Workplace wellbeing is as critical as ever, even if what that looks like has changed

Originally published in the Globe & Mail October 26, 2020

Well-being in the workplace has been top of mind for most executives and HR teams for years. From free yoga to gym memberships, mental health programs and innovative benefits offerings, companies had already been grappling with how to create healthier workplaces where their workers could thrive. Then came March, 2020. While the definition of “the workplace” has changed significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the need to focus on our own and our colleagues’ well-being has only increased in importance and expanded in scope over the past few months.

According to a research report just released by Josh Bersin Academy, health and well-being became one of the top four issues on human resources departments’ minds in May this year (41 per cent of respondents) and burnout became the top issue on employees’ minds (74 per cent of respondents) in July. No doubt these numbers are only increasing with prolonged time spent in isolation (or endless online meetings) and recurring waves of the virus around the globe.

As we have been navigating through the various phases of this pandemic, companies have progressed from reacting, where focus was mostly on colleagues’ physical well-being, to responding, where focus broadened to include mental well-being, and perhaps financial well-being, as precarity of employment became an increasing concern. Today, progressive companies are dialling up a strategic and holistic approach to well-being, which considers the interconnection among all three of these pillars, and implications not just for pandemic times but for the future.

These companies are seeing results, not just from an employee perspective but from a business resilience perspective as well. The research shows that companies that focus on all forms of well-being not only have the most engaged employees but also have better business outcomes. Companies that help workers take care of their families are 5.1 times more likely to achieve the best business, organizational and work force outcomes (financial performance, customer retention, etc.) and those that expand well-being programs to help employees deal with uncertainty are 5.2 times more likely to achieve the best outcomes.

The research found that 10 practices (out of 53 studied) have the highest business impact in areas such as financial performance, customer satisfaction, work force engagement and retention, and societal impact. Perhaps unsurprisingly, three of the 10 practices with greatest impact fall into the category of “health and well-being” and include: focus on employee health and safety, aggressively listening to the work force to define return-to-work plans, and creating integrated support for families and the entire worker’s life.

While these may seem obvious, they are not easy to execute well – they require a mindset shift in how we view well-being and how it relates to the ways in which work gets done. For example, moving beyond installing Plexiglas dividers and revising sick day policies to really listening to employees’ fears and preferences for how they want to work in the future requires an agile working approach and open-minded leaders who create an environment of psychological safety. These are new capabilities that many organizations need to build to truly adopt a holistic approach to well-being that drives business performance.

Based on this and an abundance of other research, organizations certainly have a role to play, and vested interest in, supporting employee well-being, but we need to be responsible for our own well-being at an individual level as well. Through difficult times, ironically, it is easy to deprioritize the practices that keep us healthy. These three practices can help us commit to and hold ourselves accountable for our own well-being, which also benefits that of our family, teams and organizations:

Adopt healthy habits: Whether it be eating healthier, getting more sleep or moving more, it is critical to build healthy practices throughout our seemingly monotonous days. I, for one, have committed to getting outside and exercising on most days, which improves not only my physical but mental well-being.

Connect with community: As Samara Zelniker states in her latest blog post: Community is not cancelled. Find a (virtual) community that resonates with you and commit to connecting on a regular basis. While nothing replaces in-person connections, and it can take more energy to connect virtually, the benefits to our mental health are significant.

Know when to seek professional help: While companies are paying more attention, and committing more resources, to supporting employee well-being, it is important to recognize that it’s okay not to be okay, and sometimes professional help (for mental, physical or financial well-being) is what’s needed.