Employee Wellbeing: A Complete Guide

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When it comes to a company’s employees, well-being doesn’t actually start with them. It must begin with the managers, and their managers (and their managers), all the way until it reaches the very top.

This is especially important today, as many report experiencing their highest levels of stress since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans in particular are witnessing this stress manifest itself through changes in sleep patterns, increased alcohol consumption, and other troubling patterns. Because these factors impact almost all employees, mental health is taking center stage within the employee-employer relationships – both in and outside of the office.

Worries about the future affect us  today

Americans are also feeling stressed about finances and job security, which creates more stress about finances. One recent poll (Pulse of the American Worker Survey: Post-Pandemic Work & Life – Expectations from the American Workforce) found that nearly half of workers (46 percent) reported needing to learn new skills within the next year to do their current job, and 43 percent expected their financial security to be in jeopardy if they don’t retrain or re-skill.

Of course, these pressures existed before the pandemic. Employees wanted fair pay, flexible work hours, remote work opportunities, and a sense of purpose in their daily grind well before the coronavirus became a household name. But the pace of change and innovation that occurs during a pandemic (or war) only expedites the process of employee and workplace culture definitions shifting. 

The COVID-19 pandemic in particular has tested the worker-employer relationship beyond anyone’s anticipation, according to the 2021 Global Human Capital Report

The report suggests COVID-19 left employers under unprecedented scrutiny with arguably no choice but to pivot to an unprecedented degree to support workers’ health, livelihoods, dignity, and their success or failure. 

“The result was that developments that might have played out over a period of many years were compressed into a matter of months.”

Employee well-being during this historical shift has arguably never been more important or beneficial to employers, employees, and communities.  

The work-life balance employee wellbeing myth

(Westend61 / Getty)

The pandemic may have changed the way many of us work, but work life balance still doesn’t exist in the way many of us would like it to. The greatest example of this is that flexible work hours have turned into work anytime hours. Our lives still revolve around work and seeking some form of financial security. 

Work life balance has always been a lie, says Tim Allen, the latest president of Care.com, online marketplace for childcare, senior care, special needs care, tutoring, pet care, and housekeeping. 

“The pandemic laid bare aspects of society and business that were long overdue for a change,” he said. “Work and life are not independent entities fighting for 50/50 equilibrium. They’re interconnected, and one affects the other. But people — especially women — have been conditioned to design life around the demands of work, and rarely to design work around the demands of life.”

He adds that the pandemic revealed the alarming amount of working mothers who face an untenable choice: their children or their paycheck. “This problem has surged over the last year: nearly 3 million women — especially Black and Latina women — have been pushed out of the U.S. labor force.”

“A year-long pandemic has erased decades of progress, underscoring just how fragile and inept our old care system was. Our post-pandemic economy won’t fully recover — or reach its full potential — unless and until women get the caregiving support they and their families need.”

“We have a broken care infrastructure. Support for mental health is insufficient. And so many of us are entangled in demanding and inflexible workplace cultures that create burnout. Just to name a few.”

What is employee wellbeing in 2021?

Employee wellbeing takes into consideration all aspects of a person’s health and wellness, including physical health, mental health, social health, and spiritual health. It also recognizes that these are not isolated and independently operating systems. Employee wellbeing recognizes the whole person behind the employee.

Employee wellbeing is about more than workplace wellness culture or employee enthusiasm in the office. It’s also about more than pizza lunches and small perks over real employee well-being investments. The next generations of employees are looking for so much more from their work lives. Listening to their needs will be what ultimately creates the new employee wellness plans.

Finding more value in our working lives

The next wave in employee wellbeing looks at what happens before, during, and after working hours because the pandemic proved we really have no choice. It takes into consideration that what happens at home doesn’t really stay there (ie., we can’t leave our baggage or sick kids at the door). Working in a place that promotes employee wellbeing means your employer understands there is no such thing as complete separation of work self from home self. 

Employers can keep this perspective in mind when they build their workplace culture to support people so they can be their best self at work (despite what may be happening at home). This is different from old mentoring advice that cautioned against being emotional at work or showing you’re frustrated, unsure, or not confident. It’s an approach to employee wellbeing that respects the fact all humans have emotions and showing them in a healthy and productive/constructive way is better than pretending they don’t exist.

Successful employee wellbeing program examples

  • Offer employee discounts on health facilities and apps that support mental health and overall well being (i.e., sleep tracking, fitness or nutrition tracking, meditation or mindfulness apps)
  • Host lunchtime yoga a few times a month
  • Bring in life coaches, energy coaches, massage therapists, etc. 
  • Host a get together that includes doing an activity (pottery, paint nite, paintball, axe throwing, bowling, etc.)
  • Create a workplace culture of overall well being where employees feel genuinely care for and safe in their roles to express their needs
  • Ask your employees what they need (this may take several approaches to get your team to warm up to you if you haven’t developed a strong working relationship). 
  • Think about well being beyond the office. For example, if your have young parenting adults in the office, consider offering a before school or after school program to supplement childcare 
  • If your employees are selling a product for you (grocery clerks included), it’s important that they feel empowered enough (financially and otherwise) to actually use and enjoy the product.
  • Health and dental coverage goes a long way in boosting overall employee well being

The success of any employee well being program lies in customizing your employees health and wellness needs and adding new services including mental health support. Glenn Llopis for Forbes suggests employers get to know what their employees really want, which requires giving people ways to share what they really need, which requires building a workplace culture where they feel safe enough to be vulnerable to ask in the first place. 

Why employers should care about employee mental health

Employee wellbeing is predicted to have the greatest impact on the workplace of the future, suggests MetLife’s annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study 2021: “Redesigning the Employee Experience: Preparing the Workforce for a Transformed World.” 

Nearly half of Americans are rethinking their jobs moving forward from the pandemic, suggests the Prudential Pulse of the American Worker Survey. They also counted a quarter of 2,000 workers who are planning to look for a new job once the pandemic is over. 

Job exiting is expensive for business owners who spend time investing in employee certifications, training, supervising, and promoting. But it can be challenging to know if investing in employee wellbeing initiatives will pay off in the long run. One example from major household name brand Johnson & Johnson leaders estimate that wellness programs have cumulatively saved the company $250 million on health care costs over the past decade (from 2002 to 2008), and the return was $2.71 for every dollar spent.

One meta-analysis from 2019 of 339 independent research studies on the wellbeing of 1,882,131 employees and the performance of 82,248 business units, originating from 230 independent organizations across 49 industries in the Gallup client database, found a significant and positive relationship between employees’ satisfaction with their company and employee productivity and customer loyalty, and a strong negative correlation with staff turnover. 

Dimensions of employee wellbeing

Deloitte’s 2021 Global Human Capital Trends Report suggests that over the past two years, 44 percent of millennials and 49 percent of Gen Z have made work choices based on their personal ethics. This suggests that the future of employee job satisfaction won’t be sustained by matching retirement contributions or hosting family day events and after hours parties for the office.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) says employees focus on their own health comes down to an “integrated approach that encompasses four dimensions of employee well-being: the physical, financial, emotional, and social.” The WEF says working to improve in those areas is the key to creating greater employee health and employee engagement.

Financial well being

Financial well-being is defined by the WEF as someone being able to manage budgetary commitments, meet financial goals, protect against risks, save for contingencies or future needs like college or retirement and cope with financial shocks or emergencies. 

Over 60 percent of workers reported facing greater financial stress since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the PwC 2021 Employee Financial Wellness Survey of 1,600 full-time employed US adults. The survey also found that many millennials and Gen Zers are reporting the greatest strain on their financial health.

With finances shown as the main cause of employee stress above their job, their health, and their relationships combined, this is an area worth exploring for employers who want to work on their workplace culture and employee well-being. The future of their workforce’s overall health and wellness depends on it.

The right ways to boost employee financial well-being are by offering competitive wages that reflect current cost of living, mental health benefits and physical health benefits including medical coverage for maintenance health procedures like dental cleaning and vision tests, establishing investment or retirement options, and seminars to boost financial literacy. 

Physical well being 

staff wellbeing
(DjordjeDjurdjevic / Getty)

Physical well being in the workplace now takes into consideration everything from overall physical activity (as seen in promotion of step or activity-based goals and office fitness challenges) to nutrition (catered lunches, access to dietician through benefits or office program) to how well one’s coping with a chronic illness (what kind of coverage do they have? How many sick days are available? Do they need office accommodations)? 

Employee physical well-being may look like the encouragement to get away from the desk and stretch for a few moments, go for a stroll, or get a discount at your local runner’s or sporting goods shop. It may be a membership to certain gyms, classes, or wellness apps, too. 

Emotional well being

Emotional well-being is often what we think of when we think of overall employee health and job satisfaction. If someone is smiling at work, engaged in their projects, and giving off a friendly vibe, we generally see them as emotionally well. 

But emotional wellness is measured in the workplace by how well a person tolerates stress and stressful situations (emotional resilience), as well as whether or not they are using positive and healthy coping mechanisms. Emotional well-being takes into account that stressful things can and do happen at work every day. 

Emotional well-being is also about self-awareness, though, because without self-awareness you can’t begin to see where your coping skills are needed (and which ones would be helpful). While employers can’t give their employees a certain test to see if they are already self-aware, they can invest in this area of employee well-being. Life coaches, business coaches, and counselors of all kinds can be helpful for training sessions, check-ins, and to help your employees learn and practice emotional regulation techniques that will benefit the whole office. 

Social well-being

The WEF says that being connected by understanding how to interact well with others, accepting diversity, being inclusive, knowing how to support and collaborate with others, being able to successfully resolve conflicts, and adapting to change is what it looks like to be well socially. 

According to Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose, a global coalition of multi-billion-dollar companies, employer sponsorship of community programs are an excellent way to engage and retain employees while improving the sustainability of the planet.

Social well-being can be developed in a workplace culture where there is trust and respect. Examples of employee wellbeing initiatives that support social well-being include team trips or activities out of office or community volunteerism. Switching up the teams or departments for certain team bonding activities can help to bridge interdepartmental gaps and promote a larger sense of community and connection.

Can a toxic workplace hurt mental health? 

When you have a healthy workplace culture, it’s obvious in the high levels of consistent productivity and job satisfaction, feelings of what’s known as psychological safety, and relatively low turnover rates. People feel psychological safest in places where they trust each other and feel safe together. Employee well-being in these places comes easily. 

Toxic workplaces are the opposite. They include places where employee opinions don’t matter, voices remain unheard, employee wellbeing initiatives are scarce or non-existent, employee health and engagement is low, and workplace stress is high. 

Toxic workplaces are dangerous to more than a company’s bottom line. Research has consistently shown that a toxic workplace culture is bad for a person’s mental health. In some cases it increases the risk of depression by 3 times. So if your overarching workplace culture is toxic, look to the top. This is where employee well-being starts. If you’re sitting at the top, it’s time to do some serious evaluation on how to fix it. 

Talk about it

Mental health and employee wellness isn’t something you can avoid talking about with your employees. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 1 in 4 people will have a mental disorder sometime in their life (2019). What’s more, mental disorders are now the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide.

Supporting the mental health of your employees comes with benefits beyond helping fight related problems. Benefits of mental health support for employees include:

  • Improved health and engagement at work
  • Reduced “absenteeism” or calling in sick, not showing up for shifts
  • Reduced “presenteeism” or being present but not well enough to focus on work 
  • Improved productivity

Mental health support for employee wellness

Mental health support in the office and in the field can have many different looks (and costs and benefits). 

The best health plans are always the ones that consider the people first. Your employees know better than anyone else what they could need to ease workplace stress. This means you’ll want to actually ask your employees what may help in terms of mental health support in the future. Give them some time to consider some ideas. Think about providing a few examples of a successful employee program or employee wellness initiatives from other companies to help with brainstorming. 

Pros and cons of working remotely

The pandemic showed the world that many office jobs can be done from our own homes (or anywhere there’s a lockdown and WiFi). Jobs that were previously inaccessible to people due to location and accessibility for disability barriers were now up for grabs on the internet. A mass exodus from the office happened out of necessity but it prompted people who’d ever considered freelancing to take the leap.

It takes a certain type of person to be successful while working from home as a freelancer, contract employee, or full-time employee. It helps if that person has a good working environment or somewhere free from distractions.

People who ended up working remote during the pandemic learned this the hard and fast way.

They mentioned challenges in setting a routine for working from home, feeling micromanaged or highly monitored through time trackers while at home but also at work, and feeling completely disconnected from the people they work with, as well as feeling entirely disposable. 

This is one reason why remote (and freelance) work is so highly desirable. With remote work, the worker gains back much of their own time and privacy and control of their waking and sleeping hours. With freelance work, the worker becomes also the managing boss and the bookkeeper, too.

Remote working for a company as a full time employee 

Being a full time employee will always have a nice ring to it, but as one CEO once told me, job security doesn’t really exist. You make your own security wherever you go. 

Pros include: consistent pay, benefits, chat room work banter and social bonding via remote working teams.

Cons: non-compete contracts, all your financial security is in one company, pay ceilings, glass ceilings, the time required for chat room work banter and social bonding via remote working teams, trying to focus at your own home without the office setting and other people to help keep you focused, distractions everywhere like laundry, dishes, quick vacuuming, the days blend into weeks into months for someone else’s bottom lines and dreams…

Remote working when you’re the boss and owner 

Either way you spin it, making money and continuing to make money takes work. 

Pros include: money can be coming in from different places and different times so it’s a more steady stream of income flow into accounts, you can work with multiple different managers and companies and multiply your experience more quickly than climbing a corporate ladder, you can take 100 percent control of your own schedule, you can create your own bottom lines, goals, and career path based on whatever your purpose is right now. Employee wellbeing is all about what you need and can cover. 

Cons: These of course depend on the person. Some people thrive on the regimented and organized lifestyle that helps with owning a small business or big business. Others need the in-person directions, reminders, and/or motivation of the ping to stay on task throughout a work day. Employee wellbeing isn’t something you think about outside of your own well being unless you start hiring others and become focused on their employee wellbeing.

Giving employees tools to boost employee wellbeing and discover their purpose

health and wellbeing at work
(maroke / Getty)

No one’s expecting you to counsel your employees on their well being or for your employees to be thriving in every role and singing your praises every day. Discovering their purpose is less about what they want to be doing and more about finding the purpose in what they are being asked to do (for money). 

There’s a big difference between giving employees tools to boost employee well being and giving them everything they ask for. Tools can include mental health benefits that help employees afford access to services that can help them learn coping skills and how to function better together in teams and in their home lives. Covering a portion of healthcare expenses is a great way of supporting employees through reducing employee stress.

For employers, it’s best if you can pinpoint which tools will help motivate your employees and improve overall employee happiness the most. A couple examples include covering parking costs or transportation passes, covering a costly certification, or offering free writing and editing and web design workshops that add to the creative employee’s health and well being. 

Great leaders think outside the box and have management practices that align with a healthy workplace culture. They will be able to help a new employee discover their unique purpose in the company, and in doing so, will give them a guide on being the best employee who feels their best, too. 

Have realistic expectations of people

It’s an essential time for organizations to rethink how they can support employees and boost employee well being including supporting mental health needs and increasing employee satisfaction. Focusing on these two areas of mental health support first will lead to increased employee engagement. 

Having realistic expectations of people means taking into consideration how the changes to your workplace over the past few years have impacted employee mental health and how you can support employees by reducing employee stress.

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