There was a time when employees had a tacit understanding that their employer had a vested interest in their well-being. Companies often signaled this concern through wellness benefits. Company newsletters would talk about nutrition, gym memberships were subsidized, and on-site weight management programs were offered and often held in a large conference room.
Why did companies invest in these programs? “Wellness was the answer to rising medical costs,” explains Sara Martin, CEO of WELCOA (The Wellness Council of America), a group that has been around for 30 years helping businesses create healthier organizations. “Companies were facing double-digit increases year-over-year. To keep costs under control, programs were instituted to manage chronic conditions.”
By getting buy-in to these programs, sometimes using incentives, companies thought this would make people healthier and, in turn, lower costs. However, these programs didn’t always work as planned, Martin says. “People weren’t getting well because health care is more complex than getting people to exercise more or submit to biometric health screenings.”
Her statement is confirmed by a June 2021 study from the Harvard Medical School and University of Chicago, entitled, “Health and Economic Outcomes Up to Three Years After a Workplace Wellness Program.” The study concludes that while employees at treatment worksites had better self-reported health behaviors, “no significant differences were found in self-reported health; clinical markers of health; healthcare spending or use; or absenteeism, tenure, or job performance.”
“What companies refuse to see is that often it was the company that was making employees sick in the first place,” Martin says. “Somewhere, we lost our way and took the human being out of the work equation, and everyone got sick. If you have a terrible work/life balance, an awful job and you dislike your boss, buying a Fitbit won’t solve the problem.”
What can be powerful, however, is when an organization digs deep and faces the issue. And that’s where well-being comes into play. Well-being encompasses a larger perspective on what makes an employee healthy. The World Health Organization (WHO) definition of well-being states: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
In the workplace, well-being also means providing employees with a psychologically safe environment, social connections and rich relationships, Martin adds.
Take a Closer Look at Employees’ Needs
As companies start to view an employee as a complex person with a variety of needs and then finding ways to meet those needs in the workplace, they are turning to well-being programs. In fact, some have created specific jobs to incorporate this philosophy.
Jen Fisher, the U.S. chief well-being officer for consulting firm Deloitte, says that companies are coming to understand this evolved way of thinking. “Many companies just don’t know how to do this, as work has always been viewed separately from the worker’s personal life,” Fisher explains. “Managers were trained to reward those who put in long hours, not understanding the toll that took on someone’s health and well-being. Now, we need to switch what we value and celebrate what is uniquely human, such as creativity and the ability to problem-solve.”
Studies confirm the value paradigm shift. The 12th annual Employer-Sponsored Health & Well-Being Survey from Fidelity Investments and Business Group on Health looked specifically at well-being strategies. “This year, the number one reason for offering well-being programs is employee engagement,” explains LuAnn Heinen, vice president at the group, which represents large employers. She leads the organization’s well-being-as-a-workforce-strategy function.
“In light of the issues this past year, mental health is now included in well-being programs, where it might not have been included before,” Heinen notes. The survey shows that 92% of respondents increased mental health offerings this year, and 62% said they intend to keep these programs.
One company that understands the aspect of mental health is 2021 America’s Safest Company winner Ampirical, a utility engineering and construction company based in Covington, La. “The pandemic is stressful for people,” explains Rod Courtney, HSE manager. “Fear and anxiety about a new disease and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Public health actions, such as social distancing, can make people feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety. However, these actions are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Coping with stress in a healthy way will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger. So, our company set up virtual counseling services for all employees who may experience anxiety during these unprecedented times.”
Creating programs to address specific needs, such as what Amipirical did, is an excellent example of a well-being program. To uncover the spectrum of employee needs, Heinen advises companies to embark on “listening tours.” Part of the purpose of these tours is to uncover barriers to program participation. From an organizational perspective, she advises against adding a well-being strategy to overworked human resource people. There is training and certification to becoming a well-being manager, which WELCOA provides.
Leadership is Necessary When Changing Culture
Well-being stretches across all functions of a company.
“During the pandemic, a sense of well-being became bigger and moved to become part of the culture rather than being a program, policy or initiative,” Heinen says. “There was more transparency and communication, either through town halls or even pulse surveys.” She cites a company that has instituted a Feedback Friday asking employees how the week went.
Becoming a culture that concentrates on and values employees’ well-being isn’t as challenging as companies might think, Fisher says. She offers advice on some specific tactics:
- Encourage open conversations. Focus on creating a safe workplace where people feel comfortable speaking openly about physical, relational and mental health. Offer different avenues for personal conversation, either openly in teams or in confidence with a counselor.
- Build mental health literacy. Add virtual courses in mental health to the learning program so that everyone is conversant and comfortable with talking about mental health, a topic many find difficult because of cultural stigmas or personal anxiety.
- Share through storytelling. Teach employees to share their experiences and tell their stories in their own words. It can be a great exercise in team bonding.
Well-being should be a core value, Martin emphasizes. “It is the fuel that drives all other areas of performance for a company. It’s baked into your company’s operations and into the DNA of your organization.”