Corporate wellness programs are a nearly $8 billion industry in the U.S. and are expected to grow at a clip of nearly 7.8% through 2021. The Global Wellness Institute puts that number at $40 billion worldwide, even though only roughly 9% of the 3 billion-plus global workforce has access to workplace wellness programs at their jobs.
As the industry grows, technology, data, and increased insight into what encourages employees to stay healthy is shaping the future of corporate wellness programs, says Edward Buckley, founder of Peerfit, which connects employers and fitness centers. Often viewed skeptically as agenda-driven ways for employers to drive down their health care costs, Buckley and others believe that a few key trends will elevate wellness programs in the eyes of employees and, ultimately, make them more integrated into employees’ lives. Here are four that are shaping the future of wellness programs.
Even More Data Integration
The biggest driver of wellness programs will be data integration, says Buckley. Software platforms, wearables, and other data sources have the potential to deliver important insights into the wellness program options that make a difference and are important to employees, he says. And the wellness market is moving to capitalize on that opportunity. “When you look at really big health insurance companies all of a sudden starting to fund and gobble up digital health startups, that’s a big sign to me that the first thing you’re going to see from wellness is this age of digital health,” he says.
Buckley predicts that in five years, data-driven incentives will be the norm, based on employees’ locations and personal preferences. Data will tell employees about incentives to use certain features automatically—walk 10,000 steps a day and reduce your health insurance premium, for example. Wearables will track certain aspects, while others will be driven by employee need. Some employee engagement platforms, such as YouEarnedIt, integrate wellness incentives with other employee engagement activities so workers can earn points that can be redeemed for prizes. This type of gamification also increases the amount of data that employers and third parties have to work with.
Addressing Financial Need
In recent years, wellness programs have included some basic financial education in their offerings. But expect forward-thinking programs to move beyond webinars and lunch-and-learns about how to save for retirement or college education, says Laurie A. Brednich, founder of benefit provider marketplace HR Company Store. In addition to basic education, she believes that companies will use the data available to them to tailor financial offerings. When employees are in debt or otherwise experiencing financial issues, the stress can reduce their effectiveness in the workplace, increase absenteeism, and ultimately lead to poor health habits or illness.
Brednich sees companies offering assistance with debt reduction, more individualized assistance in planning for retirement and health care costs in retirement, and otherwise helping employees achieve a sustainable financial future. “For example, if you have a lot of people taking 401(k) loans and hardship withdrawals for non-housing reasons, that tells you that they’re having financial issues,” she says. Companies need to figure out how to use such data to offer tailored financial solutions to help employees overcome their financial challenges, she says. At the same time, they need to protect employees’ privacy, so having highly trained staff and processes that are vetted by legal counsel and HR personnel is important.
Making Life Easier (And More Fun)
With an aging population, more employees may be dually caring for children and aging parents. Brednich predicts that employers—especially larger companies—will offer more help with child and elder care. “By helping them address those situations, whether it’s mental or financial, it will, in the long run, impact their medical costs and spending for years to come,” she says.
There is also a growing body of research that reinforces that vacation is essential for wellness, so there is an emerging trend to create incentives for employees to take time off. While “unlimited vacation” was touted for a while, some companies found that employees took less time off with that policy.
Instead, Brednich says more companies will encourage and even enforce employee vacation time. She points to new tools like vacation savings accounts that can help employees save for and plan their vacations while using integrated social media components to interact with fellow vacation planners. Bottom line: Addressing both the immediate stressors and encouraging employees to find ways to decompress on their own will both be priorities for wellness programs into the future.
Joyce Odidison, founder of Interpersonal Wellness Services, Inc., a leadership and life coaching training institute, says that when she speaks to organizations about their wellness programs, there are often an overwhelming number of options. “I say, ‘Tell me about your wellness program,’ and they say, ‘Well, we have 150 different things that people can choose from,'” she says. How can employees know about all of them? After a while, they lose interest because they don’t have the time to research everything available to them.
Data, combined with increased insight into the benefits employees need and use, will streamline programs and help them be more effective, which can increase their credibility, Odidison says. At the same time, that data will help organizations create more holistic approaches to wellness. That will include everything from occupational to emotional and physical wellness, driven by a process that will recommend options to employees who exhibit signs of needing them, ultimately increasing adoption and helping employees get the help they need, she says.