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A Recap of Workplace Wellbeing in 2017: The Year of Aid & Assist

Looking back on how employers really stepped up to help their employees

The year of 2017 was a big one, emotionally, for all of us. We witnessed the inauguration of a new President among political tension, received all-too-frequent alerts about global and domestic terrorism, and watched in disbelief as natural disasters plagued communities around the world. We saw millions come together for the Women’s Marches and other pro-equality protests, yet also saw accusations & convictions of sexual harassment and racial discrimination take down powerful politicians, famous actors, and highly successful executives, in waves. It is exhausting to simply reflect upon these events, let alone acknowledge these were just the tip of the iceberg. For many, such public happenings were also minuscule in comparison to the uniquely personal issues we were all challenged with.

Despite the negative, the days we felt the world may end, and the fear of what else could go wrong – I try to look back on 2017 with positive thoughts, reflecting on the instances in which I saw my clients, and other leading companies, really step up to these challenges as employers. For the first time in my career as a wellbeing program consultant, I saw clients coming to us with urgent needs – no longer simply requests of curiosity, but immediate demands for resources for their employees, when they needed it most. The world was coming down on their employees, and they wanted to be there to lift them back up: physically, emotionally, and financially. The requests came not just for their employees, but for those people’s families. And I saw the word “family” evolve – as employers recognized their staff was not simply impacted by their own, individual state of wellbeing, but by the wellbeing of their neighbors, communities, parents, children, and extended relatives.

People came together. They aided and assisted employees and colleagues wherever they could.

The following is a recap of what we saw happen in wellbeing in 2017:

Emotional Health:

Reacting quickly to local and global events, preparing in advance when possible: This year, we watched announcements, read headlines, and felt the impact of political decisions, natural disasters, and acts of violence. Thankfully, companies reacted and took a stance, increasing the standard for which we see organizations emotionally support their employees and communities in times of hardship. Developing mission statements, wellbeing & benefit philosophies, and protocols to support employees in challenging times will continue to be important in the coming year. Here’s just a few powerful examples we saw:

Weaving technology into behavioral support, offering app based and virtual mental health options: One of the biggest barriers to mental health care in the US is the ease of finding the right services to match a persons’ specific and financial needs. Behavioral telemedicine skyrocketed in popularity this year, with 96% of employers allowing telehealth services for medical services and related treatments in states where it’s allowed. We also saw an increase in companies paying for therapy based apps, to get “on the clock coaching”, aiming to develop soft skills like stress management and collaboration that are believed to help employees be happier and more effective in and out of the office.

Recognizing stress as a cultural issue, starting at the top: Mental health was in the spotlight this last year, as stress levels increased to an all time high. In response, medical carriers began to publicly emphasize the importance of total health, not just physical health. We saw Kaiser Permanente team up with NBA star Steph Curry in their mental health campaign, describing their view on resilience as “a huge sports insight, but a shared human insight as well….everyone deals with negativity and having to fight that in your head.” The move was symbolic of other role-models also starting to lead by example, particularly in the workplace. We witnessed more CEOs take a stance on these issues, such as was seen in the popularity of meditation for a successful career, or this CEO’s response to employee’s mental health day that went viral.

Physical Health:

Decoding healthcare plans through ongoing education: According to a 2017 survey in Business Insider, for millennials, 27% said they put off visiting a doctor to avoid high costs this year. Twenty-nine percent of millennials worried about whether their insurance would cover basic costs, stemming from the fact that 55% got a bill that they didn’t budget for. With the increasing popularity of options like high-deductible plans this last year, employers began to offer more ongoing benefit education, outside of just open enrollment and new hire training. Making benefit education a year-round priority has become crucial to a successful, transparent total benefits package.

Turning to technology to improve access to care: Piggybacking on decoding plan design, employers recognized that sometimes, physically getting to the doctor is not that easy. TIME Magazine wrote a feature on this earlier in the year, highlighting the technology that employers turned to in 2017 to help, such as telemedicine “video doctor visits”, prescription delivery, pay per month care via apps, and even the return of on-demand (via an app, of course) house visits.

Redefining what it means to be “healthy”, including how a person gets there: In addition to a focus on traditional fitness and health, our latest Sequoia Benchmarking Report saw in increase in the percentage of companies who shifted their previous “gym stipend” to include alternate forms of “self-care”, letting employees expand that definition on their own. Popular forms of approved reimbursements, outside of gyms, included physical therapy, personal and holistic care, education and learning, and parenting needs.

Financial & Family Planning

Offering support for debt and personal hardships: A recent ASA poll found that paying off student loans was a priority for 59% of young workers. That was more than the 41% who said saving for retirement was a priority. In 2017, we saw employees look to their employer to offer a competitive salary, but also to support their personal goals – whether it be to get out of debt or save for retirement. In times of hardship, many employers also turned to create Employee Relief Funds this last year, often doubling the aid in times of widespread need, such as Starbucks, Nordstrom, and United.

Observing the financial needs of a changing demographic: Providing financial wellness training and tools was expected to be a key workplace trend for 2017, and more recent research findings showed that to be the case. As of 2017, nearly one-half (49 percent) of employers offered some type of financial advice, which included providing resource materials or referrals, online assessment and advice tools, and group instruction and one-on-one advice with a financial counselor. However, what topics this financial advice intended to cover varied from company to company, and also evolved. Companies experiencing their own “baby booms”, seeing an influx of employees coming in with student loans, and experiencing new family care needs, all were forced to re-evaluate what financial education and support was needed.

Changing policy terminology from “parent” to “caregiver”: This last year, we saw an influx of requests not just for childcare services, but for elderly care, special needs assistance, and resources for severe or terminally ill family members and colleagues, such as those diagnosed with cancer. Many employers we work with in the tech space (typically with a younger demographic) were dealing with such requests for the first time. Yet, according to studies by Families and Work Institute, 25% of all family caregivers in 2017 are younger millennials and 50% are under the age of 50, meaning – we expect the number of these requests to grow. Redefining and adding policies to assist not just parents, but caregivers of all kinds, has helped increase the support and resources available within the workplace for many groups, particularly women and minorities.

What benefits and other offerings in the wellbeing space do you hope to see top the list in 2018? 

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