After the trials of 2020, organizations are finally inspired to prioritize employee wellness. Businesses that are continuing to weather this now calming storm — or even those that thrived in its midst — are doing so because they are reorienting the day-to-day experience of work. They are turning toward supporting and nourishing employee well-being instead of remaining mired in a productivity at all costs mindset.

The solution is not simply adding wellness programs or other employee assistance programs (EAP) and considering that a fix. After all, five years ago, only 7% of employees took advantage of employee assistance programs. So unless organizations start with a mindset that supports the whole employee, embedding wellness in the bones of your culture and proactively destigmatizing mental health needs like therapy, the programs you offer will likely be ineffective.

Well-being and Burnout

Employee health and well-being — or lack thereof — is commonly indicated by employee burnout, which is an unfortunate and harmful consequence of overworking. A recent piece in The Atlantic laid out research by UC Berkeley psychology professor, Christina Maslach, who found that six factors cause burnout:

  1. Employee workload.
  2. Lack of employee autonomy or control.
  3. Lack of recognition and reward.
  4. Healthy versus toxic community makeup.
  5. Fair administration of policies and practices.
  6. No meaning or value from work.

Those six factors are not adequately addressed by providing employees with an extra couple of hours of personal time or a wellness app that is intended to fix burnout after the fact. The solution is to be proactive and holistic.

Start with the end goal of everyone leaving your organization as a better version of themselves. From there you can design systems and programs to achieve that goal.

Ask these questions:

  • How can you design workflows and cultures to unlock human potential at work?
  • What is a larger and more beneficial role employers can play in their people’s lives?
  • How can you make a positive contribution to employees beyond just a paycheck?

To answer those questions, organizations need to take a broader and more holistic view of the entire business, understanding that work must be infused with meaning and purpose. If you do not have an aspirational “Why” behind your business, the first thing you should do is some deep thinking. Dedicate your attention and resources toward the mission and the strategy necessary to achieve it.

By orienting the collective focus toward a shared aspiration and making steady progress toward it, you will do more for your people’s sense of mental health than any meditation app ever could.  Combine that with giving your people the freedom and flexibility to work where and how they want, alongside clearly defined objectives and outcomes that their performance will be measured against, and you are well on your way to creating a business that is well adapted to the new world the pandemic created.

The Aspects of Health

Health and well-being goes beyond a person’s physical experience. Good health is a faceted phenomenon:

  • Biological: Are people walking and moving throughout their day while working from home? Pro tip: Your culture can make it acceptable to turn off the Zoom camera and take your phone for a walking meeting, instead of using software to track your employee’s every move.
  • Psychological: Are we winning? Is there optimism? Are company leaders creating an inspiring mission and vision that is adding meaning to the work you are doing?
  • Social: What is the quality of connection? Are you having fun? Are you reserving time during the week for people to have deep and meaningful conversations that form bonds instead of utilizing meetings only to advance initiatives?

So, how can leaders address the biological, psychological and social aspects of health and well-being for everyone? After establishing a culture that supports the whole employee, focus on communication and connection.

Communication

One of the greatest detractors of mental health during the pandemic was the uncertainty of the future and the lack of stability that can create in the human mind. You will want to communicate early and often in times of crisis, via larger informational sessions, like all-hands meetings led by leadership.

But oversharing can be problematic too. Company leaders should discuss what will be shared, with whom, when and most importantly, why. A good guide for this is to ask, “Will disclosing this increase feelings of trust and safety among the team or diminish them?”

For one-on-one meetings, like those between managers and employees, do not just dive-in to work updates. Use check-ins at the beginning of a meeting. These small moments of human connection woven into day-to-day work experience provide certainty and stability.

Start with a simple question like, “How are you doing?” When asked with genuine curiosity in a culture that values truth and transparency, this invites employees to offer more than the disingenuous response, “I’m fine.”

Finally, share the good stuff too! Never underestimate the power of being on a winning team that has a sense of positive purpose in the world.

Bring People Together

One of the greatest sources of mental health strain this past year came from social isolation. Weaving mental health into our company cultures needs to start from a place of building healthy social bonds — a culture where folks are open, inclusive and honest with co-workers. That is not an easy task, given that most of us have learned to wear the professional mask to stay safe in our companies. The sad part is that when we are wearing (psychological) masks we are guaranteed not to be fully engaged. If we want to unlock the true potential of our people and therefore elevate engagement and performance, starting with authentic social bonds is a powerful place to begin.

Another key action businesses can take to limit stress in the working environment is to encourage social interactions and build community. It is important that the tools businesses give their employees enable them to sustain healthy lifestyles.

One example is called “Table Questions” that are designed to elicit storytelling about our own lives and perspectives. These originated as a practice where people sit together at a table and take turns answering the same question. As a remote culture, these can easily be converted to a Zoom meeting with cameras on. People laugh, cry and are often amazed at the rich and complex lives that others have lived.

These experiences are an opportunity to convert your experience of that product marketer or engineer you have only seen on Slack and Zoom into a dynamic human who had childhood dreams, embarrassing moments from high school or have even survived a deadly disease. We all carry a story and when we can share a little, we will feel seen and connected to our peers in a way that transcends our jobs. The experience of belonging is one of the most powerful pillars of mental health that companies are only beginning to realize.

It is time that all organizations do more to support their people’s health — biological, psychological and social. Reward better sleep. Encourage time off. Help people discover their own values and passions, find innovative ways to bring company values to life, destigmatize therapy and counselling. Treating people as humans rather than simply employees will not only help people feel more in tune with themselves, but it will also leave them more energized and excited to work, not to mention grateful for an employer who is actively supporting their evolutionary journey.

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