The pandemic changed how people think about their health—and their health benefits.
The crisis created a dichotomy: 36% of people say COVID caused them to look more closely at health benefits, yet 41% of Americans skipped screenings and preventative care in the past year.
COVID also taught us to think about health and related benefits holistically, to include physical, mental and financial wellness.
All of these shifts should be top of mind for employers offering health benefits.
"COVID caused people to pause and pay attention—which is a great opportunity for employers," said Reed Smith, employee benefits practice leader for BOK Financial Insurance, Inc. "Now is the time to listen to your employees, to meet them where they are and to craft a wellness strategy that works for everyone. Companies should take this opportunity to educate and empower employees using a broad approach to health benefits."
Health isn't just physical
If there's a silver lining to the pandemic, it's that it focused attention on mental health while also starting conversations around employment expectations and financial wellness. These topics are all connected, Smith said.
"Your emotional and mental well-being have a significant impact on your physical well-being, and vice versa," he said. "So anytime anyone has a new medical condition or diagnosis, it's safe to say that could create anxiety or depression.
"On the flip side, someone that's been working from home for a year and now has to go back to the office might start experiencing some anxiety, which could lead to high blood pressure, changes to their diet or skipping their exercise."
Struggling with mental or physical health—or both—could impact workers' ability to be productive at work or sometimes even stay employed.
"And that could impact financial well-being," Smith said. "If you have to take time off of work, you're maybe not earning a paycheck or contributing to your retirement or HSA. If you are empowered by your employer to take care of yourself mentally, it's going to help you be your most productive self."
Reed said this means two things for employers:
- Always integrate mental and behavioral health resources into your medical and wellness benefit strategies.
- Find opportunities to integrate retirement readiness and financial education programs into your physical health and well-being strategies.
Look at health, not just benefits
Data suggests that while many employees are taking a closer look at their medical benefits, they're not necessarily keeping a watchful eye on their health. During the course of the pandemic, a reported 41% of Americans put off preventative or routine medical care.
"We can't afford, as a country or as employers, to see fewer people engaging with preventative care and maintenance care. It's always better for the individual, from a health perspective and a financial one, to find issues early," said Smith.
“We can't afford, as a country or as employers, to see fewer people engaging with preventative care and maintenance care. It's always better for the individual, from a health perspective and a financial one, to find issues early.”- Reed Smith, employee benefits practice leader, BOK Financial Insurance
"Early detection and proper maintenance of chronic conditions is the key to preventing significant medical, catastrophic events that can impact a person's life and ability to go to work, earn an income, and save for retirement."
Prevention and early diagnosis have a financial impact on a company, too.
"When we see a serious drop in preventative screenings like we did last year, that's a big deal," he said. "There's no reason to assume fewer people got cancer last year. There's no reason to think fewer people developed cardiac conditions last year. That just means fewer people are benefiting from early detection."
Smith encourages employers to continue to promote the importance of preventative care visits "Just because things were shut down for a while, don't let that avoidance of routine care become a new pattern."
Creating a new normal
In a post-pandemic world, people are much more comfortable doing things virtually, and employers should take note when crafting their wellness strategy. Adding a virtual option is one more way employees can make sure they're not missing important preventative screenings.
"Everyone is creating their new normal," said Smith.
“For healthcare benefits, we especially need a new normal. The old normal was broken for a lot of people. It was fragmented; it was expensive. We don't want to simply revert back to the old system, ” Smith said.
Instead, he said, employers should use this time to introduce more holistic and more permanent wellness strategies. "That way our new normal is delivering better outcomes, better employee satisfaction and better financial results that employers weren't getting before," he said.