Mental health, financial well-being, and physical wellness programs are all among the most popular employee benefits.

So why don’t people use them?

Less than 10% of employees use their Employee Assistance Program’s free counseling option.  Only 8% of employees with access to a financial wellness offering participate in the program.  And just 24% participate in any wellness program—with just half of those (12%) believing they are getting any benefit.

This makes even less sense when you consider how badly most people need help.  Nearly two-thirds of employees say they frequently feel stressed or frustrated.  Almost three-in-four identify money as the No. 1 stress in their lives.  And with more than 70% of adults being diagnosed with a chronic disease and 250 million overweight Americans, physical health desperately needs attention.

We know people want wellness.  We know people need wellness.  We know people are not using wellness programs.  What is going on here?

There are lots of well-researched reasons, but it really comes down to four categories of failure:

  1. Relevance. Even if people know about the benefit and trust their employer, they may not understand how it applies to them and what outcomes it can deliver.  If they do not feel the plan was designed for them, they will not participate.
  2. Trust. People, in general, do not trust their employer and are afraid to share personal information.  For example, mental health benefits are used more in organizations where management is considered trustworthy.
  3. Time. Employers are learning that they can keep talent engaged by scaling back  If a wellness program adds to someone’s off-hours to-do list, it can feel like a stressor instead of assistance.
  4. Awareness. Lots of employees simply do not know what they have.  Many wellness programs are either free or very low-cost and get overshadowed by the giants: health care and retirement.

It is important to peel back the onion on each of these.  Relevance is really about value.  When asked why they did not engage with a wellness program, 70% said they believed they could make changes on their own.  This does not fit with the above statistics on well-being.  People know they are stressed, struggling financially, and overweight.  If they are not engaging in a program that would be valuable to them it is because they cannot connect the dots (or the dots have not been connected for them) from using the program to a better outcome for them.

Trust is a tough one.  Providing great wellness benefits actually drives trust.  But asking people to divulge deeply personal information, like dealing with depression, bankruptcy, or lack of motivation, feels more dangerous.  Wellness programs were born as a way for companies to save money on health insurance costs—if employees feel that the program is for the organization’s benefit instead of theirs, they are unlikely to trust it.

The most valuable resource any of us have is time.  The pandemic and the Great Resignation have meant companies are asking their people to work longer hours to fill crucial productivity gaps.  Perhaps worse, unproductive meetings still dominate the workplace and make people feel that their time is not truly valued.  Even if someone identifies the relevance of a program and trusts its intent, they have to find the time to use it.  Sending an employee home with a wellness “opportunity” feels more like homework.

Awareness is often cited as the first reason for a lack of engagement.  And while there are lots of problems with the open enrollment process (to be discussed more in Part II), the truth is that nearly 80% of employees use their dental and vision benefits.  Is this because organizations are doing so much better at making employees aware of these programs?  Of course not.  It is because people understand how these programs can bring meaningful value to their lives.  Low awareness may actually be directly related to relevance.

Read on next week to learn what organizations have done, are doing, and can do in to deal with these challenges and turn wellness programs into outcomes for their people and their profit.