Employers have long been concerned about employee wellness. In fact, Corporate Wellness Magazine points out that as far back as 1879, the Pullman Company was providing wellness benefits to employees through an athletic association that offered housing, shops and schools. Others followed suit with similar offerings and, in the 1950s and 1960s, companies like Texas Instruments, Rockwell and Xerox had all instituted employee fitness programs. In the 1970s OSHA emerged; the focus on employee health and wellness has continued since.
But the definition of “wellbeing” has expanded over the past few years. Today, when we speak about employee wellness we’re not just talking about physical health, but about mental or emotional health, and financial wellbeing as well.
Our 2021 Trends & Forecasts Report identified “redefining work/life balance to work/life blend” as trending and forecast that wellbeing will become an essential indicator of a positive employee experience. More employers are now including a corporate wellness program as part of their employee engagement strategy.
Health and wellness are directly tied to employee productivity, performance, and engagement. Savvy employers recognize this and are taking steps to up their game when it comes to providing a solid base of benefit offerings to support employees’ work/life blend.
The significant impact of COVID-19 on employee wellness cannot be denied. Those impacts have spanned all aspects of employee wellness — from physical to mental health, and financial wellness.
Addressing Physical Health in the Workplace
Physical health has long been a focus for many organizations — from exercise facilities to a focus on healthy eating, to help with chronic disease. Today’s physical health benefits go beyond insurance coverage to sponsorship of a wide range of activities, education and even incentives. Employers know that healthy employees are not only more productive employees, but they likely can lead to reductions in healthcare coverage costs as well.
Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace
Physicians and other healthcare providers understand that it is impossible to separate physical from mental health—the two are directly related. Employers are increasingly understanding this as well. The point has been driven home during the pandemic.
Mental health offerings have grown, expanded and evolved in 2021. What employers refer to as “mental health benefits” in 2021 address employee needs both within and outside of the typical workforce as hybrid work has become more common. Employers are providing benefits that include:
- Both in-person and video counseling
- Increased paid time off
- Parental leave
- Recognition programs
Companies are also working to destigmatize mental health and, in some regards, the COVID-19 experience has helped with this. There is widespread recognition that the virus has taken its toll on people in many ways. We’re all experiencing mental health impacts to some degree.
Another big boon to bringing mental health issues into the open emerged during the 2021 Olympics as gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from early events citing the need to focus on her mental health. Another athlete, Naomi Osaka, also recently announced her decision to withdraw from the 2021 French Open. Sentiment about their decisions has been broadly positive and has encouraged athletes and celebrities of all kinds to share their own mental health challenges.
Addressing Financial Wellbeing in the Workplace
Financial wellbeing also certainly impacts both physical and mental health — and job performance. The first important steps employers can take to address employee financial wellbeing is to pay them a competitive wage reflective of their area. A number of larger employers around the country are considering raising the minimum wage to at least $15/hour including Target, Hobby Lobby, Starbucks and others. In a competitive labor market others are sure to follow.
Beyond paying a competitive wage, though, there are other things employers can do to support financial wellbeing including providing education and training, and access to resources like financial advisors.
Across all of these categories — physical, mental and financial — burnout is a prominent sign that employee wellness needs are not being mend. How and when employees reach this point varies both by generation and life stage.
Employees will vary, of course, in terms of their interest in each of these categories of employer support. Some of that variation can be attributed to generational differences.
Boomers, for instance, are “more likely to ignore or hide weakness, illness, and injury,” says Rick Cobb, EVP at Keystone Partners, a career services firm. The least acceptable injuries for these groups, he says, are related to mental health. Unfortunately, he says: “Smoking, drinking, drugs, and other means of self-medication became far more prevalent than seeking help for mental health.”
Subsequent generations, Cobb says — Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z — "have had the observational and interpersonal experience of observing the flaws in the suppression of feelings, illness, and weakness.”
Parents are one segment of the employee population that may be feeling the pressure more than others. According to research by theBoardlist and Qualtrics parents, and women in particular, are experiencing significant stress and even feel that they are being discriminated against — 45% of working parents say this is the case; the higher they are in the organization the more likely they are to believe this is true. Childcare needs during the pandemic have been a particular source of stress.
A Menu of Options for Positive Self-Care
Because of the wide range of generations in the workforce and the increasing diversity of the workforce overall, employers need to focus on providing a wide range of options that employees can access to address their wellness needs, regardless of which categories those needs fall into.
Jen Fisher and Anh Phillips are the coauthors of Work Better Together: How to Cultivate Strong Relationships to Maximize Well-Being and Boost Bottom Lines (McGraw-Hill, 2021). Fisher is chief well-being officer with Deloitte in the United States; Phillips is a researcher and author from Deloitte Consulting. In their book, Fisher and Phillips recommend:
- Focusing on self-care, such as physical health, quality sleep, and taking time off.
- Tapping into human skills like empathy, authenticity, and communication.
- Using technology with intentionality to strengthen relationships, while breaking the negative habits technology fosters.
- Managing workplace relationships, whether employees are in the office, telecommuting or working in some hybrid capacity.
- Developing a culture of strong relationships that drive quality collaboration throughout the organization.
Happy employees are more productive employees. Today business leaders recognize that work/life blend has a marked effect on employee happiness. Organizations are finding new ways to provide employees with the resources and support they need by offering an array of benefit options designed to meet the full spectrum of physical, mental, and financial wellness needs.