Wellness is more than a buzzword: What employees are looking for (and need) Today
As a corporate wellness consultant and executive wellness coach, I can attest that corporate wellness has come a long way in the last two decades. Gone are the days when an organization’s commitment to the health and wellness of its employees consisted of providing health insurance, a discounted gym membership, and the occasional wellness fair.
However, although corporate wellness has become an $8 billion a year industry, the results seem disappointing. Stress and burnout are at epidemic levels. Employee engagement, a key indicator of individual and organizational wellness, remains low. Why are we not getting a higher return on our wellness investment?
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests we need to think bigger about the idea of wellness, and I agree. We cannot evaluate corporate wellness programs solely by their return on investment (ROI). We should not see such programs as transactional: sending the message that we are investing in employees’ wellness only to make them more productive. Instead, helping employees thrive should be an end in itself.
To achieve that end, we need to widen our definition of wellness. A recent survey by Robert Half, the global staffing firm, shows that companies are moving in the right direction. Increasingly, they are expanding their focus and realizing that physical health is just one piece of the puzzle.
The big three
Physical health, mental health, and stress management are still the cornerstones of any comprehensive corporate wellness program. What remains underappreciated is how interconnected these areas are.
Exercise and a healthy lifestyle do more than help us live energetic lives and avoid chronic disease—they can contribute significantly to our mental health as well. Attending to our mental and emotional health, in turn, is central to a preventive approach to stress management. When we are self-aware and resilient, we are far less vulnerable to the inevitable stresses of a high-pressure work environment. We are able to see difficult challenges as opportunities and not threats.
Stress is far more manageable when we consistently take care of our physical and mental health, but involves additional elements as well. Gallup surveys point to autonomy, appreciation, and the opportunity to grow professionally as factors that can alleviate stress when they are present, but which contribute to stress when they are absent. A holistic vision of wellness must address these aspects of workplace culture as well.
Financial health and wellness
Financial matters are a frequently underestimated element of wellness. The most recent Pricewaterhouse Coopers financial wellness survey finds that 59% of respondents name challenges related to money and finances as their top source of stress.
That same survey finds that while 80% of organizations have a financial wellness program, the majority of these are focused on retirement planning. These traditional financial wellness programs do not address the areas most responsible for financial stress—including debt, and an inability to meet unexpected expenses.
A comprehensive approach to financial health should also be a part of any corporate wellness program.
The role of compassion and flexibility
Other HR practices such as flextime scheduling and paid parental and caretaker leave should be seen as part of the business leader’s wellness toolbox as well. Only 12% of Americans have sufficient paid leave to care for a baby or a sick parent. Nearly one in four women in the U.S. return to work within two weeks of having a baby.
Holistic wellness means addressing the needs of employees as whole persons, not just as workers. When we do not help employees tend to the other parts of their lives, we stifle careers, and create ripple effects that add to stress and burnout. Dr. Jane Dutton of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business has found that both well-being and performance thrive in workplaces that care for the whole employee. “These environments allow employees to adapt to their circumstances—whether around mental health or any other challenges happening in their lives.”
A workplace culture built around compassion creates an environment of greater psychological safety, which fosters teamwork, risk-taking, and innovation. Such an environment also allows employees to come forward with mental health or other challenges they may be facing. Compassion in the workplace is a win-win for performance and wellness.
Prioritizing personal development
More than any other reason, employees leave a company because they do not feel it offers sufficient opportunities for personal and professional growth. If employees see our organizations merely as a stepping stone, we will lose them sooner than later, and fail to capture their full potential while they are with us.
The alternative is to create a workplace culture devoted to helping employees thrive in all areas of their lives. When employees see their jobs as a vehicle for growth, we are more likely to retain them and to see them at their best. An energized and engaged employee is the best measure of organizational wellness.
We cannot afford to compartmentalize wellness or to treat it primarily as a way to control health-related costs. A holistic approach to wellness means committing ourselves fully to employee well-being—to helping employees work well, live well, and be well. Business leaders who make that commitment will see wellness flourish on both the individual and the organizational level.