Successful employee wellness programs provide a low-cost way to improve agency productivity and efficiency.

Successful employee wellness programs provide a low-cost way to improve agency productivity and efficiency. swissmediavision / Getty Images

OPM Wants to Do More for Federal Workers' Wellness

An initiative to “revitalize” employee assistance programs across the federal government eyes a more comprehensive approach to promoting federal employees' wellness.

The federal government’s HR agency on Wednesday unveiled new guidance aimed at standardizing and revitalizing employee assistance programs across the federal government, an effort officials said would prioritize employee wellness and improve productivity.

Like many private sector employers, federal agencies often offer employees access to employee assistance programs, which provide services related to maintaining one’s mental and physical health, as well as resources related to substance use issues.

The Office of Personnel Management, spurred by a provision of President Biden’s management agenda tasking agencies with promoting “awareness of employee well-being and [supporting] initiatives that extend beyond the workplace,” underwent a year-long effort to design a “standardized approach” to employee wellness programs, consulting with focus groups, health experts and vendors who provide assistance programs to employers.

The result is a 19-page guidance document for agencies to reassess their assistance program offerings and, if necessary, expand them.

“The guidance we are issuing today promotes consistent, evidence-based approaches to [employee assistance] programming, expands the focus of [programs] to incorporate a more comprehensive employee wellness approach, and promotes equitable access to these support services across federal agencies,” wrote Veronica Hinton, OPM’s associate director for employee services, in a memo accompanying the document. “It recognizes the [employee assistance program] as a comprehensive and robust space for all employee wellness needs, which includes financial literacy, legal services, mental health counseling, dependent care, life-stage planning and more.”

According to OPM’s guidance, the standard employee assistance program marks just one piece of a larger employee wellness program. A wellness program should also offer mental health counseling services that are available 24/7, financial and legal services, services designed to help employees access dependent care within their communities, workplace conflict resolution services, as well as cultural competency services.

“These services should include resources and supports for underserved communities, and incorporate training programs in the areas of cultural and ethnic awareness, workplace microaggressions and gender inclusivity,” OPM wrote. “These resources should also include referrals and access to external resources for transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary employees including but not limited to resources to assist employees in navigating workplace and social transitions, and related education for family members of transitioning employees.”

While all those factors, as well as services related to substance use treatment and crisis intervention, should be included in every federal agency’s employee wellness program, OPM said agencies should also consider a number of optional services to augment their programs, including digital applications for employees to track their mental and physical health, in-person or virtually hosted fitness classes, health and wellness seminars, as well as training on mental health and suicide prevention.

Selecting what to offer as part of an employee wellness program and choosing vendors to deliver those services is just the first step, the guidance states. In order for such a program to be successful, agency leaders must encourage employees to take advantage of the services and cultivate a culture that eliminates the stigma associated with seeking help.

“To ensure federal employees are provided with the most equitable, welcoming and inviting experience when accessing employee wellness programs, it is important that agency leaders cultivate safe and comfortable environments both in-person and virtually for employees to access these resources,” the guidance states. “It is important to keep in mind that agency leaders play a vital role in cultivating healthy and safe work environments, as they have a responsibility to demonstrate the beliefs of the agency and reinforce behaviors that reflect those values.”

To that end, agency officials should work to normalize conversations about mental health by consistently promoting employee wellness program offerings, OPM said. And they should advocate for employees to maintain a healthy work-life balance and ensure they have access to flexibilities like telework and alternative work schedules. Employee wellness programs should have sufficient policies to ensure the confidentiality of participants, and agency leaders must highlight those protocols on a regular basis.

OPM highlighted that a successful employee wellness program is important not only for an agency to serve as a model employer, but it also provides a low-cost boon to agency productivity and efficiency.

“According to the U.S. Department of Labor, for every $1 invested in an [employee assistance program], employers save an average of $5 to $16," the guidance states. "This is due in part to the notably low operating cost of an [assistance program] in comparison to the high cost incurred by issues such as lack of productivity, absenteeism, accidents and negative mental and physical health consequences which employees may experience when not appropriately afforded wellness resources, services and supports.”

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