Boosting employee wellness is an increasingly uphill struggle. In an age of intensifying climate change and financial crises, the satisfaction of our workforce has never been more fragile. And, as you will appreciate, getting this area wrong can lead to a flood of disastrous results. Burnt out employees, an exodus of talent, and scathing reviews on Glassdoor, to name just a few.
We get the struggle. And the fact that the cards are only stacked against you.
That’s why we are demystifying what wellness at work means, and how to achieve it. Without the fluff, costly away days, or pricey consultants. Just a no-nonsense discussion on how to realistically achieve a healthier and more functional workplace, whether you’re a manager or junior employee.
In short, this article will unravel what “wellness” at the workplace truly means, and help you make a start at transforming your own workplace.
What wellness is NOT…
Let’s begin with what wellness is not. Firstly, wellness isn’t the same as mental health. Whilst wellness forms a key plank in mental health, it isn’t the same. Where mental health differs, is that it enters a more “clinical” realm and spans mental disorders like depression or general anxiety. Wellness refers to a general state of happiness and satisfaction with the way things are going in your life, without any major barriers preventing you from living life to the fullest.
This means that mental health is best left to the psychologists and psychiatrists – the experts. Wellness, on the other hand, is a territory you can influence. Particularly in the workplace, where you will likely spend over a third of your entire existence. (In other words, it is important!)
What Wellness Is…
Picture this – You’re on the train to work, but suddenly receive a call that your child is sick, and must return home. But you head straight to the rescue, because deep down, you know that your manager will understand. You receive no text or call from your manager chasing you up. You return to work after two hours, take a quick coffee break to recharge, and swiftly return to work and makeup for any missed tasks.
How does the above scenario fit into a workplace that has mastered wellness?
Below, we will reveal what we believe are the five pillars of wellness at the workplace, and how examples like the above fit the below description. You may beg to differ, as definitions are inevitably fluid and context-specific.
As you read on, keep in mind that wellness is a two-way street. This will remain our core message in the remainder of this article. In essence, both manager and employee have a role to play in nurturing workplace wellness.
Working smart instead of working hard
See, working more hours doesn’t mean working harder. Nor does it mean more output. Productivity experts like Cal Newport and Tim Ferris have long dispelled this notion.
The answer is in the law of diminishing returns. The reality, is that the longer you grind, the poorer the quality of your work becomes. Tiredness kicks in, and it’ll simply take you longer to produce the same result, than when you are feeling upbeat and awake.
Even then, however, such “zombie notions” still live on in the workplace, despite their proven uselessness.
The answer is – hustle culture.
Unless your job is simply to pack mushrooms, you will not produce better work by simply putting in more hours. But why do we still find workplaces still promoting these 18th century ideals?
Today, we still find many workplaces passively promoting a “work till you drop culture”. What do we mean by “passively”? We mean that even if companies don’t explicitly command employees to work in such patterns, but that they either condone it, or don’t do enough to counteract such embedded working cultures. As a result, toxic working norms continue even if not wilfully perpetuated.
You may notice some employees will try to be the last one to leave (and walk past the boss’s office) just to make the higher-ups think they’re worthy of a promotion. Whether it’s a break that ends after the first sip of coffee, or an expectation to arrive early and stay until late, hustle culture is rampant in the modern office, and can have detrimental consequences on employee wellness.
Suddenly, burnout feels like a foregone conclusion. Leading to an exhausted workforce, a decline in meaningful output, and skyrocketing costs for HR on health and wellness plans, or “meditation app subscriptions”.
In other words, there’s no shame in limiting your work between 9am and 5pm and taking enough breaks to keep you alive and kicking. Not only does it pay off in the long term, it (drum-roll), boosts wellness!
The fancy term for this pillar is known as “psychological safety”.
In the words of Harvard Business Review, psychological safety describes an environment which “allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without the fear of having it cut off”.
And, according to a two-year study done on teams in Google, the biggest factor that determined the effectiveness of a team was “psychological safety”.
Whilst there are several traits that are needed to nurture psychological safety, amongst the key behaviours are:
- Mistakes and failures can be discussed openly, instead of brushed under the carpet
- Employees can take moderate risks, without fearing blame or punishment if things turn south
- Team members trust each other, and do not feel “on-guard” or threatened by any revanchist colleagues or managers
Psychologically safe teams are better equipped at solving complex tasks that require collaboration and creativity. Today’s workplace is increasingly featuring tasks that match the above description. As a result, psychological safety is a vital, albeit subtle, ingredient in helping your teams to succeed and progress.
Let’s look at this from a wellness front – Here, psychological safety will kill two birds with one stone. Firstly, teams that are functional and successful, are far more likely to deliver happier team members. Secondly, if employees no longer need to carry a load of fear on their shoulders, they have much more headspace for positive emotions.
Flexible to the needs of different people
Some would refer to this as “inclusivity”, but in practice, inclusivity requires adopting a flexible attitude towards people with different needs, backgrounds, or demographics.
And, whilst race or ethnicity are one of the obvious ones, being inclusive also means thinking about people with different life circumstances. Like single parents who must juggle work with childcare, or followers of a religious faith that may take leave at different times of the year.
Because let’s be real – work will never (and should not) be the only objective a person lives for. Whilst some people may be able to devote more of their resources or time to work, like graduates or childless adults, these will not always form most of your workforce.
One of the most neglected, ignored and forgotten cases in which flexibility is needed, by at least 50% of the entire population, is women on their periods. Sadly, and rather dishearteningly, women are expected to function as normal every day of every week, and they dare not mention anything about a natural and unavoidable trait they never chose! It is almost bizarre that it requires mentioning, but what’s more bizarre is that so many workplaces pretend it doesn’t exist, and thereby ignore a powerful lever for boosting the wellness of female employees.
Yet another example – is when ‘Happy Father’s Day’ emails are sent to people who may have lost their fathers, or may never have known them at all. In response to this, some companies have enabled users to opt-out of email chains linked to Father’s Day or other similar occasions. This is one of many minor examples of flexibility that have an outsized effect in boosting employee wellness.
In conclusion – Extending flexibility in working patterns, or work intensity, can make a powerful and lasting difference to employee wellness. And, as repeatedly proven by studies, the returns on investment are high, both on a wellbeing front and a business front.
Boundaries exist in two main realms – space and time.
The first one is simple, which involves respecting the personal space of every individual. In the workplace, this translates to providing quiet areas, rest areas or prayer rooms. In the era of hybrid working, it means allowing employees to tune out of meetings for an extended span of time. And that “quiet time” is an acceptable entry in one’s calendar!
Let’s look at how this works with “time”. See, time is a shared resource, and everyone recognises that. Everyone has a right to claim their “personal time”, but they similarly have expectations in devoting their time towards collective goals.
This is where the boundaries need to be clearly drawn for everyone. Questions like the below can help you in achieving this.
- Should employees be replying to emails outside working hours?
- Could certain hours of the day be reserved for private work time, to prevent the entire day being swallowed up by meetings?
- Do you have protocols in place to stop meetings from overrunning?
- Do your employees have the option to spend break times alone?
Again, most of us are already aware of many of these questions. The challenge is to look out for the subtleties and twists that are easy to ignore, and to ensure our notion of personal space is in line with a fast-evolving workspace.
Enabling professional development
Five hundred years ago, there was no such thing as “progress”. In the depths of the dark ages, people did not have the luxury of “climbing a career ladder”. Resources were scarce, and survival was the sole objective for many.
If you’re reading this today, you know that this is no longer true.
The possibility of progress has unlocked a new type of human. Armed with a new purpose. A purpose that usually involves making progress in a particular domain, be it financial, intellectual or political. This means that it’s naive to expect a young graduate entering the workforce to retire with the same job as their first ever one. The hunger to grow and break new frontiers is ever present in all of us, and it’s the same force that drives the world forward.
From day one of onboarding a new employee, make them feel as if they have much to gain and learn under your tutelage.
Obvious ways to achieve this is to provide learning and development opportunities. This can include access to courses, certifications, but also shadowing opportunities and personalised career plans. But more importantly, it’s a recognition that the above engagements are “part and parcel” of work, and must not be seen as secondary or something for your “free time”.
We can’t finish without a dose of “hard reality” – If you want to keep your most talented employees, pay for it. For the most driven and deserving employees, the promise of progress cannot come without a matching promise of a growing salary. The rest depends on how much you value your best employees, and most importantly, their wellness.