COVID-19 has changed everything about how we work, including the kind of support employees need. Remote care for mental health has spiked, telemedicine services are more popular than ever, and exercise programs have moved online. So much about how we live and work has changed, including employee benefits like corporate wellness programs.  

Corporate employee wellness programs improve engagement and reduce healthcare costs by making it easier for employees to access the care they need to stay healthy. Programs can include gym reimbursements, health coaching, nutrition support, and disease management tools for chronic conditions. 

As businesses wait to return to normal — a process that will most likely happen in stages — remote resources and virtual programs will continue to be valuable for months to come. Whether HR teams are focused on providing resources to remote workers now or building a wellness program that meets future needs, it’s critical to consider how COVID-19 has changed what employees need and expect from a corporate wellness program. 

We’ve gathered five ways COVID-19 will impact your corporate wellness strategy. Taking the changes below into account will help your HR team create a program that employees will both use and appreciate.

1. Wellness programs will include more video and on-demand resources.

Experts predict that businesses and services will open up in stages and could close again when cases spike. These potential restrictions make many aspects of life more difficult, including regular exercise. 

Many corporate wellness programs refund gym memberships or reward steps logged in a fitness tracker. Instead, today’s wellness programs could include access to or reimbursements for on-demand and streaming workout videos, rather than gym memberships. Many popular exercise studios now host live-streaming classes that can replace in-person workouts, which could be easily adopted for your corporate program. Your wellness program could also provide simple pieces of equipment to help enhance at-home workouts, like resistance bands.

2. Corporate wellness programs will be critical in reducing healthcare costs.

Wellness programs are popular because they reach two important goals: improving employee health and engagement and helping lower costs. High-cost insurance claims from conditions like diabetes and back pain are avoidable when members improve their overall health and are directed to appropriate care early on. Experts predict that COVID-19 will raise healthcare costs 7% this year, on top of a 5% increase that was already expected. 

While many companies may need to make budget cuts in response, a robust corporate wellness program can help control costs by directing employees to the right resources. For example, replacing costly emergency or urgent care visits with telemedicine saves thousands per visit. Directing employees to exercise therapy first saves up to $100,000 per employee by avoiding costly procedures like unnecessary back surgery. Consider what specific wellness benefits could help reduce high-cost claims, in addition to identifying tools to improve overall health.

3. Employees will continue to request access to mental health benefits.

While some corporate wellness programs focus on physical health, employers may also offer additional voluntary benefits that address specific mental health needs. The pandemic has put mental health in particular into the spotlight, and mental wellness apps have seen significant spikes in usage as people look for support online. 

Even under normal circumstances, mental health care can be difficult to find in many parts of the country. Sixty percent of counties in the U.S. lack a single psychiatrist. Investing in remote mental health benefits can support employees when they’re back in the office, too.

4. People with chronic conditions will need more support than usual.

Mental health isn’t the only condition that social distancing restrictions can make worse. Conditions like type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and chronic pain are all impacted by lifestyle factors than social distancing can worsen. For example, around one in three people experience chronic musculoskeletal (MSK) pain. Reduced physical activity, poor ergonomics in work-from-home settings, increased stress, and lack of access to regular care can all worsen chronic pain. 

Limited exercise can also make diabetes and hypertension more difficult to manage. In addition to providing programs that promote physical wellness and mental health, employees may also be in need of condition-specific management programs that offer remote support.

5. Employees will continue to look to telemedicine as a resource.

Even when social distancing restrictions are behind us, telemedicine benefits will continue to be valuable to employees. It’s also helpful to have these resources in place in case social distancing restrictions need to be put in place again before researchers develop a vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19. Demand for non-emergency care will also remain high for some time after social distancing is relaxed. Telemedicine is also useful under normal circumstances, especially for non-emergency care. Those who accessed telemedicine during the pandemic may find that they appreciated the convenience of virtual care and look for it in the future, too.

6 Tips for Boosting Your Remote Corporate Wellness Program

Engaging employees in a corporate wellness program can be a challenge under normal circumstances. While your organization may be focused on reducing healthcare costs and increasing employee engagement, employees themselves have many other interests and concerns competing for their attention. This is particularly true today, as social media feeds and email inboxes fill with news about the pandemic.

Engaging employees virtually in a wellness program requires a new strategy. And while creating a fresh approach takes effort up front, you’ll also be able to use your digital strategy to engage remote workers and multiple business locations under normal circumstances, too.

1. Reimagine employee incentives for your wellness program.

There’s no doubt that employee incentives motivate employees to participate in wellness programs. If COVID-19 social distancing restrictions stretch on for months (as they are likely to in regions hard-hit by the virus) certain rewards may need to be re-worked. For example, gift cards to restaurants, movie theaters, or local event spaces that can’t be used right away may feel less rewarding. Instead, consider including gift cards for at-home meal kits, streaming services, or rewards points that can be spent on anything.

2. Identify digital wellness champions.

Creating a team of employees to champion your cause is one of the best ways to increase engagement in a corporate wellness program. However, in-person and online engagement sometimes require different skill sets. If your wellness program has moved online, consider seeking out different evangelists for your program. Is someone on your social media team more of an introvert? They might shine in a digital environment to help promote your program. Work with your internal marketing teams to create a digital toolkit to encourage engagement using online tools as well.

3. Host a virtual wellness fair.

Keeping up morale can be challenging when managing remote teams. Virtual wellness fairs are opportunities to connect with employees outside of the context of formal meetings. If you’re rolling out a series of new benefits at the same time, consider kicking them off with a virtual launch party. For large businesses, wellness fairs are a popular way to introduce benefits options to employees. The virtual edition can include videos, introductions from wellness champions, polls, trivia, and other engaging activities to keep employees interested.

4. Share reminders in emails and on Slack.

One way to spread the word about wellness benefits in person is to post signs around the office — even in the bathroom. Of course, you’ll need a different approach when promoting benefits virtually. Include reminders about new programs in email updates from your management team. You can also share reminders on your company Slack channel or other instant messaging platforms. Consider creating an online channel related specifically to employee benefits and share updates regularly.

5. Anticipate questions and provide answers.

HR teams should be prepared to answer questions about any new benefits, but accessing virtual wellness benefits can be trickier, especially for less tech-savvy employees. Before announcing a new tool, make sure members of your HR team know how it works or can direct employees to technical support from the program’s vendor. Employees will likely have questions about the costs for which they’re responsible. Are there co-pays associated with your virtual programs? Is there a limit to how many times something can be used? Think about the questions employees may have about your program and be prepared with an FAQ list before you launch.

6. Help employees set new goals.

With social distancing restrictions, it’s much harder to track progress towards fitness goals like running a 10K or lifting heavier weights at the gym. When introducing new corporate wellness benefits, work with your vendors to create messaging that fits our current moment. Employees experiencing back pain could set a goal to create a more ergonomic workspace, for example. Encourage employees to focus on exercise benefits such as reducing anxiety and improving sleep quality, for example.

Corporate Wellness Programs Beyond COVID-19

Eventually, employees will be back in the office and able to attend regular doctor’s appointments or hit the gym. While we’re all looking forward to a return to normalcy, our experiences during this time may encourage an increase in work-from-home flexibility, telehealth services, and other virtual programs. No matter the circumstances, remote wellness programs can expand access to quality care and make it more convenient to make appointments for non-emergency care. By incorporating virtual wellness benefits into an ongoing program, employers can create a forward-looking, equitable plan that engages employees and improves health no matter where they are.

Nancy Ryerson is a healthcare writer with a passion for employee benefits and engagement. She is Senior Marketing Manager at Fern Health, a digital health company that provides virtual musculoskeletal pain programs through employers. Prior to Fern, she covered patient centricity in clinical trials at Antidote and the patient experience at The Michael J. Fox Foundation.