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MS. ABRIL: Hello, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Danielle Abril, tech writer at The Washington Post.
Today we’re going to be talking about employee health and wellness as part of our “Future of Work” series, and joining us will be a very special guest who can guide us through the topic. I’d like to welcome Leena Nair. She is the Chief Human Resources Officer at Unilever.
MS. NAIR: Hi. Delighted to be here.
MS. ABRIL: Absolutely. So, we’re really excited to dive into this topic. So, I’m just going to go ahead and get started. The coronavirus really changed the way we live and work, and I’m just curious, how has Unilever reassessed its day-to-day operations in the wake of the pandemic?
MS. NAIR: It’s a great question. I think COVID-19 has taught us all leaders a lesson in humility. It’s really taught us that many of the trends we were seeing going to come, you know, future work, flexibility, employee well-being, it just accelerated all of those strengths and made us deal with it right now.
So, I see in the wake of this pandemic three things that we are doing very, very differently. We’ve been thinking about ways of working, how do we work in hybrid ways, how do we give people the flexibility and choice they so desire, and yet bring people together in a way that brings the culture of Unilever alive. We have, for example, started rethinking what’s the level of time people should be spending in an office. How do you make what you’re working work for everyone? How do you make remote working work for everyone? So, ways of working is one area we’re addressing.
We’re also looking at new employment models. I think all of us in the last 18 months have asked ourselves, maybe there’s a new way of working. Maybe our old ways of wake up in the morning, commute in the train, bus, or whatever for a couple of hours, get to work, do it day in and day out, maybe some of that needs to be challenged, and we need to rethink new employment models in the way we work. So, we are rethinking those as well. And, most importantly, we’re putting a huge focus on holistic well-being, physical, mental, emotional, purposeful well-being. All aspects of well-being are important, and COVID-19 has put employee health and well-being at the top of every board table.
So, to answer your question, it’s accelerated a lot of trends, and we are using this moment to reimagine, to reinvent, to rethink how we work, to reimagine the workplaces, and to reimagine the workforces.
MS. ABRIL: Yeah. It sounds like you guys are changing a lot, given the situation with the pandemic. I also want to talk about your global workforce. You have over 100,000 employees spread across countries. Given how the pandemic has affected every country differently, how did you respond to employees’ changing needs?
MS. NAIR: You know, we are 150,000 employees in 190 countries, and believe me, every single day, I truly felt the globality of my job because while there were 17 countries that didn’t have access to testing, we had countries on the other hand talking about vaccine. So, we’ve had this whole range of support we’ve had to provide across the world, whether it’s testing, hospitalization support, helping procure medicines that were in short supply in many parts of the world, providing access to vaccines, supporting governments to maximize vaccine coverage and so on and so forth. So, we’ve really seen a whole range of issues across the world.
And one of the things I firmly believe in is one size doesn’t fit all. We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat. We’ve got to tailor solutions, personalize solutions, and give people different things. So, for example, when we were doing some of our localized analytics during the early days of the COVID, what we saw is that women, particularly women between the ages of 30 and 40, particularly those who were working in Asia, were really working very, very long hours and giving care and responsibilities for their family were getting exhausted. We saw groups of employees who were working more than 60-hour weeks, week after week. We saw parts of the world where being in confinement had increased the bullying that men and women have experienced. So, gender-based violence was going up.
So, I think one of the things I’ve learned in my job is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all. You’ve got to look at the country, look at the context that is happening in that country, and then do whatever it takes to ensure people that work for us are growing, thriving, and feeling fulfilled.
So, you know, for example, we’re seeing mental health and well-being challenges in some parts of the world. So, my advice would be be ready to flex and do different things in different parts of the world because the challenges are not the same, though we are in the same storm.
MS. ABRIL: That makes a lot of sense.
I also am curious, you know, as we talk about the future of work and the changing landscape, how do you balance productivity and competition with ensuring a healthy and happy workforce?
MS. NAIR: You know, I believe that a happier, more engaged workforce who’s feeling well is actually a more productive workforce. You know, I really believe that if you look after your people, they will look after the business. If you take care of your people, they will take care of the business. So, I think employee health and well-being has to be prioritized. There’s no way you’re going to get productivity from a person who is exhausted, who’s feeling miserable, and who is having mental health and well-being challenges. There’s no way.
So, I think prioritizing health and well-being is so important. I mean, many parts of the world, what we are seeing today is labor shortages. It’s because of those labor shortages that we’re seeing supply shortages everywhere. So, every business must prioritize health and well-being for people.
You know, one of the stats I often quote is for every dollar that we invest in employee health and well-being, I get a return of $2.50. So, it’s not just a nice thing to do. It gives you financial results. It gives you a business case. So, I think it goes hand in hand. It’s not an either/or. People have to be well and thriving, and when they’re well and thriving, they will be highly productive. And when they’re highly productive, a business will perform very, very well. So, it all goes hand in hand.
MS. ABRIL: Wow! Making that business case, right, that really speaks to leaders. I totally hear you on that.
It seems like since the outbreak of the pandemic, a lot of companies are looking for ways to prioritize employee health and wellness, and you mention that at Unilever, you all are doing that. Can we learn a little bit more about what exactly you guys are doing? And let’s start with physical health.
MS. NAIR: Yes. You know, I believe it’s always got to be holistic well-being. So, you’ve got to look at physical, mental, emotional, purposeful all at the same time, and let me give you a few examples of what we are doing.
Physical health, what we are doing is we have a fabulous data analytic system that looks at what’s happening in a particular country, what’s happening in our workforce, and tries and identifies what are the big causes of physical ill health of that country. So, it could be obesity in Mexico, it could be cholesterol challenges in Indonesia, but we look at what are the country trends, what’s the population trends, and our own data and try and see where we need to put focus.
In all our offices, you know–and now people don’t come to office that much–we’re still working through what are hybrid ways of working, but access to gym, access to nutrition–after all, we’re a food company–ensuring that people have access to great nutritious food, healthy food is so important to us. Ensuring people have access to gyms and exercise places is important to us, and all our offices reflect that. And, increasingly, we are finding that peers together setting up challenges for one another helps improve physical health, so people doing a challenge where they have to, you know, walk X number of miles and raise money for charity. We’ve had a group recently that exercised together, went for long walks together, and collected, you know, £10,000 for vaccination in parts of the world that don’t have access to vaccinations. So, involving peers is very helpful in stepping up physical well-being.
In mental well-being, we’ve done a lot of things, including this is our Mental Health and Well-Being Week, and we’re doing a hell of a lot of activities during this week to reduce the stigma, raise the awareness, and signpost our people to where support and tools are available. We’ve said that all our people should not be more than one click, one chat, or one call away from feeling well. So, we have employee assistance programs in all countries we operate in. We’ve trained up 3,200 mental health champions, and I’m so proud of all these champions because they have volunteered their time to get trained so they can support other people in the business who are struggling with mental health challenges. So, we’ve invested in that.
And purposeful well-being, we put all of our people through Discover Your Purpose Workshop. Sixty thousand people have already been through a workshop where they’ve discovered their purpose. What are they passionate about? What gets them out of bed in the morning every day? Because we believe when you know that, it gives you an anchor to work through uncertain times, and I’m so pleased because so much of the data is saying that people who have been through these workshops and have discovered there and are living their purpose and action at Unilever are 49 percent more intrinsically motivated, have 25 percent more job satisfaction, and are 40 percent more likely to stick with Unilever. So, there’s a real, real importance to doing some of this work around purpose.
So, we are putting huge focus on employee health and well-being, providing people all the apps and all the things that allow them–the tools, the support systems, the peer support network, so that they feel empowered to look after their own health.
And very important through all this is culture and leadership. So, we encourage our leaders to talk about their challenges, how are they looking after their physical health, how are they looking after their mental health. We believe we all have mental health. We are all on the spectrum of mental health, and it’s important for leaders to have the same fluency to talk about mental health as they talk about physical health. So, it’s also about the culture of making it okay to talk about one’s health and well-being priorities. So, it’s a combination of culture, leadership, prevention, support that helps the focus on employee wellness, but when employees feel they’re looked after and they feel well, the business will do well.
MS. ABRIL: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense, and you just answered my next question. I was going to ask you about whether Unilever does anything to break the stigma of mental health at work, and it sounds like you’re creating a culture around it. So, thank you for explaining that to us.
I’m going to go ahead and move on. We did receive a question from the audience. So, I’m going to go ahead and read that. It is from Sean Sinclair, and he lives in Virginia. He asks, how are employers advertising enhanced benefits and wellness to prospective recruits and current employees?
MS. NAIR: Yes. You know, it’s a really, really important question because sometimes we have so many progressive things we are doing, but we struggle to communicate all of that to our people because, like I said, we have 150,000 people across the world.
What we try and do is we use the network of our mental health champions to spread the word. This whole week, we’ve been doing activities. So, on Monday, for example, I had the pleasure of interviewing Indra Nooyi on how she creates space for herself, how she builds her own resilience to inspire our people that it’s possible.
Today we had Amy Edmondson, who is a professor on psychological safety, talking to all our people on how to create psychologically safe environments so that you can feel more included, and you can speak your mind and share what’s on your mind. And we use all these opportunities to signpost to our people the global well-being hub in our company where all these tools, support material, apps, reading material, other resources, training programs are all available.
But it’s a great question because I simply think it’s not enough, and I see the challenges today of well-being. I mean, I was reading data that said that just depression alone is costing the U.S. economy a trillion dollars every year and data that says that people between the ages of 18 and 25, 60 percent of that cohort has challenges with their mental health. So, when I see that data around physical health, mental health, I think we have to continue doing more to connect people to the fabulous resources and tools that we’ve put in place.
MS. ABRIL: Yeah. And earlier, you know, you talked a little bit about how you guys are changing the way you work and the way you operate and looking at different models. I understand that Unilever operates on a hybrid model of work. I’m curious, you know, how did you come to that decision? It sounds like they’re basically coming into the physical office or being available to come into the physical office but mostly working remotely. Tell me about that and how you see the future of that model.
MS. NAIR: You know, firstly, I must say that this is the time to experiment and learn, and if any company says, “Oh, we figured it all out. We know exactly what to do,” please don’t believe them, including Unilever. We’re all trying to figure it out. We’re all trying to experiment.
So, principle number one is these are the current principles that we’re putting into place, but if we learn over the next few months or weeks that it works or doesn’t, then we’ll adapt and find other ways. So, one of the things we are seeing in hybrid is we believe in the power of offices. We believe that offices are places of collaboration, creativity, getting to know people, celebrating stuff together. It’s a huge part of building up culture, getting to see each other, be with each other. So, we’re saying that we expect people to be at their workplace at least 40 percent of their time, and we’re seeing the times they come to office, we expect them to be in a collaboration kind of work. So, we’re changing our workplaces to reflect a more collaborated zone, and when they’re at home, we expect them to do the more focused bits of their work that they have to do.
We’re also training all our people in how do you work in hybrid ways because this is not the old world where everybody sits in an office and the lone person dials on the computer and you say, “Hi. Oh, we almost forgot about you. Do you have any views for this meeting to share?” We can’t work in those old ways. We have to work in a more integrated way where people are online or offline in the meeting, because so many of our meetings are global, feel equally included in the meeting. So, there’s a whole training and education piece to this as well.
We’re not just stopping at ways of working. We’re experimenting with new models of employment, like I said. We’re experimenting with a four-day working week in New Zealand, and 90 people of Unilever who work in New Zealand are trying this new way of working and just crossed. I hope it works.
We are also trying a new model called U-Work in the United Kingdom where people who do not want to work 12 months a year but want to work, say, six weeks a year to six months with Unilever and the remaining time they want to do something else are given the flexibility to do so, and it gives them the flexibility of doing things their own way but the security of a job with Unilever. So, we’re trying all sorts of models and experiments. We’re trying something called Career by Choice in India, for example. We’re trying something called U-Renew where you can take a sabbatical and go to learn something new, and the company sponsors part of your cost, and you’ve got to sponsor part of the cost.
So, the big message from me really is we’ve got to try. The COVID times have shown us that we can try to be more flexible than we’ve been in the past. It started to challenge the assumptions we had about how work gets done. So, please don’t waste this time. Let’s try and experiment, different companies experimenting different things, learn together, and adapt to a new world.
You know, a lot of the language around let’s return to the workplace, let’s return, I think “return” is the wrong word. That world is gone. There is no returning. It’s moving forward to a new world where we combine the best of what we did before COVID with what we did during COVID that worked for us, and we combined the best of both worlds and create a new world. So, stop using all this “return, return, return,” and there is no return. You’re going forward energetically and adapting positively to a new world.
MS. ABRIL: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense.
Leena, we only have a couple minutes left. So, I’m going to have to ask you, briefly, to touch on the next topic, but I think it’s really important we at least address it. You know, how does Unilever handle the ongoing conversation about race and equality in the U.S., especially now? I just wonder how you’re dealing with your employees of color to make sure that they’re feeling seen and heard in these challenging times. I really think it’s important we address that topic.
MS. NAIR: You know, we have gone on record, and our CEO, one of the first things he said when he came into his role three years ago, Alan Jobe, he said that we want to be a beacon of diversity and inclusion in the world. So, we take our commitments very–and we made three massive commitments externally. We said that we would ensure 2 billion of our suppliers’ spend goes to suppliers who are from underrepresented categories. We said that all our advertising would be representative of all races, all minorities. We said that we would un-stereotype all our advertising and we would ensure people behind the camera also are representative of the populations we live in. We made a commitment to say that we would pay living wage to everybody who works in our ecosystem. That’s more than 10 million families who work for Unilever across the world, and that we would train up 10 million young people in future with skills. Every one of these commitments has been done to ensure we give focus to underrepresented communities, and that, in our company and outside our company, we are providing space at the table for people from underrepresented races.
So, you know, as a woman of color myself, I feel for this passionately. So many of my roles, I’ve been the first woman doing it, the first woman of color doing it, and I lead it with the same passion and intensity to create a greater inclusive Unilever.
MS. ABRIL: Leena, that’s a great note to leave it on. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us. So, we’re going to have to leave it there. We are out of time. Thank you so much for the great conversation, and I will be back with Nick Patel, CEO of Wellable, in just a few minutes. Please stay with us.
MS. NAIR: Thank you.
MS. LABOTT: Hello. I’m Elise Labott, of American University. And today, we’re talking about the connection between the health of employees and their company’s success. The COVID pandemic arguably upended the workplace more than any single event in recent history, and some very timely research by The Economist, sponsored by Cigna, explores the role of employers in driving these links between employee wellbeing and overall economic vitality here in the United States.
Joining me to unpack this is David Cordani, CEO of Cigna. David, welcome.
MR. CORDANI: It’s good to be with you today.
MS. LABOTT: So, let’s talk about this Economist study. How did it come about and what did the findings tell us about how employers think about their role in encouraging employees to adapt healthy behaviors? Is it more of a responsibility? Is it an opportunity? Is it both?
MR. CORDANI: Sure. So, we start with the notion that we’re a global health service company, and we’re privileged to serve about 190 million customer relationships around the world. Most of those relationships come through employers, and we view that an employer has a unique role with their coworker and has alignment in terms of an individual’s health helps an employer have a vibrant business. And we also believe that a vibrant business helps to create a vibrant community.
To your question, is it an opportunity or responsibility, it’s both, because those employers who have seized upon that opportunity have been able to produce better business results, longer retentive relationships and higher productivity with their coworkers, and even better commitment and contribution back to the community. So, we see it as a pretty powerful fuel for those employers who want to lean in to health and wellbeing.
MS. LABOTT: So, the study is really interesting and it sheds an important light on stress and burnout, which have obviously intensified since the pandemic, but talk to us about how much a threat this is to a company’s bottom line. I mean, what are the risks if a company doesn’t address these emerging issues?
MR. CORDANI: So, back to what a company needs, a company needs healthy, productive, present, highly engaged coworkers. And you’re absolutely correct, the pandemic has further elevated the behavioral health challenges, stress, anxiety, strain that exists in the workforce.
So, to your point, if an employer doesn’t proactively address that, they’re at risk for reduced productivity, reduced presenteeism, employee turnover, and eroding business results. If an employer does address them, obviously they could avert that, as well as be more of an employer of choice. So, this presents a great opportunity both proactively to run your business and, for some, to differentiate yourself as an employer of choice.
MS. LABOTT: So, I know that Cigna–you know, this isn’t just from the pandemic, you have a long history of looking at mental and emotional addict–issues like addiction, loneliness, resilience, and how they intersect with chronic health conditions. Talk to me a little bit about that, if you could.
MR. CORDANI: Absolutely. We believe, for all too long, the societies have separated physical health from mental health. So, if there’s a physical health need, it was addressed physically or through a medical professional; a mental health need through a behavioral professional. But the science shows us that they’re more interrelated than anybody ever imagined before. So, our work on loneliness reinforced that, in the United States, for example, about half of all Americans saw themself as somewhat or meaningfully lonely. And our youngest generation were the most disconnected as it related to that.
Our research around resilience, the ability to bounce back or overcome obstacles also showed a large decrement due to the pandemic. And back to an employer, an employer needs that healthy, productive, highly engaged workforce. So, as a global health service company, we were early and innovative to seeing the connection of mind and body, to merge programs together with mental health and physical health, to both help keep people healthy in the first place, identify health risks, and avoid major health events from transpiring or, when a large health event did transpire, having more coordinated, whole-person approach. So, we think it’s a much more progressive way of addressing someone’s overall health and wellbeing, or vitality, if you might consider it that way.
MS. LABOTT: Okay. So, let’s say I’m a CEO. This is important to my bottom line, the health of the employees, but I’m also grappling with all these competing priorities. What’s the one thing I can do right now to start creating this culture of health for my employees?
MR. CORDANI: Absolutely. So, first and foremost, it’s a question to you as the CEO, which is strategically how do you see your coworkers and talent? Do you think your talent is a strategic advantage? Do you think it’s one of your most critical or the most critical asset you have? If you do, you’re going to take a fresh look at your investment in health and wellbeing, not as an expense item, not as an accommodation, not as a parity play, but as a point of competitive differentiation for your business. And in doing so, you’ll look at your culture, your readiness to change, the health burden and challenges, and you’ll chart–with the right support, you’ll chart a multiyear strategy for more incentives, engagement, support, and resources around health and wellbeing. And then, as the CEO, you’re going to expect to be ablet to track results. You’ll expect to see elevated presenteeism. You’ll expect to see elevated productivity. You’ll expect to see elevated retention in your organization and, over time, lower health costs relative to what they would have been.
So, the question is, do you view it as a strategic investment or do you view it as a transactional expense? If you view it strategically, you enter the door through a very different mindset.
MS. LABOTT: Yeah, well, clearly the COVID pandemic has served as this important wakeup call for companies to actively engage in the health and wellbeing of their most valued asset, as you say, which is their human capital, their people.
David Cordani, CEO of Cigna, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. CORDANI: I appreciate being with you today. Thank you.
MS. LABOTT: We’ll send it back to The Washington Post.
MS. ABRIL: Welcome back. I’m Danielle Abril.
My next guest is Nick Patel. He’s the CEO of Wellable, a holistic wellness provider for companies looking to help their employees achieve their wellness goals.
Nick, welcome to Washington Post Live.
MR. PATEL: Thanks for having me.
MS. ABRIL: Absolutely. So, let’s start with the impact of the pandemic. You work with a number of clients across industries, so I’m hoping you can give us a little taste of some of the big trends. How do you see companies reassessing employee health and wellness in the pandemic?
MR. PATEL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think with all aspects of businesses, when COVID started, there are three phases that were happening concurrently. There’s the response phase: How do we address what’s happening today? There’s a recovery phase: How do we address the short-term changes? And the reimagine phase which is now that the world has permanently changed, that there is a new normal that will seem to persist, what does that mean for all aspects for our business? And wellness and employee health and well-being is very similar to that mindset.
Obviously, if you are in the middle of the pandemic and office closures were happening and there are shutdowns, if you had any on-site health and well-being offerings, you had to go digital. There wasn’t an offering for that. Now, what we’re seeing, similar to the future of work, there’s a hybrid scenario as companies begin to come back, as they begin to explore what it means to work three days in the office or have some employees fully remote and things like that. It’s offering a mix of that on-site and digital offerings.
The other thing that I would say as it relates to the reimagine phase is that what was happening in employee health and well-being, as in other aspects of the business community, COVID really accelerated that. I’m not sure if it necessarily changed it in a fundamental way, other than really accelerating trends that were already happening. And what I mean by that is some companies, but not many, were focused on mental health. Some companies, but not many, were focused on financial well-being. The companies that did have employee health and wellness programs largely gravitated around physical activity, maybe nutrition, but there was a slow and emerging movement to really embrace holistic health, and that includes the ones I mentioned before as well as sleep, more emerging concepts like how does charitable giving impact our health and well-being, how does gratitude impact our health and well-being, and I feel like that is the biggest change that we’ve seen from an employee health perspective as it relates to COVID is that there’s been acceleration of digital tools as well as an acceleration of the definition of what it means to have a healthy workforce, to really embrace more than just physical activity and nutrition to more of a holistic module.
MS. ABRIL: Got it. And tell me a little bit about how technology plays a role in employee health and wellness.
MR. PATEL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, technology is becoming an increasing part of all of our daily lives, including employee health and well-being. So whether it’s access to on-demand content, so be able to access meditation sessions or be able to have a virtual consultation or work with a health coach and schedule a time, these technology tools allow employers to embrace and kind of, in some ways, scale the operations of the wellness program, and I think that is probably one of the biggest benefits of technology infusion into the workplace as it relates to health and well-being is that it’s created an opportunity for companies that are maybe even 100 people or 200 people, which are often organizations that didn’t have the resources to really maintain and sustain a successful employee health and wellness program, they’re able to do that because technology has given them access to more resources. It allows them to operate if they have multiple offices, if they’re a hybrid workforce with individuals who are remote to provide more equitable benefits as it relates to employee health and well-being to all their employees, and then in many ways, it just allows you to scale your interactions. And what I mean by that is to have a really successful program, you need some level of individualization or personalization as it relates to what an individual is going through from the program.
Health and well-being is a very personal concept. So for one individual, what that looks like is very different from another, and so a successful wellness program often has a wide range of offerings that allows employees to gravitate to what makes the most sense for them. That’s hard to do without additional platform. So to be able to do that is largely through on-demand content and things of that nature. Employees are able to identify those resources that resonate the most with them, that are delivering them the biggest impact at that given time and invest their energy there.
MS. ABRIL: Let’s dive into Wellable a little bit. As I understand it, your company helps other companies help their employees reach their wellness goals. How exactly do you do that? And let’s just start with physical health.
MR. PATEL: Yeah, absolutely. So, from our perspective, every company and every organization is unique from the culture they have, the goals they want to accomplish as it relates to employee health and well-being, and they’re comprised of a diverse population of individuals that all have unique wellness goals.
As it relates to physical activity, in our digital platform–because we recognize that each individual within that organization has a different set of what it means to be physically active. Whether that’s just taking incrementally more steps throughout the day, whether it’s going to a cross-fit class, whether it’s tracking in a very granular level your participation in certain programs, everyone is different, and because Wellable connects to a wide ecosystem of third-party apps, so everything from Fitbit to Garmin to Apple Health, each of them have unique features and gravitate to a unique audience. We’re able to deliver a very unique user experience to each individual, so based on what outcomes they want to accomplish, what technologies they want to use, and things like that.
That being said, at an organizational level, companies want to have some level of influence on how they construct a program. They want to be able to have analytics to measure the success of that program, and so by integrating with those technologies and allowing users to have their individualized experience but also be able to aggregate that at the administrative level, we allow those employers to kind of craft and develop the wellness program that kind of really resonates with the culture that they’re trying to build.
MS. ABRIL: So I imagine mental and emotional health is somewhat similar in the way that you guys help companies craft that, but tell me a little bit about how that may be a little different.
MR. PATEL: Yeah. So I think that definition is certainly what we’re seeing as being developed. So what it means to be emotionally healthy and mentally healthy tends to differ again on individuals. There’s a certain level of stigma that’s been slowly being broken down in organizations around being able to discuss that with your manager, being able to have a mental health day and things of that nature. Our goal is to recognize that every individual is unique.
Similar to physical activity, they all have unique mental health needs, and so we want to offer a diverse array of options for them to improve their mental health. Whether that is be able to create policies around flexible work or time off to just improve their mental health, whether it’s access to content like meditation, whether it’s access to health coaching to work directly with an individual to help develop goals and just personal processes to improve your mental health, all those things are valuable to different degrees for each individual, and so we want to make sure our programs provide just a wide array of access to resources, knowing that every employee is not going to engage in all of our mental health resources, but they’ll identify and engage in some that really work for them. And so that’s our ultimate goal is to create that ecosystem where someone can find the resources it takes to thrive in the workplace.
MS. ABRIL: You keep mentioning this individualized approach, right, sort of the opposite of a one-size-fits-all package. I’m curious, how do you work with companies to determine which programs will work for them?
MR. PATEL: Yeah, for sure. So many of our companies that are coming from an existing wellness program, so they already have some data, maybe some internal surveys, things that they’ve identified. They also have a culture that they are actively embracing or cultures that they’re trying to move toward.
So from our perspective, the way we implement all of our programs is we go through a questionnaire with all the points of contact within an organization to really discuss basic ideas of why are you having a wellness program, so what are those goals and objectives, how would they measure success in many ways, what are previous learnings and findings from previous wellness programs. If they don’t have that, what are some of just kind of intuitions they have about their culture and their people?
We combine that into a set of consultations. So we work very closely with kind of wellness experts who serve as their kind of co-captain in this process, really their account manager, and crafting a program that’s really tailored to their organization, and in many cases, the ultimate goal is to create almost a fence around just the general construct for how they want to operate a program, and within that fence, the employees have the ability to kind of roam and identify those resources that work best for them.
MS. ABRIL: Is there a difference between online corporate wellness programs versus in-person wellness programs, and are there times when one might be more appropriate than the other?
MR. PATEL: Of course. I mean, just in a simple world, if you have a fully remote population or a significantly remote population, having an online program is pretty much a requirement to do anything on-site, especially if you don’t really have the on-site office. It’s really a nonstarter.
But it really comes down to each organization, and our view is there’s an economic and scale benefit of having digital tools, but we recognize that on-site interactions are really meaningful. And there are ways, there are certain things you can do on-site that you can’t do in a digital platform. And so our kind of concept, which makes us a little bit unique is that we do maintain a software platform and a robust on-site services business, really combine the two.
Again, we come back to a very consultative approach with our clients, and we talk to them about what they want to accomplish, and if they have certain barriers that make on-site less favorable or more favorable, we’ll adjust the program accordingly.
What we’re seeing, just as a general trend, is that there’s a larger demand for digital tools. They’re more affordable. They’re more scalable. They offer more individualized treatment in some ways. That being said, I think there’s always going to be a place for the on-site services as they existed previously.
MS. ABRIL: I want to dive into a little bit of the benefits of wearables at the workplace. When we talk about wearables, they’re devices that can track things like your fitness, your blood sugar levels, heart health. How do you consider the privacy concerns of technology like this at work?
MR. PATEL: So it really comes down to communication. I think in this world, we’re becoming increasingly sensitive to privacy concerns, and rightfully so, and in many cases, I think the biggest privacy issues that people have heard about in the news or personal experience are ones where companies weren’t up front and weren’t kind of, you know, very proactive in communicating what they are doing with data, et cetera.
We are quite the opposite. From an organizational perspective, we’re very clear about what those data privacy rules are. We recognize that the data is not ours to sell or to manipulate or use any kind of financial way.
We also want to make it very clear to the user, when they first sign in and they go through the basic privacy consents is we make it very clear to them that this is their data. This is as program for them to improve their health, to see gains professionally and personally just by having a healthy productive life, and we try to make that very clear.
We limit the reporting the employers get. To the extent that they need certain data, we deidentify it. So we often get requests from our clients, “We would like to run this report that has certain user information,” and we just don’t allow it just as a policy perspective. We view our–really, our primary constituents are those employees, and those users are trying to be active and healthy in their life. And then we try to work with that in the context or construct of an organization and their needs, understanding they do need data, but there’s ways for us to satisfy both, provide them with actual intelligence and information to iterate and improve their programs, without violating the trust of the user or the employee.
MS. ABRIL: You know, during the pandemic, we really saw the boom of telehealth. I’m curious whether you think that that’s here to stay. Is that sort of the future of health care in this country?
MR. PATEL: Always, the classic answer, it depends. I think the predominance of it and the adoption of it is certainly here to stay. There’s a huge increase. I think there’s been naturally a tapering off of that growth as it relates, but I think it depends on the individual, and I think it depends on the situation that they actually need to get from a clinical perspective.
I think for certain interactions, telehealth is great. Often it’s a great way to triage a patient potentially, and for certain users, they just feel the comfort of being in a doctor’s office and be able to build that physician-patient relationship. And that’s really valuable to them.
I do think digital health tools in general are becoming increasingly popular, and rightfully so. They’re more economical for both the patient in this case. It’s easier to scale from a physician as well, but I think at the end of the day, I think you’re going to see a mix, a hybrid, if you will. There will be some individuals who will always want to be in a doctor’s office, and there will be other individuals who are willing to use telehealth as their predominant primary care tool, and there will be everything in between where people are kind of split. There will be so much of the work environment where there are certain advocates out there who believe on-site work is the future still, and there are others who think it’s completely remote, and likely, it’s somewhere in between.
MS. ABRIL: That makes sense. I’m going to give myself a little shameless plug here. I recently did a story on employee perks and how they’re changing over time, especially in this hybrid and remote environment you just talked about, and one of the things we saw was health and wellness really being a part of that perks packages in ways that it wasn’t before.
I’m curious whether you see employers viewing mental health and well-being as a perk, or are they seeing it more as a benefit? And is there a difference in those two things, especially when it comes to things like retention and employee satisfaction?
MR. PATEL: I think perks and benefits often get commingled because they are often, as you noted, targeting the same goals. We want to make employees happy. We want them to retain their work. We want them to be satisfied and passionate about their work, and we also want them to be productive.
With employee health and well-being, what’s a little bit unique is this version of being the best you, and by being the best you, you can be the best you in your personal life, which has a great deal of satisfaction. You can be the best you in your professional life that can help drive benefits for yourself and your career as well as to your organization.
I still find that employee health and well-being in general is considered a benefit. It often is closely coupled with the company’s health plan, which is definitely a benefit, but there are certain areas where there’s a gray line.
So we often get requests, for example, as our on-site services business, about doing events that are about social well-being. So how do we get our colleagues to interact in healthy ways as it relates to maybe nonwork items? So doing a trivia night, often not associated with classic employee health and well-being but something that we personally invest in and companies gravitate toward, and that often could be considered a perk.
Now, if you sent to something around diabetes management, that would be clearly in a line of a benefit. So we kind of straddle this in both areas, but in general, I think companies view as a benefit, they often closely couple it with their employee health plan.
I know Cigna offers a number of employee wellness resources as well, and so that’s why I think most companies view this certainly as a benefit that’s really designed for mass adoption where perks are often designed for limited adoption and things like that.
MS. ABRIL: You talked about the employee health plan. So I want to get a little bit into insurance plans. Do you think changes need to occur in employee health insurance programs to cover more of what we’re talking about here?
MR. PATEL: Absolutely. And I think those changes are happening. I think there’s a lot of publicity that happens for health plans who are more progressive in some cases than others but were heading in the right direction. So, as it relates to mental health, more and more plans are covering consultations and things of that nature. Many are covering resources that people can use like an on-demand, and many are offering reimbursements for certain resources that are available in the consumer market.
You know, Cigna is a good example of they have their own employee wellness programs. In many cases, they fund for their clients separate employee wellness programs that use, for example, Wellable and things like that, and so we find that health plans are increasingly doing so because they recognize the benefit to the bottom line of their organization. They recognize that this is an absolute need for employers, and since their customers are largely employer groups, they’re recognizing that offering and be able to help lift that burden is super beneficial as it relates to their own bottom line, their business revenue growth, retaining customers, and things of that nature.
So our perspective is, do we have work to do? Absolutely. We’ll continue to kind of move the goal post as well as it relates to what is expected. Ten years ago, twenty years ago, I don’t think people en masse were talking about making mental health benefits really a requirement, and certainly, that’s the case today. So it takes time to move in that direction, but I think we’re certainly headed that way. And if there is a silver lining in COVID, I think that it accelerated a number of things, including really providing the necessary benefits that employees need. It shed light on the fact that employee loneliness is a real concern, and that that’s something that the health plan, the employer, all constituents need to take seriously.
MS. ABRIL: So you’re obviously a champion of employee health and wellness, but you’re also the CEO of your own company. I’m curious, how do you approach wellness in your workplace and for your employees, and did your approach evolve at all during the pandemic?
MR. PATEL: Yes. And for us, we practice what we preach. So we actually use our own platform, as you can imagine, to run wellness challenges and things of that nature.
This maybe a good example of why it’s very company-specific. We’re in a passion industry. The people who come to look to work for a company like ours tend to already embrace health and well-being on their own, without their company, you know, naturally encouraging it and things of that nature. So, from our perspective, we’re not investing in getting people maybe more active or doing some of the basics, so to speak, as it relates to health and well-being because many times, they’re already doing those things. That’s the nature of our population, and that’s why they came to work for a company like Wellable. So, from our perspective, it’s providing a set of policies, procedures, benefits, things of that nature that really allow us to be a progressive organization.
You know, a good example for us, pre-COVID, we always offered a very flexible work schedule, understanding that people have different demands throughout the day. We offered, you know, challenges, as I mentioned before, having our colleagues participate in kind of healthy competition as it relates to, you know, who could take the most steps and things of that nature. We offer healthy snacks in the office in a place when we were open. We do believe in a hybrid workforce, and so we will have a post-COVID office where we’re going to invest in physical resources such as healthy snacks. We have walking desks so people can take a meeting that maybe doesn’t require a lot of typing or something where they can take a casual walk without having to go outside. Our office strategically is next to a park, so it provides those opportunities.
So, from our perspective, we’re investing in things beyond the digital experience of Wellable because that’s a staple for us. We already have access to those things, and we’re really trying to be a progressive organization in that regard.
MS. ABRIL: Well, Nick, this was a great conversation. I really appreciate your insights, but we’re out of time. So we’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us today.
MR. PATEL: Yep. Thank you for having me.
MS. ABRIL: Absolutely.
And thank you for tuning in today. If you’d like to check out what interviews we have coming up, head to WashingtonPostLive.com to register, and find out more information about our upcoming programs.
I’m Danielle Abril. As always, thank you so much for watching.
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