Published February 19, 2021 by Archetype Solutions Group
5 minute read
“Wellness is more center stage than it ever has been before, and we are seeing business leaders throughout the pandemic embrace the fact that companies that prioritize well-being are going to win.”
– Sara Martin, CEO, Wellness Council of America (WELCOA)
With little advance warning, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged to upend life as we knew it, catalyzing the world’s largest work-from-home experiment. Leaders throughout all sectors of business found themselves having to revamp the way they directed their teams, communications, and workstreams. For companies with well-oiled, work-from-home policies, the playbook on successfully managing a distributed workforce had already been written. But for more traditional companies, the transition left many scrambling to implement systems, procedures, policies, and workforce cultures of health and mental well-being to sustain their operations.
We recently sat down with WELCOA’s CEO and employee well-being expert, Sara Martin, to share our joint perspectives on how the pandemic has impacted conventional beliefs about the meaning of workforce well-being. We also discussed the importance of leaders doing all they can to minimize employees’ heightened stress levels as the pandemic extends.
The Pandemic Was a Game-Changer for Workplace Well-Being
The global health crisis has placed employee well-being at the forefront of our collective consciousness, making health, safety, and access to care top priorities for governments and businesses alike. As a result, wellness is both more top of mind and more inclusive in its scope than ever. “Living during and through a global pandemic has raised some very important questions about what well-being is, and how to achieve it at work. From access to proper care, to social connection, to resources for healthy living, to basic physical safety, there are many factors that have proven to be advantages for those who had their needs met and detriments for those who did not.”
Throughout the past year, managers have had to learn to lead, coach, collaborate and inspire productivity through the use of digital technology and tools. Equally importantly, they’ve been called upon to create cultures that promote more trust, caring, and empathy. Much as Zoom and Microsoft Teams display the images of CEOs and interns in equally-sized picture boxes, the pandemic has the ability to infect – and affect – us all. Moreover, it has cast a spotlight on the need for employers to address the mental health and psychological safety issues in the new world of work.
The Advantages of the Work-from-Home Economy
In today’s reinvented workplace, “work” has come to be defined as a “thing that is produced,” rather than “a shared location in which it is produced.” Employers benefit from workforce virtualization in many ways, including greater cultural diversity among teams, access to global talent pools for best-fit candidates, the ability to create geographic-pay differentials, and the ability to slash overhead costs. The financial savings for both employers and employees are significant. For instance, Global Workplace Analytics cites typical employer savings of up to $11,000 annually per employee who works from home and $2,500-$4000 for employees who work from home at least 50% of the time.
The High-Cost of Stress in the Workplace
While the financial savings of the work-from-home economy are a windfall, several studies show that employees who work from home report greater stress levels than their office-based counterparts. A July report from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) showed that the average workday lengthened by 48.5 minutes in the weeks following stay-at-home orders and lockdowns across the U.S. in March. The report also cited negative aspects of working from home including isolation, diminished collaboration, and burnout. Stress in the workplace costs U.S. businesses $300 billion annually in lost productivity, errors, sick leave, and employee turnover, according to the American Institute of Stress.
Ginger, a leading developer of on-demand mental health care services, has also found higher levels of stress among workforce members since the onset of the pandemic. The company found that nearly 70% of U.S. workers believe that the current health care crisis is the most stressful period of their careers. Workers in the survey reported that they experienced the pandemic as more stressful than other major events, including the September 11th terrorist attacks and the 2008 Great Recession. Use of Ginger’s coaching services is up 125%, and its therapy and psychiatry services are up 265% compared to its pre-pandemic averages.
Why Health and Safety Must Include “Psychological Safety”
Wellness at work must include a psychological safety component that enables workers to feel safe from psychological harm. Martin believes that organizations that ensure meaningfulness in the work, opportunities for growth, and the ability to meet employees’ other basic needs are those that will continue to thrive. Organizational leaders must be mindful to create cultures of momentum, investment, commitment, productivity, and loyalty if they are to thrive, and they must also recognize the critical importance of leading with empathy.
Often though, the emphasis on employees’ physical health and safety has taken center stage, with their psychological safety relegated to a secondary role. Creating a psychologically safe culture for employees works to remove the fear from human interactions by replacing it with permission for everyone to present their “true selves” in an open, respectful, and trusting manner. Yet, many employees, particularly those working remotely, experience stress in being required to use systems that monitor activity and foster a culture lacking in trust. One potential solution is for organizations to sidestep the “big brother is watching” culture and focus on results, rather than on employees’ time spent logged in to corporate networks.
The Silver Lining Inside the Pandemic’s Dark Cloud
The global health crisis has accelerated a digital revolution in the workplace. It has created a new kind of workday and new ways to interrelate and manage talent. A recent study of more than 500 companies reported that 70% of the companies will continue to allow some employees to work from home once the pandemic ends. In addition, 65% of those surveyed reported that if stay-at-home orders were lifted tomorrow, they would not return their companies to the office, and 76% stated that productivity has either increased or remained the same.
The prevailing sentiment appears to be that the work-from-home economy is here to stay –and we may well have the COVID-19 pandemic to thank for it. A holistic workplace well-being strategy that creates the pathway for physical, emotional, and psychological safety at work is an imperative for businesses that want to succeed. “The core of a successful wellness strategy occurs when this groundwork of emotional safety is set up. Making safety part of the everyday culture is something every organization should be working towards. If your employees do not trust the organization, you will be hard-pressed to win their engagement with any wellness resource or requirement,” Martin stated.