Employee Wellbeing: HR’s Guide to an Engaged and Adaptive Workforce


The pandemic has made one thing clear about the future of employer-employee relationships; humans are more than resources. Recognizing employees as human beings and showing genuine concern for their wellbeing is a central tenet in any HR strategy.

With that in mind, HR is now focusing on employee wellbeing through the lens of their recruitment strategies, work models, management structures, benefit profiles, work technology and workplace culture. Wellness can play a role in and feed off of all of these things and severely impact the overall employee experience if not addressed and maintained.

More employers are working toward a focus on wellbeing as a result of the events of the last year. A November report from McKinsey examined employees from around the world, noting that 62% of them consider mental health issues to one of their biggest challenges, particularly among diverse populations. There mental health concerns hadn’t fallen on deaf ears, as 96% of companies reported offering additional mental health support to their people, but the effectiveness of those efforts fell short as only 1-in-6 employees reported that felt that support.

In this guide, we’re going to examine trends in wellbeing, as well as best practices for engaging employees on wellbeing, building a benefit structure that supports it and understanding how HR technology is supporting wellbeing initiatives.

Wellbeing in Times of Strife

The pandemic has been a difficult time for many. Uncertainty around the future of jobs, the company and even the country have seen anxiety levels rise to unhealthy highs. And the cost of not addressing issues such as mental health have been estimated to be in the billions for businesses.

This is not the first crisis that much of the workforce has seen, with many having been a part of it through 9/11, the Great Recession and the political instability of the last five years. The fact is that strife is not so much temporary, but ongoing and compounding what is quickly becoming a national mental health crisis.

Now add to that the pandemic which has limited what people can do, isolating them socially, increasing time indoors and changing their habits. More than 75% of people in a study from Thrive Global reported the pandemic had negatively impacted their routines, habits and the structure of their everyday life. Many simply just wanted to know small things they could do to improve their mental health and sense of wellbeing.

In some cases, the pandemic hasn’t been the worst thing. Many have cut back on spending and are focusing on their career and work more closely. At the same time, many have realized the need for support in understanding how to manage finances and are feeling overworked.

READ: Employee Wellbeing Comes into Focus in 2021

Balance has been a hard thing to come by and as companies now look to once again change the way people work, embracing hybrid work models, increased remote work days and talent pools no longer bound by geography, wellness is going to be a centerpiece in any effort to increase or maintain engagement and productivity.

Organizations realize now more than ever the value of a resilient workforce, and it’s something they’re going to need as future crisis’ are bound to impact the business yet again.

The Elements of Wellbeing

To address wellbeing, we first must identify what it is made up of and what aspects of it employers can contribute to in a positive way. Gallup identifies the five elements of wellbeing as:

  • Social – having meaningful relationships
  • Career – enjoying work that you feel stimulated by
  • Physical – having the energy to tackle challenges and pursue success
  • Community – enjoying where you live and the relationships you are able to create with the people in it
  • Financial – intelligent money management that eases the stress of uncertain times.

That is a pretty comprehensive list, but not all areas are something an employer can affect. For example, a person may simply be an introvert, making social wellbeing a challenge during a time where isolation is the norm for everyone. You can attempt to provide social gatherings or opportunities to develop new relationships, but you simply can’t make someone a more socially healthy person unless they want to participate in those things.

That said, the company can support health around all of these behaviors by understanding the aspects of wellbeing at work that they will drive more focused individual wellbeing. Culture Amp groups these into five areas:

  • Culture norms
  • Company commitment
  • Program effectiveness
  • Individual state
  • Manager support

If we look at these five things, they all play a role in creating safe environments where employees feel engaged and open to communicating about their wellness.

Culture norms are vital to provide some stability at a time when the world itself feels so volatile. Manager support can help employees feel more confident in their work and like they have an advocate within the company. Examining program effectiveness continuously allows HR teams to monitor whether or not wellness initiatives are resonating with people and company commitment will ensure that the appropriate resources are allocated to make those programs effective in meeting people’s needs.

All of these areas need to be addressed in order for wellness efforts to feel like more than lip service to employees to help drive healthier behaviors around those five core elements of wellness.  

How to Engage Employees Around Wellbeing

Talking about wellbeing can be difficult. Many people don’t want to speak about things like mental health or their physical fitness openly and using technology to monitor it or flag unhealthy behaviors could be seen as intrusive.

To truly engage, the conversation has to take place between human beings in an environment where trust can be created. Managers should look to create a safe space for these conversations. Based on the McKinsey survey, only 30%of employees say they feel comfortable talking to their supervisor about mental health.

READ: The State of Mental Health and the Workplace

Wellbeing cannot be achieved if the workplace does not become more focused on the human condition and empower employees to prioritize their needs as highly as the needs of the business. And organizations cannot begin to understand their needs, specifically around their mental health, without engaging them in the right way. Developing the languages and cultural norms to do this will help individuals develop the skills needed to push those conversations forward.

HR teams might consider sending short weekly surveys intended to do little more than gauge how employees are feeling. This allows leaders focused on wellbeing to take the pulse of how everyone is doing—and potentially identify areas where improvement needed, teams that perhaps need a bit of guidance from leadership or individuals who may be struggling.

Building wellness into training can also help colleagues to provide each other with early intervention support if someone is experiencing psychological or emotional stress. It can also provide resources to help employees develop skills that will nurture their wellbeing and build their emotional flexibility.

Advice from HR Leaders to Focus on Wellbeing

“I am going back to making sure you have a just-in-time and employee life-cycle feedback mechanism. I would make sure to embrace a pulse survey philosophy. In the end, there is no such thing as too many surveys, but there is such a thing as not acting on the ideas and suggestions you have received.” –Sebastien Girard, SVP Workforce Engagement at Atrium Health

“We conduct bi-weekly wellbeing seminars on topics such as sleep, eating well, and other self-care focused initiatives. We also conduct closed “Shwartz Rounds” on units where there is high stress, and help the cross functional team share their emotions, and hear each other to understand their feelings and connect as individuals sharing their emotions on the same high stress situation. The relationships welded under the heat of COVID under these conditions become very strong and the sense of support they can garner from each other is immense.” – Vishal Bhalla, Chief Experience Officer at Parkland Hospital

“My personal view is that it is an enduring truth that people want to develop and grow. Therefore, the real barrier to the evolution process is emotional. This is why organizations need to create an environment where every person can unleash their full human potential. Organizations can’t stop at bringing the best people in, they also have to bring the best out of every person. Everybody wants to more fully engage and grow.” – Michael Arena, VP of Talent Development at Amazon Web Services

A Thorough Wellbeing Benefits Structure

How you structure your wellbeing program will make all the difference in whether or not it proves to be effective. Essentially, it needs to promote healthy behaviors around the core elements of wellbeing both during and outside of work hours.

This traditionally meant providing opportunities for employees to socialize organically, such as fun events charity outings, happy hours, holiday gatherings and birthday lunches, but the pandemic has shown us that we can and must do these things in other ways and that should continue.

Physical wellness is more than offering a yoga hour and a discounted gym membership. Explore programs that allow employees to monitor their health in real time, exercise in different ways including during working hours and gain access to health and fitness professionals who can help them achieve personal fitness goals.

Expanding mental health access beyond the Employee Assistance Program is also a good idea. Some companies are beginning to use emerging technology, such as VR or AR, to create mental health exercises or protocols that help employees decompress while at work. As this becomes more common and the price barriers come down, it will become more of an expectation from employees than a benefit.

Of course in times of crisis, finances become a priority and setting up a safety net to mitigate future uncertainty is a common goal. Providing access to educational tools and financial advisors who can help people plan for the future is a good way to help employees in this area.

Finally, HR is best positioned to provide career goals and positive feedback that can help assuage any discomfort people may be having around their work. Optimizing your performance management techniques and policies with wellness in mind will make a world of difference in keeping your employees engaged and preventing work from becoming a source of anxiety and stress.

“The focus on wellness programs that address of chronic conditions and mental health can be really helpful, because those things prevent people from being their best,” Mark Biegger, former CHRO of Procter & Gamble said. “By no means do I think wellness programs are the only way to deal with some of these issues, but there are certainly links from wellness programs to being able to address these issues. The bigger question is how do I do that in a way that will help diverse populations and drive productivity and the overall environment of the workplace? How can I provide a program that appeals to the broadest population possible?”

Wellbeing Tools and Tech

Large employers in the United States spent an average of US$3.6 million on well-being programs in 2019, at a cost of $762 per employee, according to Deloitte. The global corporate well-being market will rise from $53.6 billion in 2018 to an expected $90.7 billion by 2026.

With the vast majority of executives recognizing the impact that burnout and wellness have on retention and productivity, it’s no surprise companies are dumping so much money into it. And as part of that, the expectation is that technology will help address some of these issues. We’re seeing the shift of HR technology into work technology focused on employee experience and the employee journey and wellness will play a vital role in that.

To understand how technology can be of use, we have to understand the different categories of technology that are being developed wellness purposes. It goes well beyond heart rate monitors and calorie counters to include things like:

  • Emotional tech – coaches self-awareness and emotional regulation
  • Stress management tech – provides access to resources that help people understand stress and its impacts, as well as how to manage it
  • Collaboration and trust tech – helps deepen group connections and further social bonds
  • Cognition tech – coaches people on organizing their thoughts
  • Coaching tech – creates structure for reflection in real time
  • Energy tech – provides feedback on how to manage productivity and energy levels throughout the day
  • Learning tech – facilitates the learning process so people can adapt more effectively and efficiently
  • Wellness tech – optimization of health and cognition.

Some of that probably doesn’t look like wellness tech, but when we consider the holistic picture of what wellness is, we realize that it’s part of a bigger picture. In reality, most of these technologies are providing the user a variety of “hacks” for wellness. They take external factors and help us deal with them internally to promote greater self-regulation and balance.

By providing a comprehensive suite of technology to assist employees in pursuing wellness, HR not only does the individual a service, but the business and the culture of the organization as a whole. Employee experience improves, engagement goes up and with it, so too will productivity, retention and business outcomes.

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