Mobile apps, fitness trackers, wellness days, and financial health training – workplace wellness is a hot topic of discussion today. Across the United States, companies are investing in wellness initiatives. Additionally, major health organizations such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Massachusetts Department of Health have released guidelines to help organizations develop wellness programs.
Despite growing attention to workplace wellness programs, their overall effectiveness is unclear (see McIntyre et al., 2017; Song et al., 2019), and employees continue to struggle with adverse effects work-related stress, such as depression and anxiety. (World Health Organization, 2022). So what’s missing? Where do organizations fall short?
Key Takeaways from the 2022 Workplace Wellbeing Reports
We can turn to two recent reports to better understand where workplace wellbeing stands today and what is needed to move forward. These reports include Mental Health America’s (MHA) Mind the Workplace report and the Surgeon General’s Workplace Mental Health and Wellness Framework.
The MHA report is based on data collected from 11,301 employees in various industries. According to the MHA report, only about 35% of employees said leaders in their organization talked about mental health at work. This result is essential to highlight because leadership communication plays a central role in perceived organizational support and employees’ perception that the organization cares about their well-being (Eisenberger et al., 1999).
Research has found that if employees perceive they are at risk of negative repercussions from disclosing health-related issues (e.g., stigma, being perceived as weak), they will be less likely to reveal this information or ask help (Lee and Li, 2020). Notably, the MHA Mind the Workplace report indicates that less than 40% of employees said they felt comfortable using the services offered by the organization for a mental health-related issue. This could lead to ongoing or unresolved issues and lack of resource utilization. Therefore, instead of simply offering a wellness program and incentives for participation, leadership should focus on improving health and wellness communication to increase buy-in and long-term commitment.
The Surgeon General’s Workplace Mental Health and Wellbeing Framework provides a framework for how organizations can cultivate environments that support sustainable health and wellbeing. The framework provides a detailed overview of the five essential components of employee well-being: protection from harm, connection and community, work-life harmony, importance at work, and opportunity for growth.
Through all of these components and the findings of the MHA report, the importance of communication is evident. However, if you do a Google search for workplace wellness right now, you’ll find plenty of articles, blog posts, and videos with employee engagement tips that don’t emphasize the importance daily communication on health and well-being at work. In responding to the human needs outlined by the framework, organizations should discuss health and wellness more openly and regularly to improve employee comfort in disclosing and using supportive resources.
In addition to greater communication about mental health from leaders, the framework emphasizes the importance of interpersonal relationships among peers to improve well-being at work. Connection and community are related to employees’ sense of belonging and the perception of available social support. When individuals feel supported, they can cope better with uncertainty and stress (Albrecht & Adelman, 1987; Cobb, 1976). Essentially, when employees feel supported by their peers and management, they are more likely to feel able to deal with adversity and therefore cope more effectively.
Addressing communication gaps is the next logical and necessary step to improving workplace well-being. Organizations must recognize the opportunity to continue to build on what we already know about workplace wellbeing and recognize the value of strong internal communication and relationships moving forward.
Next steps for leadership
Learn from your employees. Organizations need to collect qualitative data to gain first-hand insights from employees to understand their current perspectives on mental health messaging and the authenticity of leaders’ dedication to their well-being. Organizational leaders must start with the perspectives and experiences of their own employees to truly understand what is needed.
This data can be collected through focus groups or one-on-one interviews with employees across all divisions and levels. After implementing the necessary changes, organizations should check in with employees to ensure that their needs are indeed being addressed. Well-being is dynamic. Thus, companies must continually explore the views of their workers.
Improving health and wellness messages. Management should also identify opportunities to incorporate health and wellness discussions into routine trainings and meetings to normalize this communication, demonstrating an ongoing concern for employee wellbeing. Additionally, organizations should promote regular peer check-ins to help normalize a culture that genuinely values workplace wellness.
Organizational leaders can encourage employees to share their experiences with others to promote a sense of unity and inspire others to join. Organizations should also provide relationship-building opportunities, provide skills-based training on peer support, and educate leaders to have difficult conversations and communicate authentically about the importance of wellness.
For example, internal communication should include messages acknowledging particularly stressful times (eg approaching deadlines) and reminding employees of available support or providing evidence-based recommendations for effective coping. However, it is critical to note that simply sending email reminders about a wellness program or services offered does not provide the relationship building necessary to cultivate a culture in which employees feel confident to be supported in seeking help. So, leadership needs to spend time with employees to regularly discuss health and wellness. For such relationship building, leaders must provide spaces to share their experiences with employees and allow them to share theirs.
These two reports demonstrate that there is more to workplace wellness than simply providing a program. Equally important is how the organization communicates resources and the importance of health and well-being.
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