April 18, 2022

A holistic approach to employee well-being must go beyond wellness programs

Wellness has become a cultural buzzword, standing in for a holistic approach to health and conjuring ideas of yoga, meditation, and “remedies.” In the workplace, “wellness” programs have historically been driven by healthcare cost prevention. Stop smoking, lose weight, meditate for ten minutes a day to curb burnout, and let’s getcha back to work.

These programs often start with good intentions and, like most things, can be both potentially positive for one employee and deeply problematic for other employees. (Hot take: As we’re imagining and creating our new future of work, let it be one where employers don’t dictate employee lifestyles or have any opinion on an employee’s weight.) How leaders support employee well-being should extend beyond wellness programs as we typically envision them. 

While employee wellness focuses on physical health, including eating and exercise habits, employee well-being considers psychological and social health.

Bravely Pro Allison Wu started her professional life as an engineer in public health, studying Systems Engineering in Healthcare. Allison shifted from systems planning to individual impact because she found that “coaching is incredibly meaningful.” Allison sat down with Bravely to discuss how the difference between performing and thriving lies in prioritizing employee well-being. 

Employee well-being has never been more critical than in this current moment. As world events unfold around us, employees everywhere feel the push to continue performing while also carrying heavy emotional loads. Stress and burnout rates are still skyrocketing. We found that sessions with the primary topic of stress or burnout have risen from 4% in 2019 to 23% in 2020. They’ve started to trend downward, with 21% in 2021, but now is not the time to let off the gas of supporting employees. 

Download our Resilience Guide for tips on spotting and preventing burnout.

Well-being goes beyond wellness.

Allison Wu suggests referring to Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar’s 5 Elements of Happiness:

  1. Emotional. Gratitude is the mother of all virtues. When we appreciate the good in our lives, we have more of it. 
  2. Spiritual. We’re driven by a sense of meaning and purpose in life.
  3. Intellectual. Deeply engaging with material — a piece of art or writing, for example — has the power to make us happier and healthier.
  4. Physical: Stress is the silent killer. More than half of employees in the US don’t use their vacation time.
  5. Relational: The number one predictor of happiness is the quality of our relationships.

Try Allison’s exercise

Look at your calendar. Can you add events or reminders to your calendar to fulfill all five elements of well-being — even just 5 minutes for each? Encourage your employees to do the same activity and watch what unfolds. When we approach our well-being from a holistic perspective, we’re reminded of our shared humanity. Everyone we work with is a person, not a unit of human capital. 

It starts at the top.

A 2021 McKinsey study links psychological safety and employee well-being: “Team leaders are more likely to exhibit supportive, consultative, and challenging leadership if senior leaders demonstrate inclusiveness—for example, by seeking out opinions that might differ from their own and by treating others with respect.”

Allison Wu believes that leaders have an enormous responsibility to “do something to change the environment if people feel like they’re drowning.” Get creative and ideate alternative support methods besides “time off” alone. Time off can be restorative, but when it takes the place of addressing the root causes of stress, employees are left feeling more overwhelmed when they return to the same stressful environment. How can we proactively care for employees before they reach the point of needing recovery time?

Allison implores employees, “Own your own well-being. This is your own project, your own agenda. Go out and look at what’s available for you. Take ownership of the searching and the doing. People try to go too long without rest. Ideally, when crises happen, you have breathing room not to drown.”

Employee well-being starts with leaders exercising empathy and compassion, and continues when they contribute to the well-being of their people. We must continue to nurture the people within arms’ reach (even virtually). Our colleagues are our communities, and how we care for each other reveals our true values. As we continue to hold the vision for a more human-centric workplace, let us nurture each other and our work communities so that we all may thrive and progress forward.   

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