Employee well-being is one of the trickiest challenges in the modern workplace. On the one hand, statistics show that people need to be supported and encouraged to prioritize their physical and mental health more than ever. The pandemic, inflation, and energy crisis have led to an extremely anxious and threadbare workforce.
According to Gallup, 59% of employees would answer “yes” when asked, “Did you feel stressed yesterday”. 56% would admit to being worried, and 33% would admit to physical pain.
These numbers are alarming and push organizations to deploy employee wellness programs en masse. The effort and commitment companies are putting into employee well-being since the start of the COVID pandemic is admirable but, the truth is, teams are reluctant to use wellness perks.
A Gartner poll revealed that, while 80% of organizations offered mental health support, only 32% of employees used the programs provided to them.
Also, leaders tend to overestimate the effectiveness of their mental health initiatives.
A McKinsey survey showed that, while 65% of leaders thought that their organizations support mental health “well or very well”, only 51% of employees could say the same.
While one in three employers claims that improving the accessibility of mental healthcare is their organization’s top priority, 67% of employees who have to reconcile with mental health pathologies say they are struggling to access treatment.
In a deep dive into the successes and failures in the way companies approach employee wellness, we will uncover the blind spots leaders ignore when designing a well-being program and outline steps organizations can take to increase participation and satisfaction brought about by wellness at work.
Where the traditional approach to employee wellness fails
Employee wellness is a relatively young field of research and is still emerging as an organizational priority. Yet, the pandemic encouraged leaders to place emphasis on the accessibility of healthcare and pay attention to how well they supported teams in times of anxiety.
Over two years, employee wellness budgets skyrocketed. Despite massive cost-cutting in other areas, 46% of organizations doubled down on their well-being initiatives. 64% added new initiatives to their programs.
Even so, these efforts are largely in vain, as workforces are either hesitant to use workplace wellness programs or unhappy with what they get. That would imply that, despite their best efforts, leaders are missing out on key elements that determine the success of corporate well-being initiatives.
Here are the key issues we identified based on our experience of assisting over 2,200 organizations worldwide in employee experience transformation:
|Lack of awareness||Organizations fail to let teams know about new wellness programs||According to Gartner, while 92% of organizations offered employee wellness initiatives, only 42% of employees were aware of the fact.|
|Stigma associated with mental health||Employees don’t feel accepted by managers and feel uncomfortable to show vulnerability at work.||Only 49% of employees trust their managers enough to discuss personal well-being challenges.|
|No holistic approach||Companies single out specific aspects of well-being (physical exercise, meditation, nutrition) instead of approaching wellness as a sum of multiple contributing factors.||A study published in JAMA – a medical research publication -in 2019 showed that wellness programs that focus on selected aspects of well-being don’t bring organizations significant returns in productivity nor employee satisfaction.|
|Isolation and lack of teamwork||Organizations leave people to their own devices in seeking help and fail to create a safe space for mutual help and encouragement.||Employee wellness programs do not prioritize feeling connected to your team, although it should be a priority for remote team leaders. In fact, studies show that the damage of isolation is on par with that of heavy smoking and alcohol abuse.|
|Security and privacy concerns||Employees are reluctant to let organizations track and store their health data (number of calories eaten, steps walked, etc) due to misuse fears.||Employers can get control of their workforce’s life outside of work hours. Employees have historically felt uncomfortable about such a degree of intrusion – in fact, primitive health tracking devices were rejected by Ford factory workers over 100 years ago.|
|Work policies are not built around well-being||Leaders do not prioritize the well-being of their teams when organizing workloads or setting OKRs.||Seemingly unrelated issues like the lack of clear work scope, irregular cadences with team leaders, time and workload pressures affect well-being. Unless leaders are committed to reviewing and optimizing their team management and goal-setting strategies, they can hardly mitigate the damage of day-to-day stress with a one-off wellness initiative.|
|Accessibility hurdles||Signing up for a wellness for work program is difficult, takes a lot of time, or requires commuting.||38% of employees surveyed by Gartner said they were too busy to join wellness initiatives. Reducing the amount of effort needed to participate in a well-being program can help promote participation.|
The desire to increase physical and mental health awareness in the workplace is commendable. However, leaders will struggle to bring these initiatives to fruition unless they are willing to go all in and center the bulk of their operations around well-being.
Considering the amount of planning, effort, time, and resources needed to fuel a successful wellness initiative, it’s easy to imagine leaders giving up on the idea. In an inflation-battered, polarized, and turbulent economy, focusing on employee wellness might seem a luxury organizations cannot afford.
Yet, it’s precisely in these trying times that focusing on wellness in the workplace can help teams together and stabilize performance. At the same time, giving up on well-being initiatives will lead to tangible damage in key organization management areas:
Leaders who do not focus on employee wellness put their organizations at higher risk of absenteeism. According to SHRM, personal illness is the most common cause of employees taking time off from work (34% of all cases).
The two leading causes of absenteeism are diabetes and depression – both conditions can be managed by improving the quality of life and increasing the accessibility of treatment.
According to the data released by WHO, anxiety and depression led up to over $1 trillion in annual productivity losses. Out of these, over $153 million accounts for the US.
Missing out on policies that prioritize health and wellness for employees can exacerbate anxiety, increase stress levels, and ultimately force employees out of the organization. In some cases, they will be back to the job market in search for better opportunities – in others, they might leave the field entirely. The latter fraction of the global workforce puts more strain on the economy increasing reskilling-associated costs.
According to PwC, financially stressed employees are twice as likely to change jobs as their counterparts enrolled in financial wellness programs.
Diversity and inclusion
Multiple surveys show that underrepresented groups are likely to face physical and mental health challenges due to their needs being neglected in the workplace – more often due to negligence than to malice.
In organizations with no wellness commitments, these employee categories have no way of sharing adversities and motivating senior leadership to explore ways of alleviating workplace stress. That, in turn, prohibits organizations from reaching DEI milestones and negatively impacts their employer brand image.
On the other hand, the benefits of employee wellness programs have proven the importance of finding the right way to set up these initiatives. Launching these initiatives allowed organizations to:
- Cut medical claim costs. A random sample study of 185 participants demonstrated that investing in rehabilitation programs for employees affected by chronic conditions helped cut healthcare-associated costs by over $1,400. According to the research, every dollar invested in helping teams control pre-existing conditions helped organizations save six dollars in medical claims.
- Reduce employee attrition. According to internal data released by an enterprise software company around 10 years ago, effective wellness programs helped reduce attrition by 10% – from 19% in 2005 to 9% in 2009. While one could argue how well the data stands the test of time, it still helps make the case for the positive organizational impact of a high-quality wellness program.
- Improve engagement and employee satisfaction. Leaders have observed that adopting wellness ideas for employees helps foster a sense of belonging and trust between employees and organizations. Teams who participated in well-being initiatives became quickly attached to them and stated they would miss these activities after leaving the workplace.
Rewriting the playbook: actionable workplace wellness tips
The plummeting engagement, high distrust, and lack of hard evidence to back the benefits of traditional employee wellness programs make it clear that leaders need to change the way they approach the problem.
Instead of seeing employee wellness as a series of point-based projects, leaders should embrace it as a guiding principle that penetrates all aspects of operation management.
In fact, most effective employee wellness initiatives are rarely self-contained; they involve major paradigm shifts and call for open-mindedness and adaptability. Here are the principles we’ve seen to be most effective among our partners who successfully guided their organizations through the COVID pandemic and continue navigating the murky waters of the new normal.
Designing an employee-centered workplace
Putting people, not products or KPIs, at the center of decision-making will encourage leaders to make decisions that promote wellness. During the pandemic, leaders have repeatedly seen how poorly rigid policies adapt to the burdens of human grievances, anxieties, and concerns.
In the last two years, cutting-edge organizations developed the practice of relying on case-by-case decisions over organization-wide practices. This way, they were able to fit their team’s personal emergencies into the mold of organizational policies.
Here’s how leaders can center their workplaces around employee wellness:
- Create opportunities for dialogue. By encouraging constant and open dialogue, leaders can bridge the gap between their perception of the workplace from the top view and the view as seen by a frontline worker. Finding the time to address stress, burnout, mental health, financial wellness, and other issues, will give managers a better understanding of how they can put their teams at ease in the periods of turbulence.
- Giving employees room for self-actualization. Setting goals and distributing the workload in a way that allows employees to explore their interests and passions will create a sense of purpose within the organization. Besides, increasing the workload variability has been proven to alleviate or offset depression.
- Normalizing and encouraging work-life balance. As much as leaders would like teams to constantly engage with people inside their organizations, studies show that people are happier when they interact with 4-5 social groups outside of work. Leaders should not try to control all aspects of their teams’ lives and give employees enough time to catch up with friends and family, make new connections, or engage in activities in their communities.
Recognizing wellness as a team sport
During the pandemic, the entire society was able to see the healing power of shared adversities. When communities united in their struggles, they were able to find balance faster and create more effective coping mechanisms.
Unfortunately, work wellness programs are still focused on individuals more than teams. Employees are often left to their own devices in tracking self-care progress or seeking mental health assistance.
According to a Harvard Business Review article, the benefits of seeing individual adversities as collective lifts the the burden of emotional processing on those affected and provides the rest of the team an outlet for supporting their colleagues emotionally.
Remote team leaders have to be even more focused on creating opportunities for sharing physical, mental, and other well-being struggles with the rest of the team. Most collaboration technology, with its rigid communication flow and delayed responses, doesn’t allow leaders to be there for their teams in the time of need.
That’s why organizations should explore platforms that allow instant communication and bring the spontaneity and ease of in-person conversation to the digital world.
oVice offers teams such a platform by providing teams with a virtual office space. Here, remote employees have no hurdles in starting conversations with each other – it’s enough to walk up to a teammate’s desk and speak your mind.
This way, leaders and teammates can seamlessly support teams in their well-being by instantly connecting with employees who are struggling with overcoming anxiety, grief, pain, and other difficulties.
Upskilling managers for emotional support
Most leadership training is skewed towards project planning, management, and performance tracking. While companies are paying attention to people management, they focus too much on breaking the bottlenecks that affect productivity and too little on ways of supporting teammates who are having a hard time outside of the workplace.
Organizations committed to employee wellness should introduce new learning goals for managers, such as addressing anxiety concerns, spotting early signs of burnout, and helping new employees fit into their teams.
Here are the examples of management tools leaders should acquire as part of their training:
- Proactive support: rather than waiting for employees to speak up about their workplace struggles, managers should inquire about potential challenges and encourage teams to speak up.
- Engaged listening: training leaders on empathy and improving their ability of paying attention to their team’s requests and subtle signals of distress.
- Shifting the burden of a solution from an individual to the organization. As much as an incremental fix like suggesting actionable solutions rather than asking employees to figure them out can be helpful in moving the needle on wellness challenges.
Putting employee wellness on the org chart
The responsibility for employee wellness is often assumed by HR teams. Undeniably, talent managers can survey teams, discover concerns, and explore ways to promote well-being within the organization.
However, given the delicate nature of employee wellness, managers should be focused on bringing experts to the workplace.
Working with therapists, nutritionists, and other healthcare professionals will help legitimize the company’s wellness policy and give employees more trust in its effectiveness.
Watching out for the “culture fit” dictatorship
Workplaces that are too focused on finding a perfect candidate can follow somewhat dystopian narratives of employees trying to mold their personality into the shape that defines “culture fit” for the organization.
In these workplaces, teammates are under the pressure of face-saving and perpetual overthinking. The complexity of people’s identities is swept under the rug and people do not feel comfortable sharing their struggle as it would put them outside the “culture fit” category.
Not putting excessive emphasis on personal traits when hiring or promoting will help leaders foster more genuine interactions with their teams. The authenticity that comes with people bringing their “whole selves” to work will help fuel creativity, create bonding opportunities, and diversify the workplace.
Approaching wellness holistically
For years, there has been a false dichotomy between wellness and productivity, as if one comes at the expense of the other. That is not an accurate representation of a successful workplace – on the contrary, studies show that productivity of an organization correlates with engagement and satisfaction among its employees.
That’s why companies should stop seeing wellness programs as a concession to productivity, even if there are short-term sacrifices involved.
For example, even though policies like a four-day workweek seem unproductive if you follow the logic of “more work means higher productivity”, studies prove that giving employees extra time to recharge and focus on their well-being positively impacts productivity in the long run and increases retention.
Leaders should not take common sense assumptions at face value, as there are hidden benefits to sacrificing superficial productivity for the sake of higher engagement and lower employee turnover.
Lastly, aside from employee wellness strategies, one of the best ways for leaders to foster wellness is to adopt policies that reduce workplace stress and pressures. Given the stresses employees have to deal with on a daily basis, organizations might want to review their policies and loosen the grip on their employees.
Here are the key health and wellness benefits employee expect from their leaders according to KPMG:
- Remote work policies, seen as a wellness benefit by 87% of employees
- Clear work-life balance, appreciated by 65% of surveyed workers
- Flexible dress code, valued by 56% of employees
The bottom line is that, while difficult to bring to full swing, employee wellness programs are essential to organizations. There’s enough proof to show both the ROI of a successful wellness initiative and the losses associated with not having one.
If, as an organization leader, you are not sure where to start, it is to be expected. There’s no universal playbook for employee wellness, certainly not amidst unprecedented economic turbulence. However, fundamental values like flexibility are likely to significantly alleviate workplace stress.
At oVice, we helped over 2,200 organizations of all sizes to build flexible work environments by introducing remote and hybrid work. We wanted to make sure that newly found flexibility does not get in the way of healthy communication or drive people to isolation.
That’s why we built a virtual office platform that takes in the benefits of an office – readiness for conversations, organizational unity, and higher engagement – without absorbing its drawbacks – physical constraints, background noise, and the inability to morph your work schedule and health commitments.
According to our customer feedback, a virtual office helped avoid isolation in hybrid teams and empowered multiple employee wellness initiatives in remote or hybrid teams. Learn more about the ways companies use oVice or explore the platform for yourself to see how it can improve wellness in your organization.