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Targeting programs on another level: paths to improving workforce well-being and productivity

Unplanned employee absences — whether due to on-the-job injuries, physical or mental health conditions, family care needs or personal circumstances — are on the rise. Hyper-targeted programs are emerging as an effective way to help employers improve employee outcomes and productivity, control costs, and promote well-being.

Rising absenteeism and its costs

In the post-pandemic world, employees are absent from work much more often than in the past. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 7.8 million workers missed work in January 2022 because they had an illness or injury, needed medical attention or had to attend an appointment. This number has more than doubled since January 2021 where 3.7 million workers had similar absences.

Nearly 4.2 million workers, or 3.3% of the American workforce, worked part-time in January 2022 for the same reasons — the second highest-ever percentage since data collection began in 1976.

The rise is likely due to a mixture of societal factors, such as the normalization of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, decentralized employees working remotely or on hybrid schedules, increasing instances of debilitating stress and mental health issues, and inadequate support for employee health and wellness. On-the-job injuries, another driver of absenteeism, are also on the rise. Sedgwick’s U.S. book of business for 2022 reflected an overall increase of 6.4% in workers’ compensation claims compared to 2021.

The costs associated with absenteeism are steep. In 2020, the Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI) found that employee absences cost U.S. employers around $575 billion, or $3,900 per employee. The study also found that, for every dollar U.S. employers spent on healthcare benefits, an additional 61 cents was spent on illness-related absence, disability and reduced work output.

To counter this trend, organizations are embracing targeted workforce programs that enhance the employee experience, ensure employees feel supported and cared for, and promote talent attraction, retention and development. Many such programs can be organized into two categories: those that lead with empathy and those that leverage data.

An empathy-led approach

A 2023 Mercer global talent trends report found that out of 11,000 employees surveyed, only 2 of every 5 employees reported feeling like their company meets all their needs. If employers seek to understand their employee’s full lives, they can better safeguard their emotional, physical, social and financial well-being.

Leading with empathy means focusing on the whole person and considering — without prejudice — all factors that might affect how employees navigate systems and progress toward resuming a full and productive life. To that end, employers are designing programs that recognize the range of challenges employees are dealing with, while offering a touchpoint of caring.

One popular strategy for infusing empathy into workforce programs is the development of employee personas, or semi-fictional profiles that represent one segment of an employee population. Employers can use workforce demographics to craft these personas, based on a range of characteristics: employee age and stage of life, location, educational background, tenure, life experience, family status and other attributes.

Employers can then build narratives around these personas to understand how various employee groups might be affected by specific scenarios. How a certain employee group might deal with an injury, illness or disability, for example, or how they might engage with their benefits, the healthcare system or other technology platforms.

A data-driven approach

You can’t fix what you don’t know; that’s where reliable data comes in. Harnessing employee on-the-job injury and absence utilization data can pinpoint improvement areas and help inform decisions on workforce wellness initiatives, benefits design, timely interventions and more. As employees’ family health and wellness concerns are increasingly diversified and complex, employee data can also be an invaluable resource for curating programs that provide holistic support.

Employers can also leverage employee wellness data from biometric screenings — or clinical assessments conducted by trained professionals at the worksite or a designated provider’s office — that identify and monitor certain health conditions. Data from biometric screenings provide employers with a baseline assessment of the overall health of their workforce.

Yet according to a 2022 KFF report, only 24% of small organizations and 45% of large organizations offer biometric screenings to their employees. By instituting such screenings and analyzing employee data collected through them, employers can better tailor their preventative programs and intervention offerings — such as smoking cessation, weight management or lifestyle coaching.

The best of both worlds

The true ideal for tailoring employer-provided programs brings together both approaches — leading with empathy andleveraging data — to meaningfully improve employee outcomes. As technology evolves, opportunities abound to connect empathy with process so systems can be more easily navigated, and initiatives be tailored further to individual needs. Ultimately, the goal is for employers to promote productivity and well-being, create personalized and efficient end-user experiences, and provide a higher level of care to their valued employees.

> Learn more — check out an expanded version of this article in Sedgwick's digital magazine, edge, issue 22

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