While executives have long recognized that well-being is important, the COVID-19 pandemic brought home how significant it really is. Organizations suddenly found themselves called upon to prioritize workers’ physical and mental well-being as a matter of survival, as protecting their health and alleviating their stress became critical to operations. Work and life, health, safety, and well-being became inseparable.
Even before COVID-19, though, well-being was rising on the organizational agenda. In fact, well-being was the top-ranked trend in Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends study, with 80% of nearly 9,000 survey respondents identifying it as important or very important to their organization’s success.
Shifting realities: COVID crisis casts a new light on the importance of well-being
Against that backdrop, when COVID-19 took hold, the crisis cast new light on the importance of well-being and made us acutely aware of the consequences when well-being is put at risk. Many organizations took quick action to redirect resources toward making work safe and keeping workers healthy, for example by moving workers into remote work arrangements, implementing testing and contact tracing strategies for on-site workers, and establishing new programs for emergency medical leave, childcare and eldercare support, and physical, mental, and financial health.
As the pandemic went on, well-being remained paramount in many organizational leaders’ minds. Conversations about the toll of social isolation and economic recession on workers’ mental and emotional health entered the public dialogue and keeping workers physically healthy and safe continued to be a top priority.
Workers prioritize transforming work for well-being more highly than executives
Even so, there is a continuing disconnect between employers and workers when it comes to prioritizing well-being. When asked, “What are the most important outcomes you hope to achieve in your work transformation efforts in the next one to three years?” respondents cited improving quality, increasing innovation, and improving worker well-being. But improving well-being was the second-to-last outcome identified by executives.
HR executives were slightly more deliberate than non-HR executives about focusing on well-being as an important outcome, with 20% of HR executives selecting it as a priority, compared with 15% of non-HR executives. But designing well-being into work cannot be done by HR alone. The incorporation of well-being into work must be done symphonically, championed by leaders at every level and in every function if it is to make a meaningful difference.
Organizations can take a variety of actions to integrate well-being into work
Organizations looking to build well-being into work should consider actions, policies, and mandates at three levels – individual, team and organizational. And they should take into account five environments in which they’re designing work, including, cultural, relational, operational, physical, and virtual. For example, here are a few actions leaders can take:
At the organizational level:
Form teams based on worker preferences, working styles and personal needs
Embed well-being criteria in work scheduling, performance management processes, leadership evaluations and rewards and recognition programs
Design work environments to support workers’ physical, mental and emotional health needs
At the team level:
Model well-being behaviors such as taking micro-breaks or making only certain meetings video-based
Enable team agency and choice by allowing teams to adopt well-being practices best suited to their needs
Leverage physical workspaces that promote team collaboration and performance
Use new technologies, like virtual reality, to train team members to navigate stressful situations (e.g., interacting with a frustrated customer)
At the individual level, people should also take ownership over their well-being by being proactive and vocal about their well-being needs, checking in more frequently with colleagues and leveraging wearable technologies and apps to help master distractions, increase mindfulness and reduce anxiety.
The design of well-being into work is a practice that must be developed, strengthened and flexed over time to be effective. As work itself changes at a rapid pace, the ways that an organization supports individual and team well-being must adapt in tandem. It’s no longer about achieving work-life balance. The pandemic has shown us that well-being is not about balancing work with life but integrating them.
When an organization is able to successfully design well-being into work, well-being becomes indistinguishable from work itself, embedded across all organizational levels and environments to drive and sustain not only human performance but also human potential.
Jen Fisher is leading voice on workplace well-being and creating human-centered organizational cultures. She frequently speaks and writes about building a culture of well-being at work and hosts WorkWell, a podcast series on the latest work-life trends. Jen currently serves as Deloitte’s chief well-being officer in the United States, where she drives the strategy and innovation around work-life, health, and wellness. In her role, she empowers Deloitte’s people to prioritize their well-being so they can be at their best in both their professional and personal lives. Jen is a healthy lifestyle enthusiast and seeks to infuse aspects of wellness in everything she does. She believes self-care is a daily pursuit and considers herself an exercise fanatic, sleep advocate, and book nerd! As a breast cancer survivor, she is passionate about advocating for women’s health and sharing her recovery journey. Jen lives in Miami with her husband, Albert and dog, Fiona
Even companies with the best intentions can sometimes take a wrong turn when trying to do right by their employees. Damaging habits and behaviors can inadvertently get absorbed into company culture; and when this happens, it can send the wrong signal about a company’s priorities and values. One of the biggest challenges lies in finding the sweet spot between business needs and employee welfare and happiness. Naturally, you want a high-performing team; but not at the expense of employee well-being and mental health.
Here, we take a closer look at some common workplace conventions—and the ways that they might be inadvertently undermining your mental health objectives.
1. Having a “hustle” culture
It’s great to be productive, but over-emphasizing hard work and profitability can be a slippery slope to toxic productivity. It can lead to individuals attaching their feelings of self-worth to the amount of work they’re doing, and feeling like performance metrics are more important than their mental well-being.
Similarly, celebrating employees who stay late—or even lightly teasing those who start late and leave (or log-off) early (or on time)—can subtly contribute to a culture of overwork and performative busy-ness. Left unchecked, this can result in resentment and burnout among other employees who feel compelled to prove their own commitment to work .
A small fix:
Instead of celebrating regular overtime, try opening up communication about ways to include breaks and downtime throughout the day. You can support this with anecdotes about the healthy mental habits of people in the team (assuming they are open to sharing). For example: “Hey guys, Dave’s found a clever way to schedule regular breaks into his day around meetings!”
Also be sure to address long hours and overwork if you see a rising trend in the company, as it could be an indicator of unachievable work expectations.
2. Sending work emails or messages after hours
It happens to us all: maybe you only received a response on something late in the day, or you had an out-of-hours brainwave.
Sending the occasional evening or weekend message is fine, but doing it regularly implies that after-hours work is expected—which could pressure people into feeling they have to respond immediately.
The same goes for emails sent at the end of a working day with next-day deadlines (or, for example, Monday morning deadlines for work given out on Friday). These practices put a hefty burden on the recipient, which adds to stress and can contribute to burnout.
Now, it gets a bit harder to draw a line when you take into account the increasingly globalized world of work, which necessitates out-of-hours communications due to different time zones. But even in these cases, it helps to be explicit about expectations when sending messages, especially when you know the recipient is either about to log off or has signed off for the day.
A small fix:
If you need to send emails after hours or on weekends, be sure to add a note about how the email can be read or dealt with on the next working day. This takes pressure off the recipient and assures them that they won’t be penalized for not responding on the spot.
If you have a global team, it also helps to establish clear working hours for different countries, and to be clear about the fact that nobody is expected to read or respond to emails out of hours.
Also, no matter where in the world you or your recipient are, be sure to schedule enough time for them to deal with the task during their office hours! And remember—they may have other pre-existing work on their plate that might need to take precedence.
3. Only engaging in “shop-talk”
It’s easy to find things to talk about around the water cooler in the office. But take those organic run-ins out of the equation, and what you’re left with is often work chat and little else.
Working from home has made it harder to bond with colleagues. The natural tendency is to get work done and to only chat about the process, rarely (if ever) about other things.
This removes a big social aspect from work, which can take a significant mental toll on employees and affect their enjoyment of work. This is especially apparent for employees who don’t already have solid work friend groups, either because they’re new or because their friends have since left the company.
A small fix:
There’s so much more to people than just who they are at work. To get some non-work conversations going, design interactions that aren’t work related.
You could set up a monthly ‘coffee roulette’ to group random employees up for a chat. This can help to break the ice a bit and link up individuals who might not otherwise speak during work hours. Or you could arrange sharing sessions where people are encouraged to talk about their challenges and triumphs from life outside the workplace.
Another alternative is to set up interest groups in the company, to help like-minded employees find each other and bond over a shared interest in certain hobbies or things.
4. Only having group chats and check-ins
Big group check-ins and catch-up meetings are important. But group settings can pressure people to put a good spin on things, or cause them to feel like they’re being irrational or weak for struggling when everyone else seems to be doing well.
This could result in problems being missed and getting out of hand, which in turn can take a big toll on mental health and well-being.
A small fix:
Some people may not be willing to speak candidly to a large group, so be sure to set aside time for employees to speak one-to-one to a manager who can address any problems that may arise. It’s also important to make sure everyone understands that they won’t be penalized or looked down on for speaking up about any issues they may be having.
5. Not talking about mental wellness
Perhaps the biggest way your company might be undermining mental health is simply by… not talking about it.
Some managers may not feel equipped to have these conversations, or may not be sure about the etiquette or convention around holding these conversations. But by not broaching these topics at all, employees may feel like they can’t speak out about things they’re struggling with.
The result is a rose-tinted veneer that may be hiding deeper problems under the surface. And studies show there likely are problems. According to the CDC, 1 in 5 employed adults in the U.S. experienced a mental health issue back in the previous year, with 71% of adults reporting at least one symptom of stress. That number has likely shot up now.
A small fix:
Be candid about mental health and encourage people to share their burdens and struggles—especially leaders. You can help by actively promoting good habits like mindfulness and meditation, proper work-life balance, and reaching out for help when necessary.
By being more honest about struggles and mental wellness challenges, managers can reduce the stigma and create a more open culture where people feel able to admit they’re struggling.
As a company, it’s important to be careful about the ripple effects that even small actions—or, in some cases, inaction—may have on employees. The simple fact is that the signals you send may be reinforcing unhealthy habits.
That’s why it’s so important to be aware of deeper currents that run in your organization and to proactively address any harmful behaviors.
By staying aware and making a few small tweaks and behavioral changes, you can hit the reset button when necessary and encourage good habits that protect employee mental wellness.
For more tips on how to build a more inclusive workplace culture that supports your employees’ mental well-being and happiness, check out:
Is Mental Health important in the workplace? Tom explores all things related to workplace mental health, including mental health in school workplaces, in this insightful video. Tom helps employers figure out mental health at work. He reviews workplaces, trains managers and writes plans. Since 2012 he has interviewed more than 130 people, surveyed thousands and worked across the UK with corporations, civil service, charities, the public sector, schools and small business. Tom has worked with national mental health charities Mind and Time to Change and consults widely across the UK. He lives in Norfolk and is mildly obsessed with cricket and camping.
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