Healthy hearts and minds at work

The future of wellbeing at work in a pandemic-altered world

Health mandates and literacy can help address employee mental health—here's what else companies can do
The future of wellbeing at work in a pandemic-altered world
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Dr. Geeta Nayyar, is chief medical officer at Salesforce. As a nationally-recognized leader in healthcare information technology, a physician executive, public speaker, and author, Dr. Geeta Nayyar loves sharing her unique perspectives bridging clinical medicine, business, communications and digital health.

Dr. Aaliya Yaqub, is chief medical officer at Thrive Global. She is a Board-certified internal medicine physician and at Thrive, Dr. Yaqub oversees the scientific advisory board, leads the charge in expanding our offerings in the healthcare space, and champions an upstream approach to well-being with a focus on prevention and habit formation.

As employees return to offices, they’re thinking about their physical and mental health like never before. Indeed, a recent Pew Research Center study found that 43% of workers who quit their jobs in 2021 cited not having good benefits, such as health insurance or paid time off, as a reason for leaving. Additionally, the study found that one in four workers quit a job in the past two years for the sake of their mental wellbeing. And while nearly 40% of employees want their employers to discuss mental health in the workplace, only one in five feel comfortable bringing up mental health concerns with HR.

In our pandemic-altered world, where most people are likely to distribute their working hours between offices and homes, these concerns are only likely to intensify. The hybrid work model poses numerous physical and mental wellbeing challenges that employers must address.

Employers should start with a top-down commitment to protecting employees’ physical and mental health no matter where they work. This means making genuine, demonstrable efforts to protect the overall wellbeing of employees—something 37% of workers in a Gallup poll say companies aren’t doing particularly well.

Supporting physical health and the office for wellbeing at work

From a physical health standpoint, this means continuing to offer the strongest medical, health, and vision benefits that budgets will allow. But it should also extend to commercial office considerations, such as how to continue enabling social distancing in enclosed, shared spaces and implementing policies for keeping infected people away from co-workers. In some cases, employers could be required, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who are anxious or concerned about returning to the office because of covid.

Organizations should also consider that, with remote workers spending considerably more time in front of computers instead of strolling around offices, there will be even more need to help people stay physically fit. Providing gym discounts or fully paid benefits should be table stakes. Employers can also go beyond that with flex time and paid activity breaks so people will get out of their chairs and make regular movement a part of their work day. In addition, leaders and managers can turn virtual meetings into walking meetings using smartphones. And because nutrition is also essential, organizations can strike partnership arrangements with healthy meal delivery services.

Leaders can also encourage employees to recharge throughout the day with small steps that help build healthy habits. For example, employees can reinvigorate themselves by taking a one or two-minute stretch break after a call that ends early. Or employers can encourage walking meetings, helping employees unplug from devices and use movement to get their creativity flowing.

Keeping health literacy at the forefront of company policies

Health literacy, when done correctly, directs employees to the resources they need to nurture their wellbeing. It also helps reaffirm a company’s commitment to its employees. And it positions employers as credible sources of wellness information, especially when chief medical officers are there to shape the guidance.

Health literacy programs—backed by science and expertise—can also help combat the increasing barrage of misinformation and disinformation that often prevents people from helping themselves.

A mental health mandate for employers

Committing to employees’ mental health and wellbeing ensures everyone stays engaged and productive. And due to the difficulty employers continue to have finding and retaining top talent, committing to employee mental health can be a very effective strategy for keeping valued workers around long term. But it’s still the case that most employees feel their employers aren’t adequately stepping up on mental health. A recent HRD America survey found only 41% of employees believe their employer supports their mental health, and 55% say they haven’t used employer-provided mental health benefits.

In addition to health literacy and prioritizing their employees’ physical wellbeing, employers should also play a significant role in maintaining the mental health of their employees. With more people working from home since the pandemic began, studies show that nearly two-thirds of remote workers sometimes feel isolated or lonely, and 17% feel that way all the time. And according to the World Health Organization, in the first year of the pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression shot up 25%. Organizations can do more to help employees manage these mental and emotional challenges. Making sure medical benefits include support for therapy visits is the baseline.

Mental health also needs to be integrated into corporate culture and policy. Executives should evangelize and ensure their employees see them setting work-life boundaries in their own lives. For example, making it clear that sending and replying to off-hours emails is discouraged. Or making sure that no-meeting days don’t end up with meetings sneaking onto the calendar. No more expecting employees to work during lunch at their desks every day. And no more disparaging colleagues who block time on their calendars for the gym, doctor’s appointments, focus time, or family time.

Failure to address employee mental health issues can also become a legal problem for organizations. For example, Bloomberg Law reports that nearly 30% of ADA-related charges reported to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2021 involved mental health issues. Moreover, the journal predicts this number will likely increase as more employees return to the office.

And, just as with physical health, employees can prioritize their mental health with habit stacking—or creating a new healthy habit by adding it to an existing one. In addition, employers can encourage their employees to add the power of gratitude to their lives by thinking of things they’re grateful for as they do small tasks like washing their hands. Finally, employers can also create mutual networks of support and community by encouraging employees to partner with wellbeing buddies and check in with them regularly.

The opportunity for companies to better support mental health

Covid has demonstrated that organizations are only as resilient as their people. To thrive in a pandemic-altered world, businesses must invest in and commit to wellbeing in ways that go beyond preferred provider organizations and ping-pong tables. Going further, they must understand that employee wellbeing isn’t just a perk or a benefit but an essential strategy for success. Wellbeing cannot simply be written into the company’s HR policies—it must be embedded directly into the daily workflow and company culture. Hence, people feel connected, empowered, and supported as they navigate a workplace that will continue to be defined by uncertainty and change.

If businesses do that, they can survive and thrive—no matter what challenges lie ahead.