Wellbeing innovation: how the employee benefits industry is adapting to our ‘new normal’

From its impact on mental health, to the economy and even the environment, we’ve all seen COVID-19’s far-reaching consequences. Organisations from all sectors have been affected – some irreparably so – and the employee benefits industry is no different. For employers, there’s been a massive transformation as companies moved to remote-working. Now, as we look ahead, business leaders are considering how they can adapt HR, benefits and wellbeing to address the wider impact from COVID-19.

Wellbeing innovation: how the employee benefits industry is adapting to our ‘new normal’

A stronger commitment to wellbeing

One of the main ways the employee benefits industry has adapted to the coronavirus pandemic is that it has used the situation to highlight an already growing need for employers to take wellbeing seriously. In fact, as a result of COVID-19, more than 70% of employers say they have identified better ways of working as a result of the virus.

Benefit providers have reported significant surges in employees’ interest in and taking up of wellbeing benefits like cycle-to-work. We’ve also seen a peaked interest for wellbeing products like income protection and virtual GP services.

According to Beneden Health’s COVID-19 report, over a third of employees feel that the pandemic has been damaging to their mental health. This figure rises to almost 50% for those under the age of 34. This has happened to a nation that was already reporting a third of its people likely to suffer a serious mental health challenge. As a result, most wellbeing providers say they have seen increased demand for their products and services.

The report also found the pandemic has caused more than 10% of employees to suffer from poor mental health for the very first time. COVID-19’s legacy will be years of even poorer mental health among employees of any age. It will require employers to commit to long-lasting wellbeing strategies to not only support staff but protect the organisation against long-term damage.

Community wellbeing

Long before the pandemic reached the UK, we redesigned our pillars of wellbeing to include community wellbeing (also called social wellbeing). We felt that an individual’s wellbeing depends heavily on the overall wellbeing of the communities they live and work in. How represented we are, how cared for we feel, and the diversity and emotional support of our teams all play a very important part in how we feel.

The renewed gratitude for frontline and key workers has helped reignite a new sense of community in our streets and organisations. This has really driven the innovative message that actually, recognising employees for their work is wellbeing. Promoting more connectedness, combatting rising loneliness and dealing with the mental health considerations of forcing thousands to work from home can all be improved through recognition. We realised very early into lockdown that the basic human needs of being recognised for our efforts and having emotional connections with people was really important.

Financial wellbeing

Nearly half of Britons say they have experienced ‘high anxiety’ as the country locked down, with finances being the biggest worry for an estimated 5.3 million people, according to the ONS.

IHS Markit’s UK household finance index found that a third of Britons are worried about their finances as a result of the virus and most UK households expect their financial wellbeing to decline over the next 12 months. In addition, the cyclical relationship between every area of wellbeing means these financial concerns will in turn lead to poorer mental health for many employees. The Citizens Advice Bureau has warned that millions of Britons face a ‘financial cliff edge’ due to the virus with their research finding more than 25% of people have missed bill payments.

Among the lessons of the last recession (and recessions caused by other pandemics) is the need for every employee to better understand the economy and their own finances. When employees are more confident in their knowledge of financial matters, they manage and budget their money better, report higher overall wellbeing scores and are less likely to be subjected to fraud.

Remote communication

Big technology companies were among the first employers to send their staff home as the virus spread. Now they are in no rush to get them back to the office – in fact, large organisations like Twitter, Barclays, Facebook, WPP and Google are talking about whether they ever want to go back to the office in the same way ever again. Even MPs are suggesting there might be a ‘right to work from home’ clause in some employment contracts.

What this dramatic new change in our working lives brought with it was a new challenge: how to communicate with people when they aren’t in one place? But, it has also brought about a new way of communicating that lots of employees haven’t seen before – honest and frequent communication from business leaders.

Employers have had to pay more attention to tone and message, have used senior leaders more, and adapted to new communication channels. And it’s worked. During the pandemic, Gallup found one-in-three employers reported that their employee engagement scores had increased as employees hear more from and feel more cared for by their employer. 

Personalisation during hardship

We’ve written before about the importance of designing an employee experience for an audience of one. Our diverse and ever-changing workforce means that the wellbeing support employees need can change dramatically from one week to the next, but it also differs greatly between individuals. This same attention and commitment to personalisation must apply to wellbeing too.

While all employees face the threat of coronavirus, it affects everyone differently. Our diversity of socioeconomics, age, location and culture has had an effect on how employees have managed their wellbeing through this pandemic.

In the UK, one in eight people don’t have a garden or access to a shared outside space, and black people are four times more likely to not have access to an outside space than white people. Financially, the virus has impacted lower paid and younger employees far more than any other. When it comes to helping employees recover from COVID-19 – whatever that recovery looks like – wellbeing needs to take into consideration this uneven playing field.

Final thoughts

COVID-19 has changed the way our industry works forever, particularly when we look at wellbeing – an area that was already going through rapid change. Whether it’s new working from home policies, increased diversity awareness in financial wellbeing, or more online options for healthcare, the impact of coronavirus doesn’t end when we go back to the office. That, is when the toughest challenge will begin: building a new ‘business as usual’ which is even stronger than the one before COVID-19.

The author is Gethin Nadin, director, employee wellbeing at Benefex.

This article is provided by Benefex.

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