The new ways companies are investing in employee wellbeing

Companies are launching a growing range of initiatives to show employees they care about their health and wellbeing

January 14, 2021

Traditional perks such as subsidised gym membership or lunchtime yoga sessions are now making way for more holistic initiatives supporting mental wellbeing as well as nutrition and new work-from-home practices. 

In the UK, 86 percent of employers say they are changing their approach to employee health and wellbeing as a result of COVID-19. Over half of US companies are providing dedicated mental and emotional health programmes, while half of companies in Asia Pacific are enhancing their healthcare benefits.

“While there was some focus on health and wellbeing before the pandemic, employee wellness is now on the roadmap of every company. It has become as important as the financial health of the organisation,” says Flore Pradère, Research Director, Global Work Dynamics Research at JLL. “Initiatives vary between companies but at their core, they’re aiming to alleviate stress, improve physical health and support employees through the pressures of home-working.”

Preventative healthcare is a growing area. AXA, for example, has a health programme for its global employees that includes annual checkups, fitness advice and counselling services. BlackLine provides an employee assistance program with financial advice and a telehealth service where employees can access medical care and virtual mental health consultations.

Not all initiatives are complex or expensive to set-up. At pharmaceutical tech firm Benevolent AI, remote-working employees are encouraged to take regular walking breaks, while software company Intelliflo started Zoom drop-ins for colleagues to catch up informally.

Changing attitudes

Evolving employee expectations are driving wellness initiatives. Employees now prioritise work-life balance over a comfortable salary, and three out of four expect their employer to support their health, wellbeing and nutrition, according to JLL research.

“Under pressure, many employees have remained engaged, flexible and resilient at work,” says Pradère. “Now, they expect trust, support for personal needs, and choice in terms of when and how they work.”

As businesses recalibrate to new ways of working, many including Target and Starbucks have launched initiatives to support employees adjusting to remote work

“Employers are recognising the impact that the loss of face-to-face interaction can have on mental wellbeing,” says Lee Daniels, Global Product Manager Workplace & Occupancy Strategy at JLL. “Even though many of us are seeing colleagues in video meetings every day, it’s not the same as being able to chat over a coffee.”

Amid ongoing lockdowns, more companies are now offering flexible working to parents juggling work and childcare. PepsiCo, for example, organised a virtual summer camp to help employees with childcare.

Other companies are preparing for a return to the office that helps employees maintain a positive work-life balance. Google, which offered employees up to $1,000 for home office equipment, will experiment with staff working from home part of the week. In New Zealand, Unilever is trialling a four-day work week.

Wellness by (workplace) design

The office too has a key role in supporting employee health and wellbeing.

As companies adopt more hybrid models – where employees work in offices, homes and other places – office design that focuses on communal space over individual workstations can help employees feel part of a community, while pods and quiet zones enable focused work and reduce stress.

“Employers want to ensure their employees are empowered and engaged,” says Daniels. “A healthy workforce is a key factor in improving performance.”

Creating space for relaxation and activities such as fitness, yoga and mindfulness cements the office as a place not only for work, but for enhancing wellbeing.

The comprehensive wellbeing program at Nomura, awarded “Britain's Healthiest Workplace” in 2016-2018 for example, includes an onsite gym and in-house doctor and nurse, a rooftop herb garden and nutrition classes. At Johnson & Johnson’s offices, wellbeing standards set a target proportion of sit/stand desks, exercise and relaxation spaces, and nutrition guidance in the staff restaurant.

“An important shift has been in corporations wanting to organise their workplaces around the unique benefit of the office – as a space for learning, spontaneous interaction, socialising and collaborating,” says Pradère. “Employers are seeing the value of a human-centric workplace that emphasises the individual and what they need to work well.”

A new era of health and wellbeing schemes

As today’s health and wellbeing schemes evolve in line with general employee needs, tomorrow’s programmes will offer a more personalised experience.

“Companies are seeking data-driven ways to better understand how they can support their workforce,” says Daniels. “As more corporations adopt wearables, apps that track individuals’ cognitive function throughout the day will be used to deliver personalised insights for improving health and wellbeing along with tailored health programmes and digital coaching.”

Such data would be anonymised and the use of apps strictly opt-in to alleviate potential privacy concerns, he adds.

For now, many companies are in the early stages of developing a comprehensive corporate wellness strategy yet it’s an area where they can’t afford to get left behind.

“People spend a third of their lives at work – the workplace significantly impacts their wellbeing,” says Daniels. “Investing in employee wellness will be an important differentiator for companies to attract and retain talent, especially in younger generations now entering the workforce.”

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