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Why Workplace Well-Being Is the Next Movement of Our Time

Photos: Courtesy of Kim Thomas

Few things will define pandemic recovery more than how workplaces address well-being. The pandemic further exposed the need for systemic transformation to adequately support employees.

Modern American life revolves around work. We organize our lives around work schedules, rely on jobs for financial security, and more recently, see the rise of workers looking to their jobs as a source of purpose, identity, and fulfillment

We also know that work in the United States is uniquely stressful. Our nation ranks as the most overworked country on the planet, and toxic work environments, long hours, and eroding boundaries have left our country straining under a burnout epidemic.  

In response, employers across the country implemented wellness initiatives, expanded benefits, promoted self-care, and even started shifting to more people-centric models of work.

In fact, there have never been more resources to support wellness — from workplace initiatives to the $4 trillion wellness industry. Companies recognize the ubiquity of these challenges, the urgent demand for solutions, and the lucrative opportunity to step in the gap.

So, what drives the gulf between abundant resources and record-high, climbing rates of burnout and workplace dissatisfaction?

Contours of the crisis

Pre-pandemic data confirmed that burnout from toxic work cultures cost employers billions of dollars in annual turnover alone; discrimination and harassment in the workplace persisted; and workplace stress was making people physically ill. 

If a crisis was mounting before 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic; protests against systemic racial injustice; economic depression; natural disasters; and acrid political climate brought us into a full-blown disaster.

According to the APA, rates of anxiety and depression more than tripled in 2020. The American Worker in Crisis report showed that 65 percent of the 2,000 surveyed reported that mental health issues impacted their ability to work, and 40 percent reported feeling close to being or already burnt out. And in 2020, industry leader, SHRM President, Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP explained that “the workplace is more toxic than ever before.”

Despite our collective progress in workplace mental health support, our current best practices do not equip managers nor their staff members to navigate the spectrum of stressors facing today’s workforce.

Self-care programming, Employee Assistance Programs, and increased employee engagement – no matter how great – fall flat when the stressors are fears of job insecurity due to an economic depression; an absence of work/life boundaries; anxieties about coming to work during a deadly global pandemic; unresolved discrimination and harassment; a lack of access to childcare to remain employed; unlivable working conditions or compensation.

This nature of our current practices do not address and solve the chronic roots of our problems or the needs of our people.

To navigate the challenges of the 21st century, businesses must move away from wellness programming as a means to mitigate stress, and reorganize our expectations and policies to situate well-being as the foundation of our workplaces.

It’s a transformation from reactive programming to proactive, capable of supporting employees to flourish in navigating the ever-increasing demands of American work and life.

Defining well-being

Definitions on well-being vary, but general consensus agrees that well-being measures mental, physical, and social health, alongside people’s perceptions of how their life is going. It’s an equally-weighted, living measure of fact and feeling.

A positive well-being, however, is not just about individual experiences. It is also a measure of our environments, and the interplay between individual experiences and environmental conditions requires active work to produce positive results.

In their book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA, explain that wellness is a state of action that requires all of us caring for one another.

Their premise states that well-being requires a system that: deals with both stress and the stressors associated with being human; prioritizes an oscillating balance of autonomy and connection that respects boundaries; cultivates environments of mutually beneficial exchange; and makes ample space to choose joy in our individual and connected experiences.

Workplaces of well-being

Workplaces built on well-being will offer the employees the tools needed to manage their unique stresses and as well as operate systems that work to reduce stressors in or adjacent to the workplace. 

Consider childcare, for example. In the 2018 U.S. Department of Labor Report, 70 percent of women not in the workforce cited lack of access to childcare as the number one reason they could not pursue full-time work. Not only does this inhibit many women from participating in the workforce, but it also limits their households’ earning potential and income to live.

Families with young kids experience the stress of accessing a program that is near their work, affordable, safe, educational, and open at the right hours all for the caregivers to be at work during their scheduled hours. The stressor is a chronic, national shortage of adequate childcare options, in addition to rising costs of care. 

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This meets the family’s immediate need; addresses the larger, systemic stressor; and improves the parent’s ability to focus on work, which ultimately improves performance.

Childcare represents one of many complex stressors that workplaces could dig in to offer support & improve the lives of employees.

There is a lot to consider in and around the workplace when redesigning the foundation of a business, so the following tips focus on how to get started in substantive work, rather than offering a list of challenges to mull over.

Getting to action

  1. Talk to your people. Few experts- if any- understand your employees’ experiences better than your employees. Create a nonpunitive and routine space for them to share their experiences explicitly in regards to well-being both in and outside of the workplace. Use this information to create a real baseline and on-going benchmarks as to themes of stress or wins in your company culture.
  2. Commit to well-being as a long-term state of action. Include it as a key tenet of your short-term and long-term strategic plans, and allocate resources in perpetuity to its reexamination and upkeep.
  3. Develop a shared definition of well-being for your organization, and goals for individuals, teams, company policies, and the mission in regards to achieving your new definition. Do not be afraid to include your employees in this process as their participation will help create a more robust and accepted commitment to the new vision from the onset.
  4. Understand the inequities in your workplace, be open about addressing them, and explicitly make diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice key tenets of your workplace. Well-being cannot exist when a system disadvantages certain groups. Unequal treatment poisons the system, making any gains exploitative. Every system has its inequities, including your workplace; and before deciding one way or another- take a diverse group of your team members through an equity audit. Let the data tell your story.
  5. Set compassionate norms to keep the work manageable and inspiring. Building a culture of well-being almost guarantees exploring into topics that may unearth shame, defensiveness, and blame. This work, even though professional, is inherently personal, which is both its magic and its cause for caution. 
  6. Adopt a Continuous Improvement mentality when transforming your workplace well-being. Change management can be difficult, so planning, implementing, studying, and acting – or following a PDSA cycle– can help employers figure out what resources and policies are effective, and which ones are not moving the needle. Hence more resources and programs around wellness are needed now than ever before while stresses themselves continue to rise.
  7. Hire outside experts to facilitate the process. Sometimes, trained third-party experts offer an objectivity that people in the organization cannot. It can also help employers drive buy-in by showing commitment via resources, and leveraging the credibility of the expert to foreshadow results.

Successfully leading a transformation of this magnitude requires strategic planning-level effort and then some as it delves into domains adjacent to work as well. The effort required may seem time-consuming or costly, and this is not an outlandish reaction. 

Why the workplace?

Opponents to the well-being movement in the workplace argue that people need to keep their personal and professional lives separate. There is merit in expecting individuals to recognize and proactively meet their personal needs. 

These expectations alone, however, miss the fact that people are not able to perfectly compartmentalize stress, especially when enduring chronic stressors. We have clear data from industry experts like the Society for Human Resource Management that unambiguously declares that employees bring the stresses of life into the workplace and vice versa. This also incorrectly assumes the stress levels of every employee is manageable on its own, and the aforementioned childcare example alone disproves that assumption. 

Expecting every employee to fend for themselves or rely on inadequate wellness programming is akin to drilling a hole in a lifeboat and hoping each of your employees brought buckets with them to bail out the water on the way to shore. In other words, unsettling survival odds.

As our country grapples with who we will be as we rebuild from the pandemic and dig deep into our values on the political stage, there is no better opportunity for the business community to redesign its organizations and advocate for well-being. The hope moving forward is that it does not take another pandemic of national crisis to shake the cloak of avoidance and get employees the help they deserve.

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