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Employee Wellbeing

How Wellness Programs Need to Change During a Pandemic

Christine Muldoon

Vice President, Strategy, WebMD Health Services

Employers have been supporting workforce well-being programs for years, but their value has been met with a new sense of urgency. COVID-19 and its impact have left many employees frayed, financially stressed, and physically and mentally unmoored.  

Even with rates of infection trending downward, experts predict that the pandemic’s impact – particularly on mental and emotional well-being – will persist. At the same time, the pandemic has illuminated stark generational differences in how employees view their employers’ well-being efforts, and what kinds of programs have relevance and meaning for them. 

Research has shown that the toll of lockdown and isolation is not uniform across the employee population. In a survey conducted for WebMD Health Services pre-pandemic, millennials (ages 26-39) who make up half the labor force, reported suffering from anxiety more than other generations.

A follow-on survey toward the end of 2020 found that 90 percent of GenZ workers (ages 18-25) are experiencing the greatest negative impact on their well-being – between 15 and 20 percentage points higher than their older colleagues. Just on stress alone, 71 percent of GenZ workers expressed that the pandemic has increased their levels of stress, compared with 51 percent of millennials, 46 percent of Gen Xers (ages 40-55) and 37 percent of baby boomers (ages 56-74). 

Positive change

Employers have responded.  As early as March 2020, nearly 70 percent had introduced at least one new wellness benefit to support their employees during the pandemic, and more than half were already providing a mental health offering.  

Yet, our research found that despite employer efforts, employees were largely dissatisfied with their well-being programs. The majority said their employer was not doing enough to support their mental or physical health, even though their employers offered programs for both.   

So, what’s going on here? A deeper dive points to the widening generation gap between younger and older workers regarding well-being needs and expectations. For example, our survey found that few employees work for companies offering support for caregiving, pain medication addiction, or specific resources for LGBTQ employees, but younger employees want their employers to provide programs that address these issues by significant margins.

Still, both employers and employees share a belief in the value of well-being programs. More than eight in 10 large employers and half of small companies now sponsor at least one wellness initiative, with an investment of more than $8 billion per year. Many large employers have already planned for a more flexible approach to on-site work and will reduce their office footprint. Meanwhile, experts are predicting that employees will suffer mental health issues at greater numbers, as the impact of lockdowns and the stressors of the pandemic begin to fully emerge.  

Despite the challenges, employers have an opportunity to rethink well-being strategies now. By listening to the needs of different generations, their efforts can reap both immediate and long-lasting benefits.  

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