COVID Has Been a Wake-Up Call for Millennial Employees

And benefits leaders need to act

By Steve Olin | April 1, 2021


Rising anxiety. Disrupted sleep. Worsening nutrition. COVID has hit the American workforce hard, Rally Health’s 2020 Preventive Care survey of more than 4,000 adults shows. Millennial employees are no exception, but the toll could be particularly severe. That’s because research shows millennials tend to be in worse health compared with older Americans when they were the same age. Depression, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, tobacco use disorder and Type 2 diabetes are all more common among millennials than among members of Gen X when they were the same age.

Time scarcity and stress are likely only to exacerbate those issues, as older millennials have joined the so-called “sandwich generation” — the group of adults supporting both school-age children and older parents — as COVID-19 has raged. Millennials now make up 39% of the sandwich generation, according to a survey of 1,000 adults conducted by Morning Consult for New York Life last summer. As families lost access to childcare, began home-schooling and tried to protect their older parents from the virus, people in their 30s felt increasingly stressed and pressed for time. No wonder Rally’s survey found that 47% of millennials feel overwhelmed just thinking of everything they need to do for preventive care.

Still, the pandemic presents a moment of rare opportunity to buck the trend — improving both employee health outcomes and lowering employer health costs for what is now the largest generation in the American workforce. That’s because the correlation between poor metabolic health and an elevated risk of COVID-19 complications has spurred many young people to take their health more seriously, offering a unique chance to reinforce positive lifestyle changes. In fact, Rally’s survey found that millennial employees are more focused on their health now than before the pandemic.

To meet their newly heightened call for guidance, companies need to offer targeted strategies that can empower millennial employees to take control of their health and adopt better habits. Here are three ways employers can engage 20- and 30-something workers to help them lead happier, healthier, more productive lives — while driving down health care costs and avoiding the onerous medical debt that plagues young people.

1. Embrace intuitive, easy-to-use self-service tools

Millennials, of course, embrace technology — but because they’re inundated with apps, platforms and other digital offerings, cutting through the noise requires a real emphasis on engagement and user experience.

That emphasis must extend to finding and navigating tools as much as using them. Because millennials are used to the frictionless user experiences pioneered by Silicon Valley, they’re put off by benefits and insurance processes that span multiple, clunky websites. By unifying benefits programs under one site that offers a simple, aesthetically pleasing experience, organizations can prevent their workers from becoming overwhelmed and disengaged.

Particularly for millennials in the sandwich generation, the ability to find curated, targeted tools in one place alleviates a significant burden. And for all young people, the ability to search for all providers — not just medical, but also mental health, dental, vision, and pharmacy — as well as schedule appointments, review claims, and pay bills on a single platform eliminates frustration and encourages busy people to take small steps to keep up-to-date on their health.

But organizing the administrative side of wellness is only part of the battle. Millennials also need support to make and maintain incremental changes that integrate healthy habits into their daily lives. A benefits platform should offer effective wellness coaching programs that support everything from overall well-being (like sleep or stress management) to more serious and expensive issues (like weight loss, diabetes prevention, or smoking cessation). Employees should be able to access employer-sponsored programs with a few clicks, rather than having to make laborious and sensitive HR inquiries.

2. Make the messaging — and the benefits — holistic

Even if they’re not as healthy as other generations were at their age, millennials are more health-aware. Some 44% of Rally survey respondents in this age group said their parents taught them about a healthy lifestyle, more than any other generation. And so effective employer-sponsored digital health programs should take advantage of millennials’ basic health fluency and up the ante by expanding messaging to encompass mental health, lifestyle factors, and even financial fitness.

As COVID-19 ushered in a sweeping shift toward telehealth, many employers are now offering app-based, on-demand therapy services, many of which have notched enormous spikes in demand since the pandemic started. Some also provide access to wellness coaches to help millennials assess their emotional and physical health. According to one survey, 92% of companies with more than 500 employees offer such services. Coaching has been proven effective for people managing an array of health conditions.

According to a recent study in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, coaching helps participants successfully modify behaviors, including exercise and eating habits, and results in “clinically relevant” improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, fasting glucose levels, body mass index and more.

3. Look for thoughtfully designed incentive programs

Research shows that people are more likely to do something when they’re incentivized — which is especially true for millennials, who have a longstanding romance with fitness trackers and wearables, as well as at-home fitness services. A well-designed and implemented program can motivate more people to complete wellness objectives, which can help lower health care costs.

Moreover, Rally Health incentive data shows that most employer-sponsored financial incentives are applied toward planning, saving, and paying for health care expenses. By contributing to millennials’ premiums and HSA accounts, incentives further encourage employees who engage with wellness programs to seek preventive and other necessary medical care. Compelling rewards make it easier for millennials to build healthy habits — and stay engaged.

If the tumult of the past year offers any lessons, it’s that a rebound to business-as-usual, in some respects, wouldn’t be ideal. Instead, companies should seize the opportunity to rethink and improve their relationships—inside and out. For benefits leaders, that means heeding the very real call from millennial employees for health engagement and support.

Steve Olin is chief product officer at digital health company Rally Health, Inc. which is part of the Optum business of UnitedHealth Group. Rally(R) creates digital solutions and experiences that make health care and staying healthy more accessible and affordable for all, regardless of their health plan.

Reprinted with permission from the February 17, 2021 online edition of BenefitsPro © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.




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