Workplace wellness: everything you need to know in 2021

Leslie Tedgui – 16 February 2021 – Reading Time : 11 minutes

More and more organizations are beginning to realize that motivation goes beyond offering great salaries and benefits. As terms like burnout, boreout, presenteeism and psychological safety become more common in our workplace discussions, we’re seeing a paradigm shift with workplace wellness becoming an integral part of an organization’s talent management strategy.

And the events of 2020 have only ushered this change forward. With remote working introducing new challenges, from keeping up team spirit to combating loneliness to respecting work/life balance, we’ve seen how these different factors can greatly impact motivation and, as a result, productivity.

While this guide was created in the context of these uncertain times, its use will go beyond them, providing insights into a key concept in reducing work stress and improving the employee experience: workplace wellness.

Content

Why is workplace wellness important?

We spend a considerable amount of our time working. In fact, over the course of their lifetime, adults in the US spend on average 90,000 hours at work. With a significant portion of our lives spent in the workplace, work related stress can have a major impact on our overall well being and, in turn, our performance.

A study on stress in America found that 70% of employed adults consider work a significant source of stress for them, increasing from 64% in 2019. Furthermore, when asked to rate their stress level in general, the average was reported as 5.4 out of 10, compared to 4.9 in 2019. Across the pond in the UK, more research revealed that there were 800,000 cases of work-related stress, depression and anxiety, with a loss of 17.9 million working days as a result.

Meanwhile, there is a mountain of evidence backing up the benefits of promoting positive employee wellness. Here are just a few:

  • Workplace wellness decreases absenteeism. Employees who report good health and low stress levels display lower rates of absenteeism. This can reduce company costs with an ROI of 2.73.
  • Well-being increases engagement. A study by Limeade and Quantum Workplace found that employees with higher well-being are more likely to enjoy their work, feel engaged at work, and recommend their organization to others.
  • Happiness in the workplace improves productivity. A recent study by Oxford University found that happy workers are 13% more productive
  • Well-being drives organizational performance. According to a survey by Deloitte, 94% of HR leaders agreed that well-being drives organizational performance to some extent.

And this shift towards workplace wellness will only become more important for businesses in the future.

Workplace wellness: A priority for millenials

In 2020, millennials made up 50% of the global workforce. With this new generation now dominating the workplace, promoting wellness will become even more important. A recent survey from Welltok highlighted that previous generations saw wellness as simply the absence of being sick. Meanwhile, in millennials, there was a greater emphasis on financial, social and emotional health. The same study revealed that 75% of millennials expect this holistic support, versus 64% of Gen Xers and 45% of Baby Boomers.

A survey from PWC also revealed that millennials are more open to trying a variety of careers and, as such, don’t show the same long term commitment to organizations as previous generations. This means that meeting their needs will be essential for those that want to attract the best talent.

Offering a flexible workplace, opportunities for growth, positive brand values and a great workplace wellness program will therefore be an important part in ensuring a positive employee experience for millennials.

It’s clear that employees need to be in good physical health to reach their peak potential. However, in 2021 we need to look beyond physical health and consider the holistic wellness and mental health of our employees. That starts with understanding what workplace wellness is and how to detect the warning signs.

What is workplace wellness?

Workplace wellness is any workplace health promotion strategy or organizational policy designed to support healthy behaviour in the workplace and improve health outcomes. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) defines it as  ‘A coordinated and comprehensive set of health promotion and protection strategies implemented at the worksite that includes programs, policies, benefits, environmental supports, and links to the surrounding community designed to encourage the health and safety of all employees.’

Detecting discomfort at work

Stress can manifest itself in many different ways. You may witness changes in employee behavior, habits and routine. For example, taking up smoking or smoking more frequently, taking more time off, changes in appetite and uncharacteristic mistakes. You may find that an employee becomes more withdrawn or sensitive and snappy when responding.

An extreme negative effect of stress is burnout. Coined by the psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s, burnout is a severe stress condition that leads to physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. There are several signs that could indicate burnout in employees.

  • Exhaustion. Feeling physically and emotionally depleted.
  • Isolation. Those experiencing burnout can feel overwhelmed and will stop socializing with friends, co-workers and family.
  • Escape fantasies. Turning to escape mechanisms such as alcohol and drugs.
  • Irritability. Normal stressors are exaggerated.
  • Frequent illness and absenteeism. Long term stress lowers your immune system, making you more susceptible to illness and other mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

Another common indicator is absenteeism, or when an employee frequently misses work without a valid reason. A number of different factors can foster this type of behavior, whether an employee is feeling insecure about their performance or they’re being bullied in the office. 

Meanwhile, boreout occurs when an employee does show up to work physically but is continuously bored and mentally checked out due to a lack of meaningful work. This can become exacerbated when managers ignore their employees and fail to provide adequate professional coaching and guidance.

Workplace wellness

What is the recipe of workplace wellness?

With work stress being such a prevalent and destructive force in the workplace, it’s clear that organizations need to take action to tackle it.

So now that we know what workplace wellness is, how do we actually go about improving it?

To answer this question, let’s take a deeper look at what factors lead to a positive employee experience in the workplace.

Employee Experience

Borrowed from the marketing department’s focus on ‘user experience’, the ‘employee experience’ is a way of looking at an employee’s journey throughout your organization, from the moment they apply for a job to the moment they exit your company.

This more holistic view allows HR managers to analyze the different interactions an employee may have throughout their lifecycle within your organization and design a better overall experience with the company. A great employee experience can mean higher retention rates, greater employee satisfaction and an increase in talent attraction. In fact, 80% of executives rate employee experience as very important to their organization.

Research by Deloitte identified five factors that contribute to a positive employee experience. These are:

  1. Meaningful work
  2. Supportive management
  3. Positive work environment
  4. Growth opportunity
  5. Trust in leadership

Let’s take a deeper look into how addressing these five factors can promote greater workplace wellness.

Meaningful work and growth opportunities boost job satisfaction

Everyone wants to feel the work they do has meaning and purpose. As we discussed previously, a lack of meaningful work is often the cause of negative behaviors like burnout and absenteeism.

But on the flip slide, studies show that employees who feel their work is meaningful are more likely to work for less, put in more hours, and experience higher levels of job satisfaction. Along with meaningful work, another study by SHRM found that both millennials (88%) and Generation X (89%) workers cited career development and professional development opportunities as important contributors to their job satisfaction.

However, this isn’t solely the responsibility of employees themselves. A recent study by SHRM revealed that 84% of US workers blame poorly trained management for creating unnecessary stress. In fact, according to the study:

  • 57% of workers say managers could benefit from training on how to be a better people manager
  • 50% feel their own performance would improve if their manager received additional training in people management

Having supportive managers who are able to motivate their team by providing meaningful work and opportunities for growth is essential to improving workplace wellness. Methods such as executive coaching can help train management to practice clear and open communication, listen to employees’ needs, and offer better growth opportunities by learning how to become a great coach themselves.

Happiness in the workplace: Creating a positive work environment

When Google conducted research into what factors made the perfect team, surprisingly, it wasn’t the teams with the most intelligent or the most senior people. It was the teams that had high levels of psychological safety.

According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

As we discussed earlier, negative work environments in which an employee feels insecure or worse yet, is being bullied, can cause high stress and lead to negative workplace behaviors.

On the other hand studies show that organizations that have high levels of psychological safety are more productive and achieve higher levels of performance. Research also shows that positive work cultures improve both employee wellbeing and productivity. In fact, something as simple as having a best friend at work or receiving positive feedback and recognition can greatly improve happiness in the workplace.

However, shaping a positive corporate culture can take time and effort. Check out our guide with tips on how you can use group coaching to build the kind of culture you want to see in your organization.

How to design your own workplace wellness program

Now that we’ve looked at factors that impact workplace stress, it’s time to begin taking steps to increase happiness in the workplace. The most difficult step for many HR managers is simply figuring out how to get started. The problem is, no two organizations are the same. Simply copying and pasting strategies will not work. It takes time, research and experimentation.

Here are a few steps you can take to start developing a workplace wellness program that meets your organization’s particular needs:

  • Conduct an organizational assessment. The first step is to assess the current health and wellness practices of your employees and workplace. Consider your workplace’s smoking policies, nutrition, opportunity for physical activity and your approach to managing stress.
  • Assign responsibility for wellness. Building a wellness program for your organization requires time and having an individual or group of people who can plan, promote and implement the program. We’ll explore this idea later with the role of coaching and the notion of a Chief Happiness Officer.
  • Get everyone involved. Involving all employees in the decision making process will increase willingness to participate and make sure the program meets everyone’s needs.
  • Develop goals and objectives. These should be some guidelines that explain what you want to achieve with the program. To develop these effectively, consider using SMART goals:
  • Specific (simple, sensible, significant)
  • Measurable (quantifiable metrics)
  • Achievable (agreed, attainable)
  • Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based)
  • Time bound (time-based, time limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive)
  • Design and implement the program. Make sure that the program addresses the needs and interests of your employees and consists of a variety of awareness, lifestyle change and educational programs. This can be done using a variety of learning experiences such as seminars, videos, and individual or group coaching which can encourage behavioural changes and education on mental health and stress management. 
  • Measure outcomes. Evaluate the success of the program by looking at whether your objectives were met. As well as the outcomes, also evaluate the structure of the program itself and the process, for example, participation levels. We’ll go into more detail in the next section.

As discussed, the purpose of a modern workplace wellness program is, not to only focus on physical health, but on stress management and meeting the increasing need for a holistic consideration of the employee experience. Therefore, to ensure your program is effective, it’s essential to provide equal weight to both mental and physical health concerns.

As mentioned, the role of coaching is very important in the implementation of a workplace wellness program. Executive coaching throughout the organization is the best way to prevent an organization from dealing with stress, burnout, and other negative consequences of poor health management. Executive coaching helps with all of these steps as the external perspective can help an organization assess their needs, develop goals, and encourage and support everyone in getting involved with the program.

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How to measure workplace wellness

With a good base of understanding on how to create and implement a workplace wellness program, how do you actually find out if it’s working? 

Remember, no strategy can be truly effective without a method for measuring success. Start by considering the goals you want to achieve. For example, perhaps you want to reduce absenteeism by a certain percentage and increase employee satisfaction. Measuring how these change over the course of your program will help you track your organization’s progress and success.

Here are some key KPIs you should pay attention to when developing your workplace wellness program:

  • Absenteeism patterns
  • Retention rates
  • Productivity and performance

What tools should you use to measure workplace wellness?

Another method is by sending out regular (anonymous) pulse surveys to get a better understanding of the mood within your organization. Anonymity is essential to ensure your employees feel comfortable sharing how they really feel. Also keep in mind that, as pulse surveys are sent out on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis, they should be quick and easy to fill out. Here are a few things you can measure with pulse surveys:

  • Stress levels
  • Employee satisfaction
  • Employee activity levels
  • Psychological safety

Although these responses are anonymous, they can be extremely useful in identifying serious problems and addressing them ahead of time. For example, if you notice high stress levels amongst your team, you may want to hire a professional coach to provide group coaching on stress management and how to develop positive work habits.

Beyond the use of consistent and regular surveying of your employees, there are also a variety of digital tools you can use to track these indicators and encourage employee engagement. 

An example of this is CoreHealth Wellness Platform. This is a digital platform that allows you to plan and schedule thousands of wellness activities for your employees, and provides reporting and analytics that enable you to monitor performance, job satisfaction and engagement.

Chief Happiness Officer: the birth of a new expertise

As with any new company initiative, in order for your wellness program to become truly ingrained into your company’s DNA, you need executive level buy-in. 

While for decades HR has been relegated as a nice to have, we’re seeing a major shift with concerns over talent attraction, employee engagement and turnover becoming key concerns across organizations. This has made way for the development of a new C-level position, finally putting HR in a key decision-making role. 

The Chief Happiness Officer, or CHO, is now a fixture in big name companies including Google, Amazon and SAP. Essentially an HR Manager, the focus of this new title is to maximize and stimulate the happiness and job satisfaction of all employees within an organization. With individual coaching, you can train up this individual who can go on to encourage professional and personal growth, give employees a voice, and make sure that company values are promoted and upheld.

While it may not sound revolutionary, the difference is that, as a member of the executive level, the CHO has secured a very important seat at the big table for HR and its initiatives. If you already have a CHO, they would be the perfect candidate to promote and get your workplace wellness program off the ground. If not, it’s time to consider making a change.

Workplace wellness in a nutshell

With the continuation of the pandemic into 2021, the potential for increasing levels of work stress are high. Now, more than ever, is the time to begin implementing workplace wellness strategies. And this need isn’t just coming from external factors. There is also increasing demand for a holistic approach to health from younger generations of workers and HR experts.

And it’s not just because there is a demand from employees, investing in increasing happiness in the workplace gives significant ROI while sad, stressed employees will impact your business negatively.

But making these programs as effective as possible requires assessment in order to understand people’s needs, set achievable goals, and increase engagement. With the increasing authority of HR within organizations (as seen in the creation of positions like the Chief Happiness Officer), it’s clear that the department will play a key role in encouraging a healthy lifestyle among teams and thereby improving job satisfaction, employee engagement and the employee experience.

Finally, both group and individual coaching has an essential role to play in the implementation of workplace wellness strategies and getting organizations functioning at the highest level. Specific training helps with getting employees onboard with a scheme, demonstrates an invested interest in employees, and can develop key individuals such as the Chief Happiness Officer who can continue to focus on preventing stress, and promoting a healthy workplace both physically and mentally.

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Leslie Tedgui
CMO
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