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Well-Being Priorities: Our Perspective on the Evolving Well-Being Landscape

As we sat down to consider well-being trends for the coming year, we quickly noticed that this year’s list looked a lot like last year’s. Employee mental health; creating a culture of well-being; diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at work; and enhancing the employee experience – all of these will continue to be priorities for employers and we expect to see a deepening of employer efforts in these areas.

Priority #1: Normalizing Mental Health in the Workplace

Without a doubt, mental health is now the primary dimension of most employers’ well-being strategy. This is because across all generations and roles so many employees are feeling stressed, isolated, frustrated, or depressed.

Mind Share Partners research found that 76% of U.S. workers reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition (anxiety, depression) – an increase of 17 percentage points in just two years.​1 These feelings are even more acute among younger workers.​ We have also seen this in our own book of business: from 2019 to 2021 we observed an increase in risks for sleep, stress, and emotional health among WebMD Health Services’ participants.

What’s new this year when it comes to mental health is the acknowledgement that our workplaces play a significant role in our lives and most certainly affect multiple dimension of our well-being. And, importantly, that employer support for mental health is a now a must-have retention factor.

In support of the notion that workplaces need to be involved in creating a mentally healthy workforce, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek C. Murthy recently released The Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being, which explores the connection between the well-being of workers and the health of organizations.​1

In it, Dr. Murthy states: “Organizations can further normalize and support mental health while decreasing stigma at work by validating challenges, communicating mental health and well‑being as priorities, and offering both support and prevention services.”

What can your organization do to continue to move the needle on mental health this year?

  • Re-evaluate your mental health offerings to ensure you are meeting the needs of all employees. Just as there are many different mental health concerns, there is also no one-size-fits-all approach to treating mental health.
    • Offer multiple ways to receive counseling: in-person, video, and chat.
    • And, offer other types of support in the form of mental health podcasts, webinars, and educational materials.
  • Prepare and train managers.​ This is one of the biggest ways you can reduce the stigma of mental health at your organization. Ensure managers know how to have a conversation about mental health and can point employees to the resources that are available.
  • Take stock of your Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAPs can provide counseling and mental health referrals to employees. But therapists are in short supply these days, so be sure the EAP is setting the right expectations up front.
  • Create a mental health taskforce or Employee Resource Group. These groups can regularly promote the importance of mental health at work and raise awareness of suicide prevention. It’s also a place where employees can feel psychologically safe to talk about sensitive mental health concerns.
  • Explore external recognition. The extent to which an employer supports mental health is becoming a differentiator for job seekers. So although recognition should not be a reason to offer mental health support, you may wish to tap into organizations that recognize employers who do. The Carolyn C. Mattingly Award for Mental Health in the Workplace3 and the APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards,4 among others, offer a chance to make your well-being efforts known. Not quite ready for an award? You also can look at the award criteria as a roadmap for baseline practices you can implement at your own organization.
  • Most importantly, acknowledge that mental health doesn’t live in a vacuum. Mental health contributes to and is influenced by the social determinants of health; diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging; physical health; and financial well-being. So as you evaluate your mental health offerings, make sure that you’re providing support for other aspects of well-being, too.

Priority #2: Aligning Well-Being to the Culture of Your Organization

Workplace wellness programs have seen quite a transformation in the last few decades. Initially focused on lifestyle changes like tobacco cessation, weight loss, condition management, and increasing physical activity, employee well-being programs have grown to encompass so much more: mental health, financial wellness, social connections, diversity and inclusion – the list goes on.

And now we have another change happening, a shift toward a true “culture of health,” in which well-being programs will play a key role. This shift comes on the heels of the pandemic which prompted a reevaluation of work itself, and generated new thinking on what employers should be responsible for when it comes to helping employees lead a healthy, balanced life.

While many workers are returning to the office and some semblance of normalcy, it’s not like we can just pick back up where we left off in 2020. We can’t even call it the “new normal” because there is nothing normal about the unrelenting societal, cultural, and geopolitical upheaval we’ve all experienced in the last three years.

We’ve taken to calling this new world of work the “never normal.” And we firmly believe that for any company to succeed in the “never normal,” they need healthy and engaged employees who can bring their best selves to work in order to meet the disruptions ahead.​

The good news is that employers are uniquely equipped to help make health and wellness a priority for employees. They have the ability to create a shared culture and common purpose, and they provide the communication platforms, support tools, programs, and incentives that drive engagement and influence behavior.

So what are some of the hallmarks of a culture of health employers should be working towards?

1. Well-being as a strategic priority. Organizations with a true culture of health will prioritize well-being as a business objective, in acknowledgement of the fact that employee well-being is potentially one of the biggest contributors to business growth. We’ll move beyond just having a well-being program that lives under the tent of benefits to a framework that guides business decisions and is woven into the fiber of the organization and its culture. We may even see the appointment of Chief Well-being Officers​, which sends a powerful signal to current and prospective employees that health and well-being is a corporate value.

2. A sense of purpose.​ Research by McKinsey found two-thirds of employees felt that COVID-19 had caused them to reflect on their purpose in life.5 So, more than a high salary or unique perks and benefits, employee well-being can be enhanced by connecting employees to the corporate mission and giving them the sense of purpose and fulfillment they are craving.

3. Social connection and community. Seventy-two percent of employees say it’s important for them to feel like part of a community at work.6 Social connection is known to lead to increased happiness, better physical health, and even a longer life, which is why it will increasingly become essential to workplace well-being.7

4. A special focus on supporting leaders and managers. With increased responsibilities, turnover, and uncertainty, leaders are burning out​. Gallup reports that while stress, anxiety, and diagnosed depression declined in 2021 for individual contributors and high-level leaders, it increased for managers.8 Only 1 in 3 managers are emotionally engaged at work, and managers experienced the highest drop in engagement over the past year.9 ​Healthy workplace cultures will need to prioritize ways to support mid-level managers.

Priority #3: Making Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging (DEI&B) an Organizational Norm

A commitment to a more diverse and equitable workplace has been on our trend list for the last few years, yet research we conducted this fall revealed that over half of employees do not believe their company is doing what it takes to create a workplace that promotes DEI&B. The concept of “belonging” was most often called out as “needing improvement.” Moreover, four in 10 employees surveyed report that they would leave their company for a more inclusive one. ​

The extent to which our workplaces promote DEI&B is a significant concern in and of itself, but particularly because of its importance to the largest component of the workforce – millennials. By the year 2025, millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce, and this group will occupy the majority of leadership roles over the coming decade. They will be responsible for making important decisions that affect workplace cultures and people’s lives. Even as far back as 2016, 47% of millennials were actively looking for diversity in the workplace when sizing up potential employers.​1

While older generations tend to view diversity through the lenses of race, demographics, equality, and representation, millennials see diversity as a melding of varying experiences, different backgrounds and individual perspectives. They view the ideal workplace as a supportive environment that gives space to varying perspectives on a given issue. ​

So, if organizations want to hire and sustain a millennial workforce, diversity must be a key part of the company culture. ​To be sure, many organizations are doing great work in this space. But those that ignore the urgent need for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging run the risk of losing valuable employees.

What are some ways employers can continue to work on DEI&B ?

  • Build organizational capabilities and learnings at all levels of the organization through virtual classrooms, in-person training, and webinars. Focus skill-building on how to develop inclusive teams and leaders; our recent research found evidence of 50% higher team morale among employees who work for diverse companies.
  • Elevate DEI&B champions. Whether through an Employee Resource Group or other organization, enlist champions to help communicate, influence, and gain support for DEI strategic objectives and goals.​​
  • Continue to explore health equity. We addressed this concept in last year’s trends and it remains Employers need to recognize that an individual’s or a community’s history, environmental, social, and systemic conditions play a huge role in overall well-being and are directly related to how long we live; our quality of life; rates of disease, disability and death; and disease severity.2 Research shows that promoting health equity can benefit employee health and productivity, and reduce health care costs.
  • Consider more inclusive benefits. Many companies will address health equity for a diverse workforce by expanding coverage and benefits for neurodiverse populations and transgender individuals. There is also an increased recognition of the importance of making disability inclusion a key part of DEI&B initiatives.​
  • Support reproductive health. Employers are expanding fertility benefits to cover all types of families; addressing maternal mortality for under-resourced populations; offering doula services coverage for expecting parents; and providing stipends for women who must travel to another state to receive an abortion.

Priority #4: Evolving & Embracing the Employee Experience

Gartner defines employee experience as “the way in which employees internalize and interpret the interactions they have with their organization, as well as the context that underlies those interactions.”2 Essentially, it’s all of the individual moments of an employee’s experience that add up to how they feel about an employer’s purpose, brand, and culture.​ And, no surprise, it plays a huge role in employee engagement.

Against the post-pandemic backdrop of low unemployment and a talent shortage, organizations are trying to figure out what the right experience is for employees. As we mentioned earlier, it seems we can’t go back to where we were before or during the pandemic – so what will the right experience be moving forward? Every organization is different and it will take a lot of soul-searching to settle on what the culture is willing to accept to create the right post-pandemic employee experience.

Based on our own research and the work of others in the well-being field, we feel the following will be important components to consider in the coming year:

Flexibility.

​It’s safe to say that flexibility is a key characteristic of the modern workforce and has emerged as one of the most important aspects of employee engagement. Research by Envoy found half of employees agree that “having the freedom to split time between the workplace and home, and the flexibility to choose which days to come in, are just as important as traditional benefits like matching 401(k)s and paid time off.”3

And so we can clearly predict that hybrid work will become mainstream. In fact, Gartner recently found that if an organization were to go back to a fully on-site arrangement, it would risk losing up to 39% of its workforce.4

But flexibility is also starting to encompass when and how we work, too. According to McKinsey, “employees today demand flexibility tailored to their specific needs, whether it be work-life balance, physical and emotional health, or caring for family.”5 Blended workdays are also becoming more popular. It’s all part of creating a new human-centric model for the hybrid environment by designing work around what will allow employees to feel productive, valued, and balanced.

Fulfilment, belonging, and satisfaction.

A recent PwC study found that while pay is a top factor for employee retention, there are other, less tangible factors that are important to retention.6​ Three of the top four factors people consider when changing jobs have to do with meaning, belonging, and well-being. Only pay ranked higher than items like: “I find my job fulfilling;” “I can truly be myself;” and “My team cares about my well-being.”

Shifting from a transactional relationship to one of human connection.

​In the “before times,” the employee experience was often centered on “perks” that employers offered to employees to entice them to join the organization and, often, to work longer and harder. Things like unlimited food, nap rooms, ping pong tables, craft beer, free dry cleaning, and other gimmicks. Now that working from home is the norm for many, these kinds of “in-office” perks are no longer relevant.

In addition, employees now place a higher value on how they feel about working at the company and how much the company values them as people. Clearly, this requires a different approach—one that doesn’t correlate engagement and retention with extra benefits, time off (though this can be important), or a fancy office.

​What should employers be focusing on to create a healthy employee experience and enhance engagement?

  • Focus on a “human deal” that makes employees feel cared for financially, physically, and emotionally. ​ After all, it’s the people who make a company successful, and when employees feel like you care for them they’ll be intrinsically motivated to contribute.
  • Establish support “touchpoints” throughout an employee’s career journey. These can include regular training and feedback, career path discussions, relationships with a mentor, the ability to give managers feedback – essentially anything that makes an employee feel seen and heard.
  • ​ Recognize that personal relationships at work are a must, not a nice-to-have. Be inquisitive about people’s lives outside of work and foster connections through clubs, lunch and learns, group coaching, and community service.
  • Continually make the connection between work and how it ties in to the overall goals of the company, and the greater good in society, if applicable.
  • Prioritize diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging by funding employee resource groups and encouraging people to become champions.
  • Invest in your leaders to make sure that they’re well-equipped to guide the organization in turbulent times and also tend to their own personal well-being. The same goes for investing in talent. Turnover is expensive, and focusing on a positive employee experience can increase retention.
  • Consider the emotional employee experience. Connect with employees on how they think and feel about being a part of your organization through employee listening (focus groups, pulse surveys).
  • And, finally, it goes without saying ​but investing in employee health and well-being – in all its many forms – is a non-negotiable.

There is one element that is at the heart of all of our well-being priorities – and that is your people. People are the single most important asset in any organization, so improving health and well-being and creating a positive employee experience – especially in today’s tight labor market – should be a business imperative. Employers have the potential to play a key role in the creation of a healthy workforce by fostering an inclusive workplace culture, creating community at work, linking work to a larger purpose, and acknowledging and supporting the many dimensions of well-being that are impacted by work. If you have any questions or need help navigating the ever-evolving well-being landscape, visit our website or contact us at connect@webmd.net.

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