Get Well Soon

More companies are offering virtual wellness programs to combat COVID-19 stress. But are they the right offerings?

The fintech start-up could see the problems its employees were having, stuck at home with no access to gyms, yoga studios, or a host of other ways to stay active. So in quick order, it rolled out a special virtual wellness program, complete with video fitness classes, 30-day workout challenges, and even the ability to schedule a biweekly video chat with a nutritionist or coach.

And then the start-up waited for employees to use the benefit. And waited. And waited.

To a remarkable degree, surveys show firms are racing to offer virtual wellness programs in these impossible times. But while the start-up case isn’t real, experts say what is real is the fact many employees are balking at a benefit they apparently need. “If the virtual program isn’t a good fit with a company’s culture and values, it will not take hold,” says Steve Kapper, head of Korn Ferry’s National Health and Welfare Benefits practice.

Indeed, even before the coronavirus era, studies found that despite heavy investment in them, many wellness programs produced only lackluster results. Not only is participation typically low, but people in these programs were already health conscious. “That isn’t necessarily the group you want to reach,” Kapper says. In turn, corporations strongly focused on physical wellness—think on-site gyms or step challenges—“aren’t getting the results they expected, both in terms of health savings as well as participation,” he says.

That’s because, experts say, business leaders may not be taking into account what their employees need, and instead are assuming what they want—a sort of purpose-washing for wellness. “You have to ask the question, ‘Is this the way to go or is there something more impactful for employees?” says Maria Amato, an associate client partner at Korn Ferry focused on employee wellness. Adopting market research techniques, she adds, can help leaders determine what their employees really value and make more realistic trade-offs that have the highest impact, instead of doing “the 10 cheap things that add up to nothing.”

To their credit, organizations are trying to help employees who are struggling in today’s era, especially now, as the pandemic continues to take a toll on workers’ well-being. More than a third of organizations that responded to a recent Korn Ferry survey say they have already implemented virtual wellness programs, while roughly 18% are considering putting such measures in place. And many of these programs are offering stress management, meditation and mindfulness techniques, and other mental health services. “COVID-19 has been a shock to the whole system,” says Kapper. “Companies seeking virtual wellness programs are looking for solutions that provide for more than just physical wellness. They need content for everyone.”

Experts say to boost involvement, leaders will need to have the right messaging to motivate employees—that is, explaining why the company is offering these programs and how they fit into overall corporate goals. “It’s very important for companies, given the pandemic, to make sure employees really stay engaged,” Kapper says. And when it comes to employee engagement, benefits like corporate wellness programs are front and center. “They show an investment in the employees and their well-being,” he adds.

Studies show that ignoring employee well-being can be costly to an organization. According to federal data, for example, mental health issues can cause 200 million lost workdays, resulting in an annual cost of $17 billion to $44 billion to employers. But, as Korn Ferry research shows, companies that offer strong wellness benefits will see lower absenteeism, higher retention, and enhanced corporate reputation, among other business outcomes. “The type of experience you provide has a direct impact on employee engagement, turnover, and the talent you attract,” Amato says. “The employee experience matters.”