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The Does Workplace Wellness Work Conundrum

By Kim A. Hauge, PHR, SHRM-CP, CWP, Director Employee Wellness, Kent State University

Kim A. Hauge, PHR, SHRM-CP, CWP, Director Employee Wellness, Kent State University

There is no doubt that focus on employee wellbeing in the workplace raises eyebrows for a variety of reasons and often much debate. The debates often are around, does workplace wellness work?  To this I ask, what does “work” mean to you as it relates to improving employee wellbeing?

Professionals in the field of employee wellness understand that wellness is not just about improving the physical wellbeing of the population.  When looking at a population’s health, we must take into consideration matters such as social determinants that may influence the health of a populationat any time in the lifespan. Workplace wellness should not just be about achieving 10,000 steps a day or eating sufficient amounts of fruits and vegetables. This isn’t to say that physical movement and eating healthy isn’t an important factor to overall wellbeing. However, wellbeing, has much more depth and breadth to it. For instance, if we are financially struggling and dealing with a parent with dementia and a chronically ill child, chances are one doesn’t much care about the step goals for the week. A workplace wellness program MUST understand these types of real-life encounters that employees are dealing with, or could be dealing with, at any given time and how can we help them to navigate through.

"Measures can be taken to help build skills that help combat chronic stress, anxiety and depression. For instance, research tells us that building resiliency skills, practicing gratitude and mindfulness helps to support mental health, aids in recovery, and in sustaining improved mental health"

And although sometimes an uncomfortable topic, we must make mental health part and parcel of any workplace wellbeing program. The stigma around depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders is real and often prevents employees and others from seeking treatment. The data is readily available and supports the need to make mental health a focal point of any workplace wellness program. One in 5 adults will experience a diagnosable mental illness in a given year. Depression is one of the most common mental disorders. Globally, more than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression andis the leading cause of disability worldwide and is a contributor to other chronic disease, such as heart disease and diabetes. The facts simply tell the story of why we must include mental health as an integral part of any workplace wellness initiative.

So, let’s revisit the conundrum. Does workplace wellness work? Does your workplace wellness initiative address mental health in the workplace? Have you provided education around signs and symptoms? Have you coached management in recognizing signs and symptoms of depression and other mental health disorders? Are frontline supervisors able to listen empathetically and serve as a resource to an employeein need of assistance, such as referring to an employee assistance program or other helpful resources? Have employees been educated to identify signs and symptoms within themselves that may be indicators of stress, anxiety or depression and do they know how to self-refer to employer resources that can support them? These are important questions all members of management should be asking themselves.

Measures can be taken to help build skills that help combat chronic stress, anxiety and depression. For instance, research tells us that building resiliency skills, practicing gratitude and mindfulness helps to support mental health, aids in recovery, and in sustaining improved mental health. In addition, providing opportunities for employees to truly feel valued by providing purposeful work, autonomy and an understanding that all work performed contributes to the goals and vision of the company or institution. This sense of feeling all work is valued, goes a long way to support employee wellbeing.

Leaders can demonstrate a caring community by being present among their workforce. Simple steps like saying “hello”, acknowledging a birth, graduation, or a job well done on a frequent basis helps to build that sense of belonging. Employees shouldn’t have to wait for an annual “Employee Appreciation Day” to be appreciated.

As a director of employee wellness, with more than 6,000 employees in a multi-site workplace, it’s important to communicate regularly and we do so through targeted emails and think thoughtfully how we can provide resources and information that reaches all employees. There are technologytools that help with this. For instance, we may offer a lunch and learn event on a specific topic, and have it live-streamed so that any employee can take part in the event from any computer or Smart device. We also will take those recordings, and place them on our workplace intranet for later viewing. When we engage with vendors, we insure that there is a mutual understanding of our vision of wellbeing so that they too are providing like messaging and seeking out electronic tools/portals that provide equal access to all employees.

So, in summary, workplace wellness does “work” when your definition includes workplace values that clearly address the needs of your workforce and you have set a supportive pathway by which employees can start or continue along their journey of wellbeing. We must understand, and value, that this is their journey and not ours. We also must understand that we cannot simply fit a square peg into a round hold.  You must do the work beforehand to identify workforce needs if you are truly seeking to support the wellbeing of that workforce. To offer things that are not wanted or needed and later wonder why “it doesn’t work” is simply a matter of not appreciating the culture and needs in the first place.  Spending the time to review medical and pharmaceutical claims, health risk assessment data, EAP utilization reports, surveys that provide qualitative feedback from your employees, are just some of the tools that can provide you an opportunity to bring in and/or develop meaningful resources that employees can benefit from.

Lastly, and most importantly, do not connect something you are doing in the name of wellness to punitive actions. Examples of this backward thinking is asking an employee to engage in something, such as a biometric screening, and then using that data against them in the way of higher contribution towards their medical plan or mandatory behavior change measures, such as health coaching. You have now just disregarded the idea of building a supportive environment and created a mandate of sort,  that will not be a value-added benefit in any way. Personal wellbeing is personal and that must be respected. This is where wellness gets a bad name and where “wellness” doesn’t work.

If you are seeking to build a supportive environment that helps each employee to flourish, then seek to meet that employee where they are at, respect that within them. This will build trust and an employee value-proposition that will attract and retain employees that wish to be identified with the company.

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