What’s the number one challenge employers face in creating and implementing workplace health programs and how can it be addressed?
Thordarson: The most daunting challenge is often the sheer amount of time and effort it takes to create a comprehensive well-being program that’s engaging and impactful year-round. Too often, programs are set up simply as an annual event, which doesn’t allow for true change and growth. We’ve found that it’s most important to engage employees when and where they are. To have the most impact, it needs to be convenient for them. We use technology they may already own—a mobile phone app or website log-in—that can be linked to show progress toward their personal goals. We’re now bringing this expertise to employers in the communities we serve. Such a partnership enables proven results with limited time and budget for the employer in creating a culture of well-being.
Kunst: Strategy. I’d say the number one key in creating a successful well-being program is making sure the program is designed for that specific workforce. Instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach, an employer must first understand its workforce by reviewing past insurance claims data, employee surveys and health assessments to select well-being programs that address their employees’ most common health challenges. Then, the employer can outline short- and long-term objectives, budgets and expected outcomes.
Burke: The toughest challenge can be to find a cost-effective beneficial partner who will work with you to customize your program to meet the needs of your staff and business. Once you have your customized program, rolling this out to get staff buy-in and participation can be a daunting task, as it takes a lot of effort and the willingness to change. Introducing a new health and wellness program is intimidating at first. It’s important to be consistent, focus on what employees really want to enhance or change and continue to be positive and show the benefits.
Siddiqi: Caring for the whole person and not just a disease is fundamental to managing population health. We’ve implemented innovative solutions to address these important social needs, such as a partnership with technology company NowPow to connect patients with community-based organizations that can address unmet social needs such as safe housing, nutritious food, transportation and stable employment.
What’s been the biggest impact of the COVID-19 pandemic thus far on workplace health?
Kunst: Stress levels have been rising due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the numerous disruptions in our daily lives. The American Psychological Association reported back in 2020 that we’re facing a national mental health crisis. And it’s not just adults who are feeling it. The report also revealed that our children are experiencing elevated stress. We provide members access to mental health support where they are including in-person, over the phone and digitally through services such as Sanvello.
Thordarson: Amidst the growing need for supporting physical and mental health there’s been a noticeable shift in how mental health is perceived. “It’s OK to not be OK,” is heard often and widely. This awakening has opened the door to powerful conversations and there’s less stigma in reaching out for help. From the very start of the pandemic, our medical and spiritual professionals went to work supporting our associates and physicians. Our behavioral health experts continue to run confidential virtual support groups several times weekly to care for our caregivers.
Siddiqi: The COVID-19 pandemic aimed a spotlight on the connection between employee health and well-being and overall business performance. With organizations changing their business models and work environments to embrace more flexible solutions, traditional care delivery also continues to transform and evolve. In 2019, Advocate Aurora completed about 3,000 virtual patient visits; by the end of 2020, that number exploded to more than one million virtual visits. We launched the LiveWell app, a first-of-its-kind digital ecosystem that combines a patient’s integrated medical record with features such as guided meditation, healthy recipes and health news—and it quickly reached more than one million downloads. Growing employer requirements for employee COVID-19 vaccination and/or testing has led to further transformation around workplace health. Integrative solutions to help businesses stay productive and keep health care costs contained will continue to be in demand in 2021 and beyond.
How can mental health and stress management be addressed?
Burke: By offering a variety of health and wellness programs that address physical, mental and financial health, companies can create an environment that provides a happier and more productive workforce but also help relieve some stress. Organizations should first identify what the stressors are and develop techniques to manage and minimize them. Some companies include an EAP that provides direct access to mental health professionals and resources. Employees can be encouraged to talk with their managers or simply take a break or a quick walk to give themselves time to recharge and decompress from stressful situations. It’s also important for employees to utilize PTO.
Kunst: It’s important to recognize that signs of stress aren’t the same for everyone. Some people get angry or depressed, while others have trouble concentrating or making decisions. The good news is that stress is manageable, but you need to learn to recognize triggers, take time for yourself to have fun, incorporate relaxation techniques and welcome support. Stress is a body’s natural defense mechanism, but being under stress for too long can have a serious negative effect on a person’s health. And if you notice stress is becoming an issue for you, please talk with your doctor. At UnitedHealthcare, we help guide people to quality care and offer behavioral health solutions that are available, affordable and attractive to our members. Physical and mental health are intrinsically linked and it’s never been more important to take a whole-person approach to health. And people struggling with behavioral health conditions—from depression and anxiety to eating disorders to substance abuse disorders—may not always recognize when they need help. That’s why our trained advocates provide members with the right information and care options, at the right time.
Siddiqi: A first step for businesses might be to consider a voluntary EAP benefit, offering counseling support around issues such as stress, grief, family problems, psychological disorders and alcohol and substance abuse.
Thordarson: Managers should have regular conversations with their associates and know all the resources available. Not all mental health needs can be solved by one solution. Giving associates access to multiple tools allows them the freedom to find what works best for them individually. At AMITA Health, all of our associates and physicians are invited to join a confidential virtual support program moderated by one of our behavioral medicine specialists—we’ve hosted more than 345 virtual peer support groups with more than 1,180 participants since the beginning of the pandemic. They can review self-paced stress-management educational modules. They can speak with an EAP specialist, who can refer them to a qualified professional. They can speak with a chaplain for guidance.