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Why all leaders must pay attention to the wellness of their workers

When it comes to physical and emotional well-being, companies must deliver the support that employees really need.

Why all leaders must pay attention to the wellness of their workers

The corporate workplace has undergone a dramatic makeover in recent years. Companies have ditched drab cubicles for creatively designed spaces that offer employees more control over their environments. And benefits such as flexible scheduling give employees more latitude on when and where they work. The goal for many companies is to create a workplace that keeps employees happy, engaged, and productive. “These are things that employees want for both their physical and mental well-being,” says Stefanie Spurlin, vice president of Workplace Solutions at Capital One. “And they’re strategies companies can use to support their employees.”

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In recent years, corporate wellness strategies have evolved to address employees’ shifting needs. Those needs run the gamut from permanent flexible schedules and the option to work nontraditional hours to mindfulness spaces in the office and access to stress-management programs. In Capital One’s annual Work Environment Survey, 83% of employees said it’s important to have physical spaces and workplace programs that support mental health and overall well-being, while 85% said wellness benefits are important when considering a new job.

Wellness strategies are good news for companies, too, says Meghan Welch, senior vice president of enterprise human resources and chief diversity, inclusion and belonging officer at Capital One. Focusing on employees’ physical and mental well-being can help build a more engaged and productive workforce. “When people feel that they are being supported in this way, it’s much easier to bring their whole selves to work and focus on creating the best products and services for customers,” Welch says.

THE EVOLUTION OF WELLNESS 

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Workplace wellness programs started gaining traction in the corporate world more than a decade ago. But those early iterations were largely focused on physical health—and on companies’ bottom lines, says Monica Worline, a faculty member at the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. The catalysts were troubling statistics on the health of the U.S. workforce and the escalating cost of health insurance. “Companies recognized that the healthier their workforce, the more they gained in productivity, and the more they could negotiate lower costs from insurance providers,” Worline says.

Since then, wellness initiatives have expanded to include mental health. While such offerings were seen as cutting-edge benefits just a few years ago, Worline says more companies are rolling out programs and services to support their employees’ mental well-being. “This year, with COVID-19 and an uncertain economy, mental health and care for employee well-being has risen to the top of the list,” she says. “It’s no longer viewed as optional.”

Capital One began moving roughly 40,000 employees to remote work in March. In addition to the logistical challenges of transitioning these employees out of the corporate workplace, the company also had to consider how best to support their physical and emotional well-being. On the physical side, Capital One offered benefits that helped employees set up ergonomic workstations at home. The company also offered additional coverage for virtual healthcare appointments, including mental health visits. “From new work environments with [their] added distractions to increased health concerns, feelings of isolation and juggling parenting and full-time work in new ways, we needed to ensure our associates could get the care they needed easily and affordably,” Welch says.

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A HUMAN APPROACH

Not all wellness programs are created equal. Some companies may outsource these efforts to third-party benefits providers that deliver cookie-cutter programs. Instead, Spurlin says companies need to evaluate various factors to build effective wellness strategies. “It’s really about focusing on your company’s culture and the holistic employee experience, considering things like employees’ wants and needs, the physical space, and amenities,” she says. “What are the benefits that will enrich employees’ lives, acknowledging their roles as both workers and people?”

Monica Worline notes that the companies that are serious about supporting their employees’ mental well-being have built their organizations around core principles such as providing livable wages, adequate health insurance, flexible scheduling, and paid-leave benefits. “You can’t support people’s full mental health if you underpay them or if there’s no flexibility if their kids get sick,” she says.

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Worline also recommends that companies train managers to help them support their teams. The relationships between managers and their direct reports can play a huge role in employees’ mental well-being. “Mental health erodes when people are treated rudely or disrespected or don’t feel valued,” she says. “If you can help middle- and upper-level managers know that caring for people is really important, that really helps.”

As companies continue to navigate the new workplace realities brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, physical and mental wellness can’t be treated as secondary issues. Companies need to consider wellness as a crucial pillar in building the kind of human-centric workplace that will best serve both employees and companies. “This is part of the evolution of how work is being done,” Spurlin says, “and how companies are infusing a true work-life integration into the workplace.”

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