The SHRM Workplace Forecast: It’s Health, Health, and More Health

SHRM released its biennial report on workplace trends (the SHRM Workplace Forecast) this month.

It’s really about health. Health is the workplace trend to be thinking about and working on. Its tentacles reach out and grasp all other workplace trends.

Top Workplace trends for 2011

  1. Continuing high cost of employee health care coverage in the United States.
  2. Passage of federal health care legislation.
  3. Increased global competition for jobs, markets and talent.
  4. Growing complexity of legal compliance for employers.
  5. Changes in employee rights due to legislation and/or court rulings.
  6. Large numbers of Baby Boomers (1945–1964) leaving the workforce at around the same time.
  7. Economic growth of emerging markets such as India, China and Brazil.
  8. Greater need for cross-cultural understanding/savvy in business settings.
  9. Growing national budget deficit.
  10. Greater economic uncertainty and market volatility.

All but three of the top workforce trends relate, in some fashion, to health. No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 are specifically about health or related legislation. No. 3, No. 7, No. 9 and No. 10 are about our economic security and competitiveness, which are directly affected by our health. You could make a case that No. 8 also affects mental health, as cross-cultural awareness and collaboration brings its own stresses.

The study also shows the most common tactics companies are pursuing in response to these trends. Some of them include:

  • Increasing expectations of employee productivity.
  • Taking major steps to protect employees in the event of a major health epidemic.
  • Changing company policy in response to federal regulations.
  • Implementing wellness programs.

Of the four I highlighted here, three obviously relate to health.

Top social and demographic trends

Following the workforce trends, the SHRM report digs into five separate sub-trends, starting with demographic and social trends. I’ve focused largely on these in this post, though the others (economics and employment, global issues, public policy, and science and technology) connect to health, too.I

I  pulled from the total list of demographic and social trends those with direct health implications. The percentage accompanying each item is the percentage of HR respondents who feel this particular item has major strategic implications for their organization:

  • Increases in chronic conditions (50 percent)
  • Growth in number of employed adult caregivers (47 percent)
  • Employee backlash against rising benefits costs (44 percent)
  • Increased demand for workplace flexibility (43 percent)
  • Increased proportion of older workers (40 percent)
  • Increased concerns about safety and security in the workplace (38 percent)
  • Rise in the number of employees with untreated mental and physical needs (36 percent)
  • Increase in the number of employees with mental health issues, such as depression) (24 percent)

These items are not isolated, but knock on one another like dominoes.

We’re all familiar with the costs related to chronic conditions — these costs rise along with the age of the average worker. Employees faced with taxing care-giving situations require greater flexibility or they retire early or turn down promotions, putting increased pressure on an already marked shortage of skilled talent. an increased rate of older employed workers constrains the job market and the financial well-being of younger workers. A higher rate of untreated mental health issues and an increase in the number of employees presenting these problems can have serious consequence for safety and security in the workplace.

In response, you can see that many (54 percent) are implementing employee wellness programs, and another 26 percent plan to. They’re also putting in place efforts and policies to increase skills, provide workplace flexibility and greater career opportunity, encourage acceptance and ensure safety.

At the same time, 45 percent of respondents say their company expects employees to be available for work, including through the night and on weekends, and an additional 9 percent say they’re headed there. Take rising health care costs, increased strain from caregiving needs, lack of progressive advancement, job loss, etc., etc., and you have a potent brew. No wonder anti-depressants are the most prescribed drug for one of my clients.

Economic and employment trends

The list of economic and employment trends is bigger than my youngest’s holiday gift list. (Note: I don’t use “holiday” to be PC. She’s one of those lucky kids who get to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah.) It covers everything from increased M&A activity to the shift to a knowledge economy to greater involvement of corporate boards.

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But topping this 32-item list? The cost of providing employee health care. Sprinkled throughout the list are concerns of how lack of retirement readiness and retirement benefits costs will affect business strategy (No. 7 and No. 8 on the list, respectively).

Other trends, like the increased cost of living (No. 5), also affect individual and company well-being. Employees can’t save, cover health care bills, send themselves or their kids for advanced degrees, or save for retirement when they’re too financially strapped.

Remaining trends

The remaining sub-trends — science and technology, global, public policy — also detail workforce issues affecting individual and collective health. There’s an increasing digital divide between technologically adept employees and those who are less so at the same time there’s an increased reliance on e-learning, self-service and collaborative technologies, including social networks.

However, businesses seem to strictly focus on how they can use social networks to screen candidates and build the employer brand, not on how they might use them to provide health-related social motivation and connection. The global trends of increased competition, mobility, multiculturalism and virtual teams feed directly into earlier health concerns like 24/7 expectations, career and wage stagnation, and needed tolerance in a mixed-in-every-which-way work environment.

Finally, there’s the gorilla in the room: health care reform (although 46 percent of respondents haven’t been asked to inform their senior management about its implications to their organization).

The report closes by advising HR to prioritize based on their organization. When many of these trends are affected by factors outside their organization’s purview, that’s a tough thing to do.

HR folks certainly have their work cut out for them.

This was originally published on Fran Melmed’s Free-Range Communication blog.

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