Can Wellness Initiatives Wipe Out Employee Stress?
Stress comes from numerous sources and in many forms, from the large (the economy, COVID-19) to the small (being cut off in traffic, a colleague who habitually misses deadlines). At work, too many stresses over time can build into burnout.
The Mayo Clinic describes burnout as “a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” For business organizations, such cumulative stress clearly spells talent risk.
Burnout Is Driving Talent Loss
New data from my firm, human capital research firm the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), confirms that talent-related worries (including attraction, development and retention) are priorities of senior business leaders worldwide in 2023. Our other research over the past two years found that burnout, in particular, is not only a primary concern, but is the leading driver of organizational talent loss (cited by six in 10 of more than 300 surveyed leaders).
Given the ongoing competition for talent and the need to retain — and support peak performance of — valued employees, many companies are investing in workforce well-being programs and benefits. And those investments are expected to rise in 2023, according to an annual survey of health insurance brokers and wellness directors. More than nine in 10 participants planned to up their spends in mental health benefits, while 77% planned to increase funding for stress management and resilience solutions.
That same research noted that spending on employee wellness by U.S. employers, which exceeded $50 billion in 2020, is projected to reach twice that amount by the end of the decade. There’s no doubt that workforce well-being is a high-stakes concern for employers. The question is, will investments in wellness programs eliminate the stress and burnout that threaten employee and organizational well-being and performance?
Related Podcast: Christine Maslach on What Organizations Can Do About Burnout
Companies Are Listening for Sign of Stress
The effectiveness of benefits programs to address stress or burnout hinges on multiple factors. Answering a few relevant questions can start an organization’s HR or well-being function toward constructive action:
- Do employees need such programs? Is stress or burnout a problem?
- What are the causes of stress and burnout in the organization?
- What programs or benefits are likely to help?
- Does the organizational culture support employee well-being?
- How will we know if benefits or programs are effective?
Obviously, HR and well-being professionals should ask and answer many more questions, but this short list introduces some basic considerations. It also underscores the importance of effective listening strategies, which can help companies gain insight into several of the bulleted points.
Many organizations rely on employee engagement (or sentiment) surveys to identify issues, including those related to well-being. Focus groups and interviews can enhance the quantitative data from surveys with qualitative input from employees. Those tools — along with pulse surveys, new hire surveys, exit interviews and other listening strategies — can help companies dive deeper to uncover causes of stress, crowdsource potential solutions, and help identify relevant programs, benefits or other interventions.
Effectively addressing stress and burnout requires that an organizational culture is grounded in the key elements needed to support employee well-being. Our Next Practices in Holistic Well-Being study summarized this as:
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“Creating an atmosphere that intentionally enables and supports all aspects of holistic well-being draws on and contributes to a healthy culture. Of particular importance is the idea of purpose (both individual and organizational), alignment of talent and business practices, and the active support and participation of leaders.”
How do HR and well-being leaders know whether programs and benefits they’ve chosen to address employee stress are successful? Measurement. That same i4cp well-being study reported the most commonly used gauges of benefits effectiveness are:
- Program-specific metrics.
- Health insurance costs/claims.
- Feedback from employee engagement/sentiment surveys.
Changes in relevant business measures (e.g., turnover rates, absenteeism, time-off utilization) can shed light on effectiveness, too.
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Organizations Are Expanding Flexibility and Budgets for Benefits
When companies apply listening mechanisms, the information received often points to varied sources of stress — the kind that leads to burnout — as contributors to employees’ discomfort. Examples include unrealistic deadlines, heavy workloads, understaffing, untrained managers, unsafe or disrespectful working conditions, toxic cultures and more.
Appropriate benefits or programs to mitigate stress must directly address both causes and symptoms. Some suggested interventions based on i4cp’s research include:
- Enhanced flexibility in where and when work is performed.
- Increased investments in well-being programs and benefits.
- Expanded virtual health options, especially those that support mental health.
- Greater focus on training and development of people leaders.
- Expanded employee assistance programs.
- Onsite access to mental and/or physical health services.
Can wellness/well-being initiatives completely remedy employee stress? No array of interventions can eliminate all causes and symptoms. But carefully chosen and implemented programs/benefits that are tracked and adjusted to ensure relevance and effectiveness are making real differences in organizations that establish and nurture cultures of well-being.
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About the Author
Carol Morrison is a Senior Research Analyst and Associate Editor with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) specializing in workforce well-being research. An 18-year veteran of business performance research, she has also led studies and written about multiple aspects of organizational learning and development, employee engagement, leader and manager development, the future of work, workforce planning, agility and resilience, and more.