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How to support total employee well-being

One of the largest companies in the United States had a curious idea about how to better support its employees: It combined traditional health benefits with an emphasis on financial well-being. As is the case in many firms, employees were encouraged to participate in health-related challenges and activities. The company mirrored that approach by identifying certain financial activities that could contribute to employee wellness.

To boost engagement, the company leveraged the expertise of Principal® to design and deliver financial wellness content. Topics included basic budgeting, managing health care costs, and tackling student loan debt. This type of programming has been proven to have positive effects beyond bigger savings accounts. One recent study, for example, found that nearly three-quarters of employees experiencing financial stress also experience physical symptoms. Thus, by providing financial education support, businesses can help improve employee well-being overall.

Illustration stating that 75% of employees experiencing financial stress also experience physical symptoms.

“Healthier employees can spend more time not only focusing on their work but also just enjoying their daily lives,” says Joleen Workman, vice president of customer care for Principal.

Eric Stang, CEO of Ooma, explains how comprehensive wellness programs can help with employee retention.

The Principal client had foresight but has become less of an outlier. More businesses now opt for an innovative integrated wellness program that blends physical and mental health benefits and policies with financial education support. Often termed “total employee well-being,” the approach not only helps employees thrive but also boosts outcomes for the businesses that implement it.

Take a more holistic approach to employee wellness.

Financial wellness strategies became more popular over the past year as the pandemic spurred many business leaders to broaden their concept of employee wellness. There’s greater recognition of how mental and physical well-being, health, wealth, and our work and home lives are interrelated.

Eric Stang, CEO of Ooma, discusses the evolution of employee wellness.

“Wellness at work initially focused on physical health—think of company fitness centers,” Workman says. “Because of our expertise, Principal was one of the early adopters that brought more attention to financial wellness. And now the pandemic has emphasized the need to support employees’ mental well-being. Our research shows a clear desire among businesses to extend that support.”

This emphasis on total well-being can help employers better support their staff. An employee with a medical crisis, for example, may then struggle to afford high health care costs, which in turn triggers mental stress.

Focusing on this interplay not only helps individual employees but also supports a company’s overall output. An employee dealing with anxiety and depression might not be able to maintain their typical workload. Conversely, an employee with physical, financial, and mental support may be able to improve their work performance. According to a recent survey, more than half of employees with access to wellness programs report improved productivity.

Illustration stating that 50% of employees with access to wellness programs report improved productivity.

Trey Ditto, CEO and founder of Ditto PR, explains how the pandemic shaped his company's approach to wellness.

“Challenges and stress in our lives can’t always be neatly compartmentalized, and an effective support network of employee benefits will reflect that,” says Workman.

Listen closely and let employees help guide you.

Employers of all sizes are taking total well-being seriously. Health and wellness solutions rank as the No. 2 priority for small businesses, with 67% having a plan in place, according to a 2021 Principal survey.

Another survey found that 81% of large businesses offering health benefits also offer some form of wellness or health promotion program. Check out the details from KFF (PDF).

Yet having an employee wellness plan doesn’t necessarily mean that plan is effective. In the wake of the pandemic, businesses are thinking more strategically about integrating policies that truly meet employee needs, rather than just tacking on extraneous benefits. For example, we found more than one-third of businesses started providing more flexibility to improve work-life balance in 2020. View the survey results (PDF).

“It’s more important than ever to listen to employees and their individual needs,” says Workman. “‘Flexibility’ is far more than a buzzword.”

Employees also increasingly want access to technology and tools that support flexible work. And as we have experienced at Principal, technology can go a long way toward driving engagement with employee wellness initiatives. Webinars on topics like diversity and inclusion have seen record attendance and engagement.

Trey Ditto, CEO and founder of Ditto PR, discusses the importance of a comprehensive approach to well-being.

On the benefits side, employers listening to their workforces also often find a need to provide mental health support and financial solutions, especially given the multifaceted toll of the pandemic. An employee assistance program (EAP) offers convenient phone or online counseling and helps tackle multiple issues at once. One of the top reasons employees use an EAP is to handle financial stress, demonstrating how mental health and financial health can be two sides of the same coin.

Total employee well-being is a more comprehensive approach with a cohesive set of offerings; it addresses a myriad of employee needs and concerns, while helping the company attract and retain the talent needed to be successful.

“As a business, it’s time to reevaluate whether your benefits match what your employees say they need,” Workman says. “You have more resources available today to respond to those needs and manage a happier and healthier workforce.”

A version of this article originally appeared on washingtonpost.com.

1 Employee Benefit News, 2020.

EBRI is not an affiliate of any company of the Principal Financial Group®.

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Insurance products issued by Principal National Life Insurance Co (except in NY) and Principal Life Insurance Co. Plan administrative services offered by Principal Life. Principal Funds, Inc. is distributed by Principal Funds Distributor, Inc. Securities offered through Principal Securities, Inc., 888-774-6267 , member SIPC and/or independent broker/-dealers. Referenced companies are members of the Principal Financial Group®, Des Moines, IA 50392.