Natalie Grainger, Unsplash.
Natalie Grainger, Unsplash.

Reinvigorating employee wellness that lasts

Everyone wants happier, healthier people. Here’s how to promote and deliver wellness in the workplace.

Burnout and stress hit all-time highs last year, and 70% of people say they are disengaged at work. Throw in the recent Great Resignation, quiet quitting, and epidemic of depression and mental health, and all of the signs that show that today’s workforce is not well. 

Employees desperately want to find emotional and physical wellbeing in work. As many as 83% of employees believe their wellbeing is just as important as their salary and 77% say they would consider leaving a company that doesn’t focus on wellbeing, according to Gympass’ State of Work-Life Wellness Report. Yet another Gallup poll found that just a quarter of workers thought their organizations cared about their wellbeing, and consequently, as many as 71% of those who are experiencing burnout are less likely to report it.

2023 may be the year of wellness, as more employers begin to pay attention and prioritize wellbeing in the workplace.

“Is there a change in management’s willingness to talk about mental wellness, mental health and well being? And the answer is absolutely yes” says Ira Wolfe,  a longtime HR consultant, author, and speaker on the future of work. “It has become a really, really popular subject.”

Encouraging workplace wellness is just the right thing to do. Who wants people to be stressed out, unhappy, and sick? Plus, it affects the bottom line. Companies that don’t prioritize employee mental health and overall wellbeing will lose people and see healthcare costs climb. Happy employees have job satisfaction and better productivity, and they tend to stay put in their jobs. A Microsoft survey found that 48% of people left their job because of mental health issues or lack of work-life balance. Harvard research also found that employee wellness programs save companies $3.27 for every dollar spent in health care costs.

Yet while employers are motivated and interested, responding to the needs of a rapidly changing workforce has proven challenging. Wellness can’t be fixed with adding a few one-size-fits-all perks, such as casual Fridays, employee-of-the-month parking spots, or converting an office into a nap room. Those don’t work in a hybrid and remote world. The solutions are complex and deep.

A Gallup poll found that only 24% of workers believe their organization cares about their wellbeing.
Bethany Legg, Unsplash.

And it will take a cultural change within organizations to truly change how people feel at work. 

“Promoting wellness is not just about offering perks; it’s about creating a culture that values and supports each individual’s well-being,” says Gene Caballero, cofounder at GreenPal, a site that gives online quotes for lawn care service. He encourages leaders at the Nashville company to ensure they foster an open and supportive environment and regularly check in with their teams, not just about work but about their overall well-being. “We believe that empathy and understanding are crucial leadership qualities.” 

Yet some companies make the mistake of looking at wellbeing as fixing people who are sick. Yet employee wellness is broader than that: it involves preventative self-care for better mental and physical wellbeing and includes everything from proper sleep habits, financial health, nutrition, and more.

Those wellness initiatives and benefits are relegated to the bucket of mental health costs under employee assistance programs that offer mental health counseling. Employers may want employees to use the services, but they’re financially motivated to get people to hurry up and finish up counseling, he says. Plus, there’s still a stigma around mental health and people don’t always want to step forward and use them. 

Instead, it’s smart to think of wellness as preventative—helping to build resilience and empathy that prevents people from diving into depression or full-fledged burnout, says Wolfe. “It’s having a positive view of wellbeing and recognizing that a number of people are struggling,” he says.

It’s a cultural shift that involves new mindsets that wellbeing is a company-wide priority. Start at the top, where leaders talk openly about the importance of mental health issues, so that getting help is normalized. Leaders can also create a healthier workplace by supporting policies that offer healthy boundaries for people. Think: offering flexible work hours, mental health days, not texting or sending emails on the weekends, and showing that leaders take time off of work. Headspace Health started training its leaders on how to bolster self-compassion and how to have meaningful conversations with their teams about mental health, burnout and stress. 

Managers set the tone for their teams, first by taking care of themselves and leading by example. Those leaders may want to support their employees but they don’t know exactly where to begin. Managers need tools and strategies to build teams and a culture that’s resilient, supportive and open. To be resilient in the face of adversity, people must be willing to change behaviors or try something new, says Wolfe. But if they’re afraid of making mistakes or managers aren’t supportive, people won’t build the skills, the confidence and courage to take risks. 

Once managers receive training, Wolfe recommends making them accountable for the wellness and work experience of their employees. The metrics to measure wellness will vary by employer, but it could include retention, recruitment, fewer disability claims, or employee engagement.

Wellness at work also plays into your physical environment. A positive work culture is directly connected to effective management as well as creating office designs that prioritize comfort and flexibility, along with factors that have been shown to directly affect wellness. Whether it’s access to private pods, natural light, greenery, fresh water, healthy food, clean spaces, or ensuring a variety of workspaces that cater to diverse work styles.

Research shows that happier employees are less likely to quit and more likely to satisfy customers.
Emma Daun, Unsplash.

Happiness and stress can also be eliminated by paying attention to the digital experience of employees, or ensuring people have access to good equipment and technology and space to work, whether it’s at home or the office. One survey found that 42% of employees had to buy their own equipment to be productive working from home. Nearly half of those surveyed were frustrated with the tech provided by their organization and 26% said they would consider quitting their jobs because of it.

The quest for workplace wellness is also driving a new crop of tools for employers to assess and teach people better ways of adapting to stress and a changing world. One such app, AQai,  uses a scientifically backed assessment that measures the level of adaptability of employees and teams based on three key areas: ability, character and environment. People might find that they have high grit and can complete long, complex projects, but they need help in unlearning—they hold onto old ideas. They might also have moderate or low levels of hope which hinders their adaptability. Plus, their workplace might not support those adaptive behaviors. The idea: arm employees with information so they can strengthen weaknesses and cope better with change. 

And while flexibility is a hot topic these days, true flexibility means letting go of how work gets done and where it gets done. It must accommodate all the life situations that pop up, whether it’s allowing parents to work from home when the team is supposed to the in office because the kids are sick or a spouse has the car. It means shifting productivity metrics from hours worked to outcomes.

“It means giving people autonomy and choice,” says Wolfe. “It means management has to really take a fresh look at how their work gets done. And where are people most productive?”

Workplace wellness isn’t an easy task but when organizations invest in cultural change, companies can stem the tide of stressed out people and build team camaraderie that leads to happier, healthier and more productive employees.