In the face of uncertain data regarding wellness programs’ efficacy and employees’ utilization, employers are revolutionizing their approach to employee wellness programs with an increased focus on the employee, as opposed to healthcare spending, according to a new Optum study.
“Employers are getting smart, serious and sophisticated in their approach to employee health and well-being,” the Optum study begins. “They are using data, demographics and technology in smart ways to fuel program innovation, relevancy and engagement.”
Optum’s survey looked at how 500 employers address employees’ wellness through an online survey.
The survey shows that as they improve their wellness programs, employers are considering behavioral wellness, the demographics of their work environment, complex or chronic disease management, and health technology.
In behavioral health, employers are closely considering mental health and substance abuse.
Eighty-four percent of the respondents expressed that substance use disorder was a health condition for which they should provide support.
Employers not only provided services for mental health wellness, but 88 percent also intend to go to the heart of the issue by reducing the prejudice surrounding mental health conditions within the next year.
Over 60 percent of employers are looking at ways to integrate their physical and behavioral care and the same amount are considering providing relevant technologies for support.
Over half of the respondents are considering expanding their provider network and enabling virtual doctor visits.
Primarily, the employers who saw substance abuse as a serious issue for their company sought to increase awareness. However, nearly half also adapted their benefits to include substance abuse-related support, relied on their Employee Assistance Program (EAP), provided employees with counseling opportunities, and changed their policies.
Furthermore, employers looked at creating more integrated wellness programs. The survey showed that 76 percent of employers think it would be beneficial to blend their behavioral and physical wellness programs.
Employers are also looking at gender demographics to inform their wellness programs. With women making up around 47 percent of the workforce, over 80 percent of employers believe in investing in and expanding women-specific wellness benefits.
From 2016 to 2018, the number of employers offering maternity, neonatal, first year of life, fertility, midlife, and preconception programs grew by anywhere from 15 percent for maternity program offerings to as much as 64 percent, for midlife solutions.
Retired employees and families are also receiving more benefits, especially since around 2012.
As employers recognize the role families play in employees’ wellness, programs for families increased by 33 percent in the last six years, hitting 89 percent in 2018.
And with the escalation in seniors’ healthcare spending, the number of employers offering retiree programs rose 62 percent points between 2012 and 2018.
Employers’ understanding of chronic and complex diseases is changing and, as a result, so are their benefits programs.
Only one percent of employers have no concerns about complex illnesses, while 87 percent said they are concerned about this issue.
They are finding more complex solutions to meet employees’ complex needs. For example, a growing number of employers are using Centers of Excellence (COE) to provide low-cost, high-quality clinical care including surgeries and joint replacements.
In addition to adjusting their provider network with COEs, employers are also offering support services to help employees manage chronic or complex conditions. These advocates are proving successful at achieving positive patient outcomes, raising productivity, and assisting employees in understanding, accessing, and utilizing their benefits. Employees show higher satisfaction with their benefits when an advocate is involved.
Lastly, employers are increasingly relying on technologies such as apps, text alerts, and activity trackers for health solutions.
Between 2016 and 2018 the technologies that saw the highest level of growth were virtual support, integration of third-party or existing apps, artificial intelligence (AI), and virtual reality (VR). All of these rose from zero usage in 2016 to over 50 percent usage in 2018.
The study noted that this trend is most prevalent among large (3,000 to 9,999 employees) and “jumbo” (over 10,000 employees) employers. Most employers say that their technologies have been very effective.
Many major payers are taking a similar route and even seeking to integrate their physical wellness offerings and digital wellness platforms.
While studies show that wellness programs attract and retain employees, researchers also have identified a dichotomy between employers’ and employees’ perceptions of wellness programs.
Low beneficiary utilization may be attributable to a lack of awareness, some researchers discovered. Other studies have implied that employees may simply have other priorities, such as financial wellness. Still others report that wellness programs mainly attract employees who are already successfully managing their health.
In addition to this disconnect with their employees, employers are experiencing more legal challenges to their wellness programs.
In July 2019, for example, Yale University faced a class action lawsuit for its wellness program. The university had, according to the lawsuit, forced employees to either join Yale’s Health Expectation Program or pay a fine of $1,300 each year.
In spite of these hurdles, employers continue to increase their commitment to employee wellness. Over 80 percent of the respondents intend to invest more in their wellness programs.
While healthcare spending remains a driver, employers’ rationale for improving wellness programs is becoming more about the employees: decreasing absenteeism, recruiting higher talent and keeping them, and creating or continuing positive morale.
Date: August 30, 2019