Over the course of two years, we’ve seen the entire landscape of the working world change. Between a large-scale shift to remote work and a strong market for job seekers, the priorities of human resources have changed. Businesses are now struggling to keep employees and having a more difficult time replacing lost employees. The question for human resources is shifting from “How can we help employees?” to “How can we keep employees?”
Previously, wellness programs were focused on reducing healthcare costs and improving the physical health of employees. They were priorities that made sense for the pre-pandemic era, when employee retention was high and the focus was on getting the most out of the team you had. In a different era, there are different rules. Wellness programs now face a new need: creating a positive environment for employees.
The watch word of the day is “Employee Experience.” Employee Experience covers the factors, outside of wage, which make an employee want to stay with a company. In an era of competitive hiring and low employee satisfaction, the pressure is on employers to give employees a reason to stay. To do that, human resources directors need to understand the factors which create positive employee experience.
In a comprehensive report on employee experience, consultants at the Josh Breslin Company used statistical trends and case studies to build a modern definition for employee experience. In their work, they established the issues workers are currently facing, the priorities they have, and the pillars of what they call an “Irresistible Organization.” These organizations are those that hold onto employees while others see resignations.
In interviews with employees across a wide range of demographics, the report’s authors found a growing sense of dissatisfaction in employees. When asked whether they were “surviving or struggling” or “thriving” at work, the majority of business leaders reported thriving while the majority of other demographics reported “surviving or struggling.”(Josh Bersin Company, 11)
Enter: Remote Work
When workplaces transitioned to remote and hybrid environments, the logistics of working changed dramatically. A survey by Owl Labs found that 70% of full time workers were working from home. Businesses implemented new technology to coordinate dispersed workforces, and the result has been burnout. There are more online meetings, more emails, more chats, and more online documents. Employees feel more obligation to plug in, but less personal connection.
The report’s authors identify that employers are providing tools, but not using those tools to create a company culture that fits a dispersed workforce:
“…designing employee experience is not a process but a corporate strategy. It has evolved over time… and we’ve realized things such as journey maps, technology, and analytics are tools in the designer’s toolbox, not the end-all be-all.”(Josh Bersin Company, 11)
While digital tools, like Slack or Yammer, can enable communication, they don’t drive it. What drives communication is a sense of culture which motivates employees to engage with their work and with each other. From polling and case studies, the authors identified six pillars that drive employees to identify with organizational culture.(Josh Bersin Company, 14) Two of these pillars are worth special examination, as they are factors which wellness programs are better positioned to address. The Josh Bersin Company identifies these as a Positive Workplace and Health and Wellbeing.
In this context, a Positive Workplace refers to the variety of factors which make the moment to moment experience of work positive. In a Positive Workplace, the tools employees are using are helping them work effectively. Employees feel appreciated for their work and rewarded for success. Employees in a Positive Workplace feel they have flexibility in their hours and workspace, particularly when the needs of remote work make it more difficult to separate work and home.
While the concept of Health and Wellbeing is superficially clearer, it is a concept that has evolved rapidly in recent years. In previous decades, health efforts were focused on the physically catastrophic: health insurance to cover serious injury or illness and workplace safety to prevent on the job injury. More recently, there has been a shift to the idea of mental wellness: health programs which aim to proactively improve the wellbeing of employees.
The common theme in these two pillars is a focus on emotional wellbeing. The massive increase in resignations and job changes can be traced, in large part, to burnout. Employees across the board are reporting burnout, stress, and the general feeling of languishing at work. (Josh Bersin Company, 19) In a globally stressful time, employees have less emotional capacity to deal with issues that have long been bothering them. Employees are seeking careers which are sources of psychological stability, and that requires proactive efforts from employers.
The increased focus on emotional wellbeing has led employers to reevaluate the purpose of wellness. Previously, wellness programs were evaluated based on physical metrics associated with health: weight loss, smoking cessation, managing blood pressure, and similar metrics. These approaches have produced inconsistent results, and are often seen as burdens by employees. For many, expectations to change their lifestyle or participate in external programs are seen as more work. (Josh Bersin Company, 35) This goes against the principle of flexibility that is central to creating a Positive Workplace.
Despite how the goals and priorities of wellness have changed, wellness programs remain necessary. Companies that continued to invest in people, even during financially difficult times, were more likely to be profitable and retain employees.(Josh Bersin Company, 45) The question then becomes: how can we adapt wellness programs to better fit the new framework of employee experience?
This starts with aligning the goals of your wellness program with the priorities of Employee Experience. As top-level wellness goals have shifted from physical health outcomes to a broader culture of wellbeing, wellness programs need to make a similar shift. Wellness programs which only try to engage members based on physical outcomes like exercise time or weight loss do not create mental wellbeing or a sense of flexibility. With changes to their approach, however, these programs can be critical in building positive company culture.
The first Employee Experience goal you can incorporate into your wellness program is flexibility. In an environment where work-life balance is struggling, it is important that any benefit feels like a way to disconnect from an overwhelming work situation. This is the problem often encountered by traditional step challenges, yoga classes, or weight loss challenges: they feel like more work. Burnt-out employees will skip them in an effort to reclaim work-life balance and end up losing out on the benefits. With the right presentation and priorities, however, this is avoidable.
The importance of breaks
Exercise and wellness platforms do not need to feel like additional work. Particularly for people who work remotely, these programs can instead be an opportunity to disconnect. If your movement challenge explicitly asks members to pause work for a daily exercise, you’ll preempt the feeling that your program is additional work. Instead, you will be providing the way to “get out of the office” that many employees are looking for. This is especially true when you let your members pick the time of day for their break.
This focus on mental wellbeing is also an excellent way to engage employees through your wellness program. Communication which focuses on how wellness can reassert control over your life and schedule show that wellbeing is a priority. This encourages employees to be mindful of their mental health and shows that your company cares about them. This sense of connection is the foundation of a positive company culture.
As employees connect with your culture and see it aligning with their values and priorities, they will be more likely to interact with each other. This can encourage them to rebuild the social bonds which have weakened in an era of remote work. In a time when employees often can’t meet face to face, organizations need points of interest which members can build their connections around. A wellness program which embodies a company culture of wellness provides that option.
The previous few years have been a test of adaptability. The continued unfolding of the pandemic has changed things about office life, employee expectations, and work-life balance that we’ve taken for granted for decades. Changes are frequent, and it’s difficult to separate short fads and overcorrections from long term paradigm shifts. In an environment of great change, it’s important to maintain stability where you can. Keeping your team together is vital, as it means that you can approach a changing environment with people well versed in the fundamentals of your business.
The incentives to change your career are currently high. People are looking to hire, and workers are trying to stay ahead of changes in their own lives. At the same time, people are in need of points of stability which help keep their lives sane. It’s important to employers and employees that company culture provides a positive employee experience. Directing wellness efforts to these goals is a way to future-proof your workforce and business against uncertainty.