A Gartner, Inc. survey found that nearly 50 percent of organizations reported 81 percent or more of their employees are working remotely during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. As employees are either returning to work or continuing to work from home, creating a robust wellness program during this time is crucial to combat disengagement or decreased productivity.

To create a wellness program that is effective for your employee population, employers must focus on the specific needs of their organization. During this unprecedented time, employers should evaluate program elements most relevant to their community, such as physical activity, wellness, stress, or mental health, which can encourage broader employee participation.

Beyond initial participation, employees should also be engaged to see success as a result of a wellness program. Now more than ever, consumers are adopting digital tools and utilizing new technologies to manage their wellbeing. To garner participation in programs that leverage wearables and home health devices, it is crucial to allow consumers to select digital health tools that play a significant role in their lives and routines. When wellness programs allow their employees to utilize a BYOD approach, they are more likely to see longer-term engagement in their program. 

Wellness Programs for Physical Activity: 

Fitness has gone digital in the wake of COVID-19. The NHS advises adults to do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week or around 20 to 30 minutes a day to stay fit and healthy, but this can be difficult to achieve while homebound. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only about 23 percent of American adults are getting the recommended amount of exercise per week. 

Many gyms suspended their membership dues while stay-at-home orders are in place and as states begin to set new guidelines for re-opening. For the quarter of Americans that are getting the recommended activity, the loss of being able to go to the gym has been strongly felt. 

Consumers have found themselves at home, without a gym to go to, and are investing in home fitness routines and turning to wellness programs like WW (formerly Weight Watchers), Noom, Yes.Fit or AARP to manage their health. Our direct-to-consumer wellness clients have seen an average increase of 48 percent in their programs since the beginning of quarantine. 

These wellness programs offer people a chance to participate in things like virtual races, step and weight loss challenges and earn rewards for physical activity. Additionally, these programs offer a way for people to feel connected to a community through challenges and they provide an outlet for stress and anxiety felt during these challenging times. 

Wellness Programs for Mental Health

According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five Americans will suffer from some sort of mental illness each year. Additionally, those with depression have a 40 percent higher risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic diseases than the general population. A recent KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) poll found that nearly half (45%) of adults in the U.S. reported that their mental health had been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus.

COVID-19 has brought many changes to our lives. Many people have found themselves with uncertainty, altered daily routines, financial pressures, and social isolation. Many of our loved ones or us are left at home, alone, worrying about potentially getting sick, how long this will last, and what the future looks like in the coming days, weeks, and months. With a 24-hour news cycle, many people feel like they are on information overload and feel out of control during this stressful time. 

During this uncertain time, it’s important to learn how we can better manage the stress and uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought into everyday lives. Our blog post, managing the uncertainty of stress during COVID-19, highlights different strategies you can use to cope. 

Wellness programs can encourage at-home self-care strategies. Utilizing self-care strategies can be beneficial not only for your employees’ physical health but also for their mental health. These strategies can help them feel like they are taking charge of their own life. Below are examples of self-care strategies:  

  • Keep a regular routine: Create a routine that feels comfortable to you. Stick to a regular bedtime, try to eat around the same time every day, set a work or study schedule during the weekdays, shower, and get dressed every morning and exercise frequently. Establishing a routine for yourself can make you feel more in control of your day. 
  • Participate in regular physical activity: If you are symptom-free, going outside while maintaining a distance of at least six feet from other people is okay. We need to look after our mental and physical health, and ensuring you get enough fresh air, nature, and exercise is a great way to do so.
  • Set priorities and goals: Start each week by jotting down on a piece of paper what you want to accomplish. Focus on the now – don’t get caught up in trying to create a life-altering task list for things to do while you’re at home. Set reasonable, realistic goals of things you can accomplish each day and outline the steps you can take to achieve those goals. Make sure you are giving yourself credit every day for getting up and trying to do your best. It’s important to recognize that some days will be better than others. 
  • Focus on the positive things happening in your life: It may be helpful to start each morning listing the things you are thankful for. Try to maintain a sense of hope and accept the changes as they happen and keep issues that arise in perspective. 
  • Set aside time for yourself: Make sure you are taking time each day to stop and relax. Research shows that regular use of a mindfulness app can provide stress intervention when you’re in a pressure-filled situation. Users also report feeling a higher amount of positive emotions as well as fewer burdens brought on by external demands after just 100 minutes of practice. Read a book, take a bath, listen to your favorite music, or play your favorite game – do whatever helps you relax and recharge. 

Wellness Programs for Chronic Conditions 

In addition to wellness programs that promote physical wellness and mental health, employees may need disease-specific management programs that offer remote support. 

Today, chronic conditions affect 133 million Americans, representing more than 40 percent of the country’s total population. Because those with chronic conditions are at an increased risk of getting severely sick from COVID-19, and the mortality rate is higher, the need to closely monitor and check in on these individuals is even more critical during this time.

As hospitals extend care to patients with chronic conditions via remote patient monitoring (RPM) and telehealth, wellness programs can support patients outside the clinical setting. An employee who is self-quarantining may find that their diabetes or hypertension is harder to manage right now because they are not exercising as much or controlling their food intake, as well as they were before the global pandemic occurred. Furthermore, primary care offices across the U.S. are seeing reductions in the patient volume of more than 50%, due to fear of contracting COVID-19. 

What the Future of Wellness Programs Look Like 

COVID-19 has changed everything about how we live and work. The need for remote care for mental and physical health is growing, and telemedicine visits are becoming increasingly popular. 

As businesses begin to re-open, remote resources and virtual care programs will continue to be vital for the coming months. Along with virtual care, there will be a rise in video and on-demand resources available to employees. Instead of wellness programs reimbursing for gym memberships, post-COVID wellness programs could provide access to on-demand and streaming workout videos and incentivize steps recorded in a fitness tracker. 

Wellness programs help improve overall health and engagement and help reduce claims costs. By building a well-rounded wellness program that directs employees to the right resources – an expensive ER visit can be replaced with a telehealth visit with their primary care physician. A recent study found that employer-sponsored wellness programs that include chronic condition management have shown promise – revealing that 87 percent of the $30 per-member, per-month (PMPM) savings firms have experienced can be traced to disease management. 

Validic works with industry leaders on device and data strategies that result in prolonged user engagement and sustained program adherence. Research demonstrated a 23.7% increase in new member engagement for those with connected devices, signifying the importance of health and wellness organizations to offer broad device connectivity to members. This engagement indicates larger outcomes-based trends; for example, as employees increased their activity each day (as measured by steps), the resulting impact was reduced claims costs and improved outcomes. Specifically, employees who averaged 5,000 to 7,500 steps daily had healthier blood pressure indicators than those with sedentary lifestyles and were less likely to have out-of-range BMIs. These employees also saw annual claims costs more than $800 lower than those of sedentary employees. Importantly, sedentary employees who increased their activity levels even by small amounts had claims costs nearly $500/year lower than those who did not change their lifestyle.

Chronic conditions make up for more than 75 percent of all healthcare costs. Additionally, experts predict that COVID-19 will raise healthcare costs by 7 percent this year. Going forward, corporate wellness programs will be critical in reducing healthcare costs. 

As work has moved remotely and people find themselves at home, connecting virtually or through email, we lack the connection, collaboration, camaraderie from an office setting. Wellness programs are more critical now than ever. Companies that offer virtual wellness programs and virtual gatherings are seeing their employees be productive, engaged, and connected, despite working apart over the last few months. These programs are needed to provide incentives, tools, social support, and strategies for adopting and maintaining healthy behaviors during these unknown times.

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