Health Benefits

Few Workers Tap Wellness Benefits When Stressed: Survey

High levels of stress are hitting workers in the U.S. and Europe, but many are unaware of or do not use employers' well-being programs.
Few Workers Tap Wellness Benefits When Stressed: Survey
Photo: Getty Images

For employer wellness and well-being benefit offerings, the pandemic and its aftermath should have been the time to shine.

Such programs have been default parts of employee benefit packages for years, but were largely limited to discounted gym memberships and healthy eating tips in the early days. Now, widespread employee-assistance programs are offered.

Due to the pandemic and the rise of remote working, more companies beefed up well-being initiatives to improve employees’ mental health. Programs can provide meditation tools, crisis and counseling hotlines, financial planning seminars, and even on-demand coaching through mobile apps.

But do these benefits do employees any good when they’re under a lot of stress and feeling anxious? Are workers even availing themselves of the resources? 

They certainly seem in more need of them.

Close to three-quarters (73%) of workers at companies with 1,000 employees or more in the United States and four Western Europe nations reported high or moderate levels of stress in February and March 2022. That’s according to the recently released results of a survey of 10,000 workers by the employer-led coalition Business Group on Health. 

Additionally, more than one-third (34%) of the employees polled reported suffering symptoms of burnout.

Not all stressors are directly work-related (many U.S. workers, for example, are highly anxious about long-term financial planning), but they can affect productivity, engagement, and employee tenure.

Too few employees (31%), according to the study by Business Group on Health and Alight Solutions, a cloud-based human capital tech provider, consider their current work experience to be “great” or “awesome.” Only one in three (34%) of respondents felt their company cared about their well-being, and nearly a quarter of workers (23%) dreaded going to work every day.

The trend is something CFOs need to be acutely aware of: in a reader poll by CFO’s The Balance newsletter last week, 48% of finance executives responding indicated that half or more of their finance staff positions would be fully remote by the end of 2022. That might make it harder to achieve one of the goals of these programs: helping the employee “feel seen, known, supported, protected, and valued,” as the survey report put it.

“Workers … found that COVID-19 intensified challenges to well-being,” said Stephan Scholl, CEO of Alight. “As a result, they sometimes face difficulties showing up to work as their best selves, which ultimately affects companies’ bottom lines. At the same time, caring about employee well-being is critical to recruiting and retaining talent.”

And yet, few employees (23%) in the United States and the United Kingdom use employer-sponsored stress management programs, and only 15% reported being aware of them. The kicker,  32% of employees wanted their companies to offer more mental health resources. 

“Many employers have invested considerably in well-being resources, said Ellen Kelsay, CEO of the Business Group on Health. “A key takeaway from these findings is that there is more they can do to ensure employees are aware of and utilizing those offerings,” 

CFOs, in particular, might wonder if wellness programs are worth the expense. According to wellness program company Limeade, the yearly cost of such programs can range from $150 to $2,000 per employee.

The good news about these programs: 93% of those who used them said they were valuable.

Barriers to greater use include a company’s culture. Organizations have to find better ways to raise awareness and encourage adoption. There are other obstacles, too.

Quoted in Fortune about the general failure of wellness programs, Liz Fosslien, head of communications at Humu, a behavioral change tech company, said part of the problem is programs “put the onus completely on the individual. So the idea is: here’s a meditation app that you can use to meditate, but don’t do it during work hours, and don’t bother the rest of your team with it.”

It’s hard to envision how that dynamic could change, especially in the United States with its strict laws on medical information confidentiality. 

A December 2020 paper by PwC listed some everyday actions managers can take to support employees person to person.

  • Shift the focus from being “busy” to getting results

  • Remind staff of their role in the bigger picture and the importance of what they’re doing

  • Set clear expectations

  • Acknowledge when they do things right so that they can proceed confidently

The Western European workers surveyed by the Business Group on Health and Alight were in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and the Netherlands.

Members of the Business Group on Health include 70 of the Fortune 100 and some large public-sector employers.

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