3 Ways Employers are Lagging in Employee Wellbeing

Improving the healthcare experience for employees requires constant adjustments to keep up with market forces and industry trends. While overall investment in employee health and wellbeing is generally strong, there are three areas where employers are lagging.

Behavioral Health/Substance Use      

The opportunity for employers to address the complexities of behavioral health issues and substance use disorders has never been greater.

Yet, these challenges remain largely unaddressed, widespread and costly. Consider:

  • Of the 44.7 million adults with any mental illness in 2016, less than half (43 percent) received mental health services;
  • On average, an employee with major depression has difficulty functioning at work 30-40 percent of the time;
  • Of the 19.9 million adults needing substance abuse treatment in the past year, less than 11 percent (2.1 million) received treatment at a specialty facility; and
  • The estimated annual cost of the U.S. opioid epidemic is $504 billion.

The impact of these issues on the workplace is significant. Yet, employers are devoting fewer resources to their employees’ mental health than they are their physical health. Seventy-nine percent of employers report that their health and wellbeing strategy addresses physical health, compared to 67 percent targeting mental health, according to new survey research by Optum.

Further, despite employers’ increased awareness of the effect on their employees of  stress and the opioid crisis, the percentage of employers who say their workplace wellbeing strategy addresses mental health has remained flat over the past three years.

Steps employers can take include strengthening employee assistance programs, providing educational materials, offering counseling and altering benefit plan designs to assist those with mental health or substance use issues. Ultimately, employers and their business partners need to eliminate the stigma and preconceived notions about mental health issues that act as a primary barrier to taking advantage of available resources.

Navigating the System

In today’s tight job market, generous benefits packages can provide a competitive edge in the quest to attract and retain talent. Indeed, nearly 60 percent of job hunters say that benefits and perks are among their top considerations in deciding whether to accept a position, and nearly four in five employees would prefer new or additional benefits over a pay raise, according to recruiting company Glassdoor.

In response, many companies are ramping up their benefits offerings. Yet the sheer volume and diversity of these packages have, in many cases, had the unintended effect of inhibiting employee engagement. Employees are confused about where to turn for questions about health insurance coverage, co-payments, claims, open enrollment, health savings accounts or a personal medical issue, to name just a few issues.

An Aon study found that nearly one-third of consumers say they find the system and benefits so difficult to understand that they just give up and “hope for the best.” Only about half of human resource professionals at large companies strongly believe that employees know how to navigate the healthcare system, according to Optum research.

Employers have been building up programs to help employees navigate the healthcare system, but more can be done. Thus, Optum research revealed that:

  • 38 percent of employers offer health advocacy programs (up from 24 percent in 2015);
  • 36 percent offer telemedicine programs (up from 20 percent in 2015); and
  • 31 percent offer an on-site medical clinic (up from 24 percent in 2015).

By utilizing these programs more widely, employers can simplify and improve the benefits experience for employees, increase engagement with clinical programs, and promote a healthier, more productive workforce.

Employers can also help increase employee knowledge, skills and confidence in navigating the healthcare system. Examples include: providing training and educational resources–including video, digital and telephonic–on how to use a healthcare cost estimator tool and how to prepare for a doctor’s visit. By raising employees’ health literacy, employers can help employees better manage their own care.

Leveraging Data

As healthcare becomes ever more complex, there is a growing need for more data and analytics capabilities. Yet, many employers have not embraced big data and advanced analytics to generate insights that can drive value.

For example, only 42 percent of employers say they are highly effective at leveraging data and analytics to make decisions about their population health management strategy. Data can also be used to personalize communications and recommendations that are most relevant to each employee. This personalization increases the likelihood of employee or family member engagement which, in turn, yields better outcomes.

To better identify appropriate candidates for care-management programs, employers should be maximizing efforts to aggregate and integrate data from a variety of sources including electronic health records, pharmacy claims, lab data and social determinants of health, in addition to medical claims.

Without question, employers’ health and wellbeing programs face stiff headwinds, including an increasingly complex healthcare system and rising costs. While there is no silver bullet, making sure that employees are aware of the full suite of healthcare benefits they have access to, investing in strategies that address employee behavioral health needs (from excessive stress to opioid use disorders) and embracing technology to more deeply engage employees can all help improve employees’ experiences.

Seth Serxner
Seth Serxner is chief health officer at OptumHealth. He can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.