You Have to Understand the Past to Build a Wellness Future
We hear about wellness everywhere — why it matters, its impact on the bottom line. But why is it so pervasive now? At first glance, with the significant shift over the past few years to understand the employee experience, it makes sense to now fully explore the human wellness spectrum. But is there a deeper reason that helps us understand why this is happening and why we are looking for companies to get involved?
There is never just one answer, and of course, we are all different. But if we look at recent history, since 2016 or so, we can start to understand more deeply how recent events have compounded and helped shape our current wellness state. Only then can we better create a future that works best for our employees and for our businesses.
The Past’s Impact on Today
The past few years have held several major events that have destabilized us at our core: Challenges to our health during a major pandemic, lockdowns and isolation straining social and family connections, significant political polarization, major inflation shifting our financial security, job reductions, and both the retreat from and incomplete return to offices, which has also affected the structure of work overall.
Our basic human foundations — all the things that give us a sense of security or stability — were impacted in rapid succession, with almost no time to process in between. We were left with essential needs therefore unmet
Loss of trust: During the pandemic, many of us felt our ability to trust institutions was shaken. Data, science and basic agreements on defining a fact came up for debate. We couldn't trust news sources, politicians or even doctors.The most recent Edelman Annual Trust Index found a global loss of trust in our governments and our media outlets.
According to the Trust Index, business is now the most trusted organization — over government, media and even NGOs — which might be why employees are looking for work that is meaningful, empowering and growth-led. Leading with values and purpose has been highlighted so strongly because in the absence of trusted leaders in government or media, the only other institution that looms large in peoples’ lives is business and senior leadership. Therefore, employees will look for places that take care of them holistically because they don't trust that any other institution can.
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Loss of stability: For almost two years, companies experienced significant turnover as employees sought to regain stability post Covid lockdowns. Employees moved at a record pace, driven by their re-examination of their relationship with work. While career advancement opportunities and compensation were critical drivers of people moving, another rationale behind the desire to move might have been a search for stability. Changing jobs or careers and evaluating their relationship with work was the most tangible, immediate way many people could take control of their lives..
Employees are now reporting a greater need to prioritize health, well-being and family over work compared to before the pandemic. For businesses, there is a renewed focus on effects of performance, skills and work-life balance strategies to meet those needs, in order to stabilize teams and business operations.
Increased need for well-being: When COVID first hit, employees were sent home to work. Businesses sent home new equipment and adopted new technological tools that had to be quickly learned for collaboration and connection. New strategies, systems and technologies were launched to support customers, which also needed to be learned and supported. Employees became the center point of all this change, needing to support their teams, their customers and their businesses all while trying to manage impacts to their families and loved ones.
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After three years, employees are tired. Burnout is more than just workload. As employees seek to re-establish trust and stability to reset their personal foundational centers, they are seeking empathy and overall well-being care. With these fundamentals of human needs at the center, employers need to think of well-being as more than just offering yoga classes or meditation rooms. Well-being is about understanding the compounding impact of each of these recent destabilizing forces and helping employees reconnect to an unsure future — which must be done slowly and patiently.
The increase in employees leaving jobs for mental health reasons, including “stress,” makes these services not a nice to have, but essential. According to the HBR Mental Health at Work study, in 2021 there was an increase of almost 25% of employees leaving for workplace factors. Of those who are job searching due to burnout, 18% also experienced a significant personal life event and could not sustain their current role.
How Does Well-Being Impact the Overall Human Experience?
I have written before about the need to consider a complete human experience, and this extends beyond the programs and transformation of work. It means understanding the universal impacts, and leading with empathy to create holistic solutions. Taking the whole human experience into account also means understanding there are no silver bullets and constant listening and iteration is required.
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How can this work in practice? I have been working hybrid almost my entire career. In 2006 I had two children with early special needs and needed flexibility to take them to their therapists, special schools and other appointments. My managers at the time gave me special permission for a laptop and to work remotely once or twice a week — before video conferencing was even approved at our company! That accommodation kept me with the company for 16 years, because I never forgot the empathy and support leadership extended to me. I grew from analyst to SVP without my productivity or performance ever being questioned.The team thrived, our productivity remained high and we were all highly engaged.
Business leaders might feel that calling all employees back to the office full-time will instill a strong culture and provide overall retention benefits. There is definitely a significant good to allowing flexibility and encouraging people to come in as needed. It's the heavy hand that we need to be careful of. Company leadership must recognize what is behind the need for wellness, offering the tools to help employees take care of themselves and our evolving wellness priorities. Organizations will benefit by leaning into wellness now, helping employees secure their trust and stability.
Looking back at the convergence of events over the past few years, it’s clear why we need a deeper focus on overall human wellness. Wellness is about empathy. It’s about flexibility. About leading with trust and understanding. Recognizing that people react, work and engage differently. For companies to offer the tools, information and support that cover the holistic wellness spectrum is essential. But equally important is manager training. Manager support. Understanding workload impacts. To make wellness real within business, we should track how mental health affects core metrics such as productivity, turnover and retention. Ultimately, companies can help employees depend on the one trusted institution that remains and ensure we handle the next destabilizing force together, whenever it might come.
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About the Author
Tamar Cohen is the VP of employee experience at Travelers. She has been in this role for 2 years, where she is responsible for creating transformational programs that drive business value. Connect with Tamar Cohen: