As burnout soars, what Aflac is doing to strengthen employee wellness

Among the challenges facing today’s HR and benefits leaders, the employee wellness crisis is likely front and center. And for good reason.

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According to a new report from Aflac, nearly three-quarters of employees surveyed report at least moderate amounts of stress, and 57% are experiencing at least moderate burnout. “When stress is higher, you’ll tend to see increased employee absenteeism, higher levels of employee relations issues, less productivity,” says Aflac CHRO Jeri Hawthorne.

Hawthorne, who joined Aflac in 2019 and became CHRO early last year, says the HR team at the insurance giant has long considered employee wellness a priority—one that the pandemic heightened. Today, Hawthorne says, Aflac aims to offer benefits and policies driven by a “whole-person mentality”—an approach to which managers and leaders are key.

HRE recently spoke with Hawthorne about Aflac’s employee wellness strategy and other pressing HR challenges.

HRE: What is Aflac doing to tackle employee burnout?

Jeri Hawthorne, Aflac
Jeri Hawthorne, Aflac CHRO

Hawthorne: As an organization, this is something we’ve focused on deliberately for many years, and I think the pandemic caused us to really elevate our focus, as it did with many other organizations.

We use a multipronged approach when it comes to employee wellness. We have a variety of support vendors, including online options for our remote employees. We provide employees as much flexibility as the role allows. We want to meet employees where they are. And that’s not just coming from HR or the organization; we’re asking our leaders to engage with and support employees in that way.

HRE: How important is the personalization of benefits to your employee wellness work?

Hawthorne: It is important, and it has been. We probably offer one of the most robust wellness benefits offerings I have ever had the opportunity to offer to employees. What that does is allow employees to pick and choose offerings that are most important and impactful to them. That’s beyond health insurance or vision and dental to things like fitness and wellness apps and membership to gyms, access to daycares, career support and resume writing.

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It all comes from an overarching pillar approach; we think about our employees’ wellness through the lens of social, physical, financial and spiritual wellness, as well as employee development.

HRE: And how did the pandemic influence Aflac’s benefits offerings?

Hawthorne: We have a belief—our CEO has said it many times—that we care for our employees and they care for our customers. That caring mentality existed at Aflac before the pandemic. What happened during the pandemic was that we recognized that it’s not just the role of HR to provide offerings [that show caring] but also to better equip leaders to talk to employees and help them when they’re struggling. When employees were working from home during the pandemic, managers and leaders were dealing with that employee as a whole person.

Post-pandemic, we’ve seen that whole-person mentality come more into the workplace. Pre-pandemic, I probably would have said, “Don’t talk to people about politics, don’t ask personal questions.” But now, we see that employees want their employers to think about them as more than just who they are during that 9-to-5 window. That’s been a big focus for us: How do we better equip leaders to engage with employees, to make them feel seen and heard, to destigmatize conversations around mental wellness and health? But at the same time, not crossing lines.

HRE: What are the skill sets HR leaders need to hone to ensure employee wellness remains a C-suite priority?

Hawthorne: I think HR professionals need to understand the balance between helping the business achieve success and also knowing they are the voice of the overarching employee experience. Sometimes, HR is the only person in a room of business leaders who actually knows the voice of the employee. So, HR has to be able to think about the business through the lens of business success but be making those decisions focused on how they may impact employees’ day-to-day lives, their wellbeing.

HRE: Outside of employee wellness, what is your HR focus this year?

Hawthorne: Mental wellness and burnout will continue to be massive topics for us as an organization. With the state of world affairs and the political climate we’re facing, that will probably be the main focus in the next 12 to 24 months.

The other areas we’re looking at are around things like rising expenses for employees; we’re looking to help them understand how to maximize their take-home pay in an environment where inflation seems to continue to rise every time you turn around. Employees need to be able to have a menu of benefits offerings but also know how to get the most value out of the array of benefits that the company offers.

AI and tech will also continue to be top of mind, not just for HR but all leaders. We have to look at how it’s going to be impacting the day-to-day work in an organization, how it will impact privacy, how it will affect how work gets done.

HRE: Amid all of these changes, how do you keep yourself continuously learning?

Hawthorne: I’m actively engaged in many different organizations and feel fortunate that Aflac has afforded me opportunities for growth and development through my membership in professional organizations. I also have personal mentors I’ve grown up with in my career. I’ll email folks probably once a week and say, “Hey, I want to run something by your”—former colleagues who have been in this seat before me. They can be a great resource for HR professionals.

I also read quite a bit, and I listen to our teams and our employees. There are many members of teams on a lower level than me that I gather with on a regular basis to get their feedback about how the function is going, areas they think we can improve in. I almost think about it as a personal 360. I talk to my boss, senior leaders in HR functions, outside my function; it’s key to have these thought partners.

HRE: What about your life outside of work might your colleagues be surprised to learn?

Hawthorne: Maybe it’s not surprising but I sometimes kind of wonder how I got here, in full transparency. I started my career in HR in a nontraditional way, and that may be something people would be surprised about. I’m in a fortunate professional situation but I probably didn’t really start getting deliberate about career moves until maybe seven to eight years ago. Up until that point, I did things that interested me, and I worked hard and was growing and learning. But then I started to say, “I think I have more in me. And I want to see what I can do.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].