Personal Development

Employee Wellness – The Answer to Countering Job Stress

People are more stressed and burned out than ever before. Companies that protect the physical, mental, and financial well-being of their employees not only gain a healthier workforce but also business success.

Employee Wellness – The Answer to Countering Job Stress
Editorial Team
April 7, 2022
Employee Wellness – The Answer to Countering Job Stress

Employee wellness has become less of a buzzword and more of a corporate must-have since Covid-19 showed the world just how deep an impact the health and well-being of employees has on a business. The pandemic took job stress to new heights as employees juggled the demands of their work with health, child care, and financial concerns. Many of them eventually gave in to anxiety, depression, and burnout.

The American Psychological Association’s (APA) Stress in America survey says people in the United States experienced their highest levels of stress in 2021, as the pandemic completed a year. This stress manifested in behavioral changes like increased alcohol consumption and disruptions in sleeping routines as well as in emotions such as loneliness, sadness, and anger. One in five respondents reported a sharp decline in their mental health in that one-year period. Another 2021 survey, this one covering 2,800 workers from global staffing firm Robert Half, found that 44% of the respondents felt more burned out on the job compared to a year ago (the figure was 34% in 2020).

Stress directly impacts an individual’s physical and mental health and, as a result, their productivity in the workplace. By prioritizing employee well-being through various wellness workshops, companies can encourage their workforce to perform at their best. If they neglect to do so, they might pay a heavy price in the form of high levels of employee absenteeism, lack of engagement, loss of efficiency, and turnover.

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Happy employees make good business sense

Employee well-being is defined as “the ability of individuals to address normal stresses, work productively, and realize one’s highest potential.” Failing to recover in between stressors (long work hours, the demands of family, etc.) leads to burnout. The World Health Organization recently recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” and said it is characterized by three factors – a) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, b) increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and c) reduced professional efficacy. In 2021, the US workforce reported heightened levels of burnout, according to the APA’s Work and Well-being Survey. Among the respondents, 44% experienced physical fatigue, 32% emotional exhaustion, 26% lack of interest, motivation, or energy, and 19% reported lack of effort at work.

Fostering workplace wellness not only makes for healthier employees but a healthy and profitable business too. Given the extremely stressful times we live and work in, employee well-being initiatives must go beyond physical health activities and commitments. A fitness center in the office and health risk assessments are all great, but companies can and must do better. These are the five elements of employee well-being that employers must consider:

1. Physical well-being

This involves preventing or curing employees’ physical ailments and encouraging them to pick up healthy habits. Exercise programs, weight loss challenges, standing meetings, and incentives to quit smoking are examples of wellness programs focused on physical health.

2. Mental well-being

This extends to addressing stress, fatigue, burnout, and other negative emotions among employees. Popular mental health initiatives include yoga, meditation, counseling, mental health days/weeks, and hotlines and apps offering support. 

3. Financial well-being

The idea is to help employees manage their money more efficiently. Many companies now offer workshops that teach employees how to budget, invest, or plan for their retirement.

4. Social well-being

A fairly new entrant, social well-being is all about incorporating a sense of belonging in employees, whether it is by fostering a culture of inclusion or by helping team members form meaningful work relationships.

5. Career well-being

This is about making sure that your employees like what they do every day, feel valued, and are satisfied with their professional and personal growth. In PwC’s Putting Purpose to Work Survey, finding meaning in day-to-day work was important to 83% of participating US employees. Encouraging learning and upskilling, offering internal mobility opportunities, and incentivising good work are ways in which employers can promote career well-being.

Employee wellness programs that integrate all five types of well-being can lead to:

  • Engaged employees: Employee engagement hinges on workplace well-being. Disengaged employees are 61% more likely to experience burnout and 48% more likely to report daily stress.
  • Productive employees: Wellness directly impacts performance and productivity. Employees who are ailing, stressed, or unhappy regularly underperform, are more likely to be absent, or might just be at work watching the clock but not really working (a phenomenon called presenteeism). According to health care provider Optum’s Wellness in the Workplace study, 79% of employers say they offer wellness programs to improve absenteeism and presenteeism.
  • Low turnover: The Optum study also says 78% of companies offer wellness programs to attract and retain talent. Wellness programs improve retention because they show that employers value their employees and are committed to their overall well-being. This also makes the company attractive to job seekers.
  • Better work culture: When organizations commit to supporting employee health and wellness, this becomes part of their culture. They are naturally seen as a great place to work. Companies that prioritized wellness saw a 33% jump in employee trust, according to a 2020 IBM study.

However, not all employers are going about their employee wellness programs the right way. The IBM study reported a significant discord between employers and employees on the effectiveness of the programs – 80% of employers said they were supporting the physical and emotional health of their workforce but only 46% of employees said they felt that support. Worse, a University of Chicago-Harvard study that rigorously followed one US company’s wellness program for three years found no significant improvement in employee health or reduction in the company’s healthcare spending.

Employee wellness: 7 best practices

That’s not to say that employers aren’t reaping the benefits of investing in employee health and wellness. Based on the experiences of successful companies, here are seven best practices that suit businesses of all sizes:

1. Workplace autonomy

Having greater control over one’s job builds motivation and job satisfaction. It also improves performance and makes employees more invested in their success and that of their company. On the other hand, low job control impacts both mental and physical health (it increases risk of diabetes and heart disease, for example). To improve workplace autonomy, employers and managers can encourage employees to take up new tasks, solve problems, and make certain decisions on their own. They can also offer wellness workshops that are designed to improve employees’ critical thinking abilities or give them decision-making power.  

2. Flexibility

Giving people the freedom to choose their work hours and/or location is a great stress-reliever, especially if they happen to be working parents dealing with young children or taking care of elderly parents. Workplace flexibility is doable because most companies have some workers who don’t have to stick to a nine-to-five kind of day. Employers can offer these employees varied starting and stopping times and the freedom to work remotely. Remote work has been a huge success with many studies showing that people can be as productive and focused working from home as they are working on-site. Furthermore, employees with the flexibility to work from home are happier and stay with their companies longer than their in-office peers, says one study. Let’s not forget that workplace flexibility was a major demand of people leaving the workforce during the Great Resignation. Employers have woken up to the benefits of workplace flexibility with 70% of the attendants at Forbes’ Future Workplace Virtual Summit saying they were offering their employees this option.

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3. Stable schedules

Employees with erratic work schedules struggle to fulfill their family responsibilities and manage their personal lives, making them more susceptible to stress and burnout. They also suffer from poor sleep quality, according to one study. Just-in-time and on-call scheduling – when workers receive their schedules and have their shifts changed or canceled on short notice – has long been a problem for frontline workers in the service sector. Employers might argue that irregular schedules are inevitable due to the volatility of certain businesses. But a study at three Gap stores in the San Francisco Bay Area by researchers from various universities showed that offering stable schedules is not only possible but also profitable to businesses. During the study period, stable scheduling not only led to a 7% increase in sales but also improved employee productivity by 5%. Some ways of ending schedule unpredictability are increasing the advance notice for employees’ schedules from one or two days to a week or more, and banning on-call shifts.

4. Financial guidance

Finances are the main cause of employee stress, says PwC’s 2021 Employee Financial Well-being Survey. And the pandemic has aggravated people’s financial stress through job loss, reduced incomes, and surging debt. More employees considered filing for bankruptcy protection in 2021 than in the 10 years before, says the PwC study. An important first step to making sure your employees aren’t stressed and distracted at work due to money constraints at home is to treat their personal struggles with empathy. Employers must follow up on this with more concrete measures, such as health and wellness training that teaches employees how to save more from their income, make their retirement savings last, plan elder care costs, balance competing financial goals, and so on. A wellness program can be considered a success when employees learn these extremely useful life skills.

5. Work-life integration

Employees with children are more likely than non-parents to miss work due to burnout symptoms, says a McKinsey study. The majority of working parents experiencing burnout are also more likely to lose trust in their employers and believe that they prioritize productivity over employees’ mental health. Employees who fill caregiving roles at home have unique challenges that require their employers’ understanding. Furthermore, the pandemic has merged peoples’ professional and personal lives, turning homes into offices. Work-life integration – which blends personal and professional responsibilities in a way that promotes happiness on both fronts – has never been as important as it is today. Many of the millions who quit their jobs in the past year did so because they did not want to choose between success in their careers and success in their personal lives. They wanted both. According to organizational psychologist Adam Grant, people previously planned their lives around their work but they now want to start organizing their work around their lives. If a company sincerely wishes to ease the job stress of employees who are parents and make work-life integration a part of company culture, its leaders must take the lead. Managers can encourage their team members to take their vacation time and spend some quality time with their families, for example. Or, they can discourage employees from coming in early or working late. As many companies are now doing, employers can also offer wellness programs that cater specifically to parents – on-site child care services, homework hotlines for older children, lunch-and-learns with admission and scholarship experts, and employee resource groups for working parents. It’s important that these wellness initiatives are inclusive of all family situations, such as single parents, same-sex couples, adoptive and foster parents, even grandparents who are caregivers to their grandchildren.

6. Mental health

While more and more people are talking about mental health in the workplace, it is also true that mental health challenges are increasing among employees, especially younger workers and historically underrepresented groups. According to Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report, 81% of Gen Zers and 68% of Millennials quit their jobs for mental health reasons while 91% of those surveyed wanted mental health to be a part of company culture. The study cited poor communication practices, monotonous work, workaholic culture, and lack of work-life integration as some factors that negatively impacted mental health at work. In recent years, many companies have realized the importance of employee mental health and made progress on this front. The Mind Share Partners study reported 54% of respondents as saying that their companies placed mental health above other priorities, up from 41% in 2019. Research by Gartner suggests that even before the pandemic, 45% of wellness budget increases went to mental well-being programs. How can employers improve employees’ emotional well-being? Effective methods employers can explore include destigmatizing mental health and starting meaningful conversations on the subject, performing regular check-ins with employees and asking them how they are coping, investing in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts (because there is a direct correlation between mental health and DE&I), and having leaders become workplace allies to their team members.

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7. Managerial support

As with any corporate program, a wellness program rises and falls with its leaders. Given that “lack of manager support” is one of the top five causes of workplace burnout, companies must encourage and train their managers and team leaders to follow practices that directly improve workplace well-being. These include listening attentively to team members’ concerns, making sure their voices are heard and their opinions welcomed, giving them honest feedback on their work and recognition and rewards for a job well done. Good managers encourage teamwork, which is crucial to the social and community well-being of employees. At the same time, companies must remember that managers often suffer higher rates of burnout and stress than other employees as they are stuck between managing their teams and fulfilling their bosses’ demands. Their well-being also deserves attention. They, too, must be encouraged to take time off work and pay attention to their physical and mental health.

6 steps to a successful employee wellness program

Wellness at work requires strong management commitment, the active participation of all staff members, and some due diligence. Here’s how you can start a successful wellness program at your company:

  1. To start with, conduct a survey of your employees to find out what kind of stresses they are facing and what kind of services and wellness activities they are looking for. Ask them if they’d like to have the services on-site or if they’d prefer being referred to external resources. It’s important that employers take employees’ opinions into account rather than deciding on their behalf.
  2. Set up a wellness committee. Include employees who are passionate about well-being and can inspire others. Make sure the team has members from multiple departments. This committee can be tasked with analyzing the results of the survey, choosing wellness programs and their sponsors and partners, monitoring the programs via regular feedback sessions, and reviewing the effectiveness of the initiatives. The team should also be in charge of making sure that employees are aware of the wellness programs open to them, using as many channels of communication as possible (email, websites, notifications, posters, etc.). The committee should ideally have a fixed tenure (say, a year) to keep it working optimally and make way for newer and diverse ideas.
  3. Set specific goals and fixed time frames for each program. For example, a smoking cessation program can have the target of reducing the number of smoking employees by 5% within a year. Setting goals makes it easier to review the success or failure of a program.
  4. Make sure that the programs are accessible to all employees, both on-site and remote. If they need to pay for it, guarantee that the activities and services are affordable.
  5. Promote healthy habits in the workplace such as a tobacco-free office, eating healthy and on time, walking, standing up while working, and so on.
  6. Ensure leadership buy-in for your wellness programs. This is crucial to funding the programs, approving program-related policies and processes, gaining organization-wide support, and forming a link between the wellness programs and the company’s goals and outcomes.