Posted: 05 Mar. 2020 12 min. read

Next-generation employee wellness programs are reaching beyond physical health

by Casey Korba, manager, Deloitte Center for Health Solutions

Shortly after graduating college in the late 1990s, I landed my first professional job. I was thrilled to learn my new employer had recently rolled out a wellness program that heavily subsidized my gym membership. At that time, employers were growing increasingly concerned about rising obesity rates (and associated conditions like diabetes and heart disease) and were trying to encourage employees to adopt healthy behaviors. In the years to come, however, study after study would show that subsidizing, giving away, or even offering financial incentives to encourage healthy behavior is not enough to move the needle on rising health costs—or the increasing prevalence of preventable conditions.1

It’s not all bad news. For example, health care researchers have made great strides in showing that tobacco-cessation programs that combine counseling with over-the-counter or prescription medications were effective and had powerful return on investment—even in as little as two years.2 It’s now commonplace for employers and health plans to cover evidence-based tobacco-cessation programs. But the many weight-management, fitness, and health-coaching programs that have come and gone through the years have left some employers disappointed in their ability to impact long-term health outcomes or curb costs.

Deloitte’s future of health vision looks ahead to what will likely emerge in health (and health care) over the next 20 years. By 2040, we expect there will be a fundamental shift from “health care” to “health”—defined holistically as an overall state of well-being encompassing mental, social, emotional, physical, spiritual, and financial health. Some employers are recognizing this shift and are taking steps to support their employees along these same lines.

Wellness programs are now seen as table stakes that can help employers recruit and retain employees, according to Deloitte research. There is little evidence to suggest that, despite a discouraging return on investment, employers are turning away from these programs. Given today’s tight job market, some employers might use wellness perks to differentiate themselves.3 But beyond perks, some employers are becoming more innovative with their wellness offerings and are recognizing that helping employees live healthier lives requires a holistic approach. Along with physical health, next-generation wellness programs focus on financial health, loneliness and social isolation, healthy sleep, and other factors that can affect health.

Health is wealth: Financial health programs

Some employers understand that finances can be a major source of stress. It can be hard for employees to stay focused at work, practice mindfulness, and take care of themselves if they are worried about money. While increased focus on the drivers of health (sometimes called the social determinants) have shed light on the link between health and basic needs like housing, food security, and transportation, some studies have shown that full-time employees with well-paying jobs are increasingly stressed about finances. A 2019 workplace benefits report from Bank of America found that 53 percent of US companies now offer financial-wellness programs, up from 24 percent in 2015.4 Tuition reimbursement, financial-planning education, Employee Assistance Programs, and basic money-management tools are among the most common financial well-being initiatives offered by employers, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s (EBRI) 2019 Employer Approaches to Financial Wellbeing Solutions Survey.5 EBRI found that employers were measuring the success of these programs through a range of criteria, including improved worker satisfaction (37 percent), improved use of retirement plans (31 percent), reduced stress (31 percent), and employee retention (28 percent).

Long hours can translate to loneliness and social isolation

Cigna Corp.’s latest Loneliness Index, a survey of more than 10,000 adults, found that 61 percent of Americans described themselves as lonely in 2019, up from 54 percent in 2018.6 The report highlights the connection between time spent at work and social isolation. Workers who felt they lacked work-life balance tended to be lonelier than others, and those who worked long hours were also lonelier compared to those who worked more reasonable hours. Though retired older adults are prone to social isolation, Cigna’s study found that Generation Z (people between the ages of 18 and 22) reported the highest levels of loneliness—70 percent. The study detailed the significant impact loneliness can have on productivity and health. Lonely employees were twice as likely to miss work due to sickness and five times more likely to miss work because of stress compared to other employees. Lonely employees were also more likely to quit, according to the study.

The report offers strategies employers can try, such as fostering connectivity through social groups based on shared interests or volunteering, setting aside time in meetings to check in with each other, and designing common spaces to encourage social interaction, such as break rooms or kitchens. Deloitte’s 2019 research on the future of work in health care showed that some organizations are incorporating wellness programs and friendly fitness competitions to encourage connections within an increasingly remote and virtual workforce (working remotely can lead to feelings of loneliness and social isolation).  

Waking up to the importance of sleep

It is sometimes seen as a badge of honor to brag about how little sleep we get and how much we depend on coffee. Many American employees have grown accustomed to receiving emails from colleagues in the middle of the night or the wee hours of the morning. Over the last several years, we have greatly expanded our understanding of sleep and its profound impact on our immune system, mental health, and overall well-being. More employers are making investments in sleep screenings and sleep treatments for employees. Deloitte’s 2019 report You snooze, you win lays out the business case for sleep and outlines steps employers can take to counter a sleep-deprived workforce. Steps include offering nap rooms, providing education on sleep, and creating programs that incentivize employees to get enough sleep. Ensuring the overall organizational culture is set up to encourage sleep—such as discouraging middle-of-the-night emails, for example—is another strategy.

Some technology companies have rolled out digital solutions to meet the growing demand for a better night’s sleep. Innovations include deep-sleep headbands equipped with sensors to monitor brain activity and sleep. There are also new products that treat sleep apnea. Even mattress companies are upping their tech with personalized microclimate settings and built-in monitors to help consumers track their sleep.

Employers are paying attention, and some are starting to pay for these services and gadgets. Some companies are actively discouraging emails after a certain time at night, as well as on weekends and holidays. A Texas-based financial services firm developed a set of metrics to measure and track performance and found that employees who worked 70-hour weeks were less productive than those who worked fewer hours. The firm saw recruitment, retention, and employee satisfaction improve after it began encouraging time off and work-from-home days.7

Employee wellness programs will likely continue to evolve

It’s hard to say if this broader focus on wellness, which goes beyond diet, fitness, and weight management, will reduce chronic conditions and curb health care costs in the short- or long-term. But it is heartening to see more employers embracing a more holistic view of health and wellness. They are recognizing the way we manage financial stress, how well-rested we are, and how connected we feel to our community directly effects our productivity and our ability to make healthy choices. Employer wellness programs will likely benefit from the insight the wellness industry has gleaned in the past several years, including the role of behavioral nudges and the use of evolving technologies, such as wearables.

We have learned a lot about wellness programs since the 90s, and employees are likely to benefit from creative wellness offerings like free healthy snacks, onsite fitness centers, and incentives to bike to work. Given the trajectory of employee wellness programs, we could see a healthier and happier workforce emerge over the next decade.


1. Do Workplace Wellness Programs Save Money? Rand Corp., 2014

2. Return on Investment for Tobacco Cessation, Clear Way Minnesota, April 6, 2016

3. Win With Wellness: Attract and Retain Talent, Forbes, August 27, 2018

4. Employers Double Down on Financial Wellness, but Approaches Differ, SHRM, November 22, 2019

5. 2019 Approaches to Employee Financial Wellbeing Solutions, Employee Benefit Research Institute, September 26, 2019

6. Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America, Cigna, 2010

7. These 6 Companies Made Work-Life Balance More Than a Buzzword, LinkedIn, November 19, 2018

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Casey Korba

Casey Korba

Health Policy Manager | Deloitte

Casey Korba, MS, is health policy manager for the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions (Deloitte Services LP), where she provides comprehensive regulatory, legislative, and policy analysis in areas including the transition to value-based care, emerging technology, and consumer engagement. She supports Deloitte’s Life Sciences and Health Care practice through research to inform health care system stakeholders about emerging trends, challenges, and opportunities.