Wellness in the Workplace: What Employees Are Looking For

The concept of wellness in the workplace has changed over time. A century ago, it meant providing minimum ventilation to mineworkers and not hiring children to work in factories. Today, workplace wellness is synonymous with employer-subsidized gym memberships, meditation classes, and catered meals.

The evolution of the concept of workplace wellness is a direct result of a shift in the economy. When we moved from an industrial to a digital economy, workers became less vulnerable to health and safety risks and more susceptible to chronic stress. 

Today, mental health issues such as depression are the leading cause of disability worldwide. One in five adults in the US experience mental illness, a condition that leads to 200 million lost workdays and costs companies nearly $200 billion a year.

To address that, companies are exploring ways to support employees’ mental health. Often, this involves designing wellness programs that can include on-site fitness centers, yoga classes, healthy snacks, and even nap rooms. 

As a result, popular wellness brands such as the meditation app HeadSpace and the health and fitness tracker FitBit have changed their business models to accommodate corporate demand.

Where typical wellness programs fail

These offerings alone can’t help people overcome their mental health challenges. For employees with mental health illnesses such as depression or bipolar disorder, wellness perks such as yoga classes and healthy snacks aren’t effective, particularly where work stress is normalized and overwork is celebrated

“Company bulletins emphasize that these things are intended to offset work stress, and at the same time obliquely reinforce the idea that work stress is the inherent byproduct of being good at what you do and working hard at it,” a designer told journalist Charlotte Lieberman in The Harvard Business Review. “These things are often pitched as indulgent bribes to make up for the demanding expectations,” he added.

To make matters worse, there is little evidence that these wellness programs work beyond the surface level. A survey of 30,000 employees of a large US warehouse retail company found that workers who participated in a wellness program reported more positive health behaviors, such as exercising more or managing their weight. 

There were no significant differences, however, between those who took part in a wellness program and those who didn’t when it came to absenteeism, healthcare spending, or job performance. 

Another study suggests that corporate wellness perks may benefit employees who are already healthy more than those facing mental health challenges.

Considering the little evidence around the effectiveness of typical wellness programs, what can employers do to support employees’ mental health? Here are some approaches that have been proven to help.

1. Invest in mental health education

Employees need more from companies than their acknowledgment that mental health is important. They need to feel safe sharing their struggles at work and know where to go for help.

Financial services company USAA invests in mental health education by making videos, courses, and reading materials available to employees online. These resources address topics such as how to cope with overwhelm and how to manage stress.

“Through mental health education, companies can teach employees (…) how to build the vocabulary that is necessary to seek and offer emotional support,” writes Charlotte. 

They can also teach them skills to better support their team members. An example is the ability to “hold space” for a colleague who is experiencing emotional distress. “When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgment and control,” writes author and facilitator Heather Plett.

2. Create flexible workplace policies

Employees’ wellbeing also improves when they can choose when and where to work, says Dr. Jane Dutton, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. According to Dutton, flexible work environments make it easier for employees to adapt to mental health challenges.

Easy access to paid and unpaid leave is an important element of a flexible workplace. Employees should be able to take time off when dealing with mental health issues. They should know what the policies are for taking time off and feel safe doing so if they need to.

One of the best ways employers can let the workforce know that it’s okay to seek help is by encouraging employees to share personal stories.

Life insurance company Prudential Financial did this. They designed a program aimed at demystifying mental health treatment and removing the stigma associated with seeking help. 

The program involved broadcasting videos on their intranet of senior executives sharing their stories of struggle with mental health. Examples of stories included times when they sought counseling, took part in rehabilitation programs, or asked for support to transition back to work.

3. Cultivate compassion and show vulnerability

Compassion and vulnerability also affect wellness in the workplace. Research shows that when leaders open up about a personal challenge or own up to a mistake, team members feel safer sharing about their personal struggles. They also tend to trust them more, which in turn leads to better performance.

It takes more than nice perks

As with other difficult issues, mental health challenges are not something companies can “solve” through the typical offerings of corporate wellness programs. 

Although wellness programs can benefit healthy individuals, they often fail those with mental illnesses. 

In addition to making wellness perks available, companies should strive to better accommodate those with mental illnesses. This can be done through:

  • Investments in mental health education
  • Structural changes to increase workplace flexibility
  • Building a culture in which compassion and vulnerability are celebrated

What great examples of companies supporting employees’ mental health do you know?

For science-backed ideas on how to prevent burnout, check out Employee Burnout: What Employers Can Do to Prevent It.

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