Wellness Redefined: Understanding the 5 Pillars of Employee Well-Being

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It is no secret that life has changed for working professionals over the last year. The limitations of a global pandemic coupled with a divided political climate and social unrest have taken a toll on our personal and professional well-being. Now, companies have to create new experiences to keep employees engaged, productive, safe, and personally fulfilled in an environment unlike any we’ve seen before.

While this might seem like a huge ask of the employer, it’s an arguably reasonable expectation of employees.

The 5 Pillars of Employee Well-Being

In the past, organizational wellness was often limited to employee benefits, with a primarily physical orientation. HR practitioners would encourage employees to take advantage of special wellness incentives, like reduced monthly premiums in exchange for an employee’s healthy report after an annual on-site health screening. Wellness contests were another common example, in which employees would engage in various healthy activities in exchange for a prize at the end of the contest period. While these efforts helped steer employees toward ownership of their physical wellness, the last year has shown us such initiatives are insufficient to support a person’s total well-being.

In a recent study by MetLife, 74 percent of respondents said employee well-being would have the biggest impact on the future of the workplace. In light of this, companies should take the time now to reevaluated how they define and implement wellness initiatives.

Traditionally, wellness has been defined as a process of learning and adopting new skills to make conscious decisions that lead to a healthier and more balanced lifestyle. Particularly in recent times, this definition has been interpreted to encompass the whole person and the total factors that attribute to their overall well-being at work and at home. This whole-person vision of wellness challenges employers to find creative ways to better understand the personal struggles that may impact an employee’s engagement, productivity, and retention. Employers must take a more holistic approach to employee well-being by providing resources to support mental, physical, financial, social, and professional health.

1. Mental Health

Mental health is a key component of holistic well-being, and one that is not currently being addressed adequately. According to the MetLife research cited above, more than half of today’s workers are concerned about their mental health. Mental health worries are most prevalent among Black and Latinx workers (68 percent) and Gen. Z-ers (73 percent). To address these disparities in mental wellness, organizational leaders will have to trade a one-size-fits-all approach for a diverse collection of resources to meet the different needs of different employees.

Employees have become more vocal about once may have been considered private information, with many now willing to discuss their mental health challenges frankly with coworkers. The single most important thing employers can do to support mental health is to create a culture that enables employees to be honest about their feelings. This may require a little vulnerability and transparency from senior leaders, as most employees look to these leaders to model appropriate behavior.

Companies can also leverage their employee assistance programs (EAPs) to support mental health, but they will need to be intentional in ensuring diversity exists within the network of professional therapists and clinicians available to support their employees. If budget allows, the company might also consider hiring a part-time therapist on staff to serve as a first point of contact for employees looking to share and overcome personal struggles that impact their work.

2. Physical Health

If an employee is struggling mentally, it will not be long before it takes a toll on their physical health. More traditional wellness activities, like on-site health screenings, cooking classes, group walks, fitness boot camps, and smoking reduction programs, can add great value to physical well-being initiatives.

For most companies, the biggest challenge for physical wellness initiatives is encouraging and incentivizing employees to take advantage of the resources available to them. One way to solve this challenge is to build that encouragement right into company processes and structures. For example, if you have an on-site cafeteria, you might consider offering healthy meal options as alternatives to the regular menu.

3. Financial Health

Financial health and security have become major concerns over the last year as companies cut back on spending and staff levels. According to MetLife’s research, more than half of Gen. X-ers, millennials, and Gen. Z-ers are worried about their financial health. Only baby boomers, at 37 percent, came in under the 50 percent mark.

Companies might consider a few options to support employee financial health. The first would be to offer benefits packages that include short- and long-term disability options. The monthly cost for these benefits tends to be low, and they can give employees peace of mind that their finances won’t be devastated by an injury or accident.

Another option might be to offer financial literacy courses on topics like budgeting, debt reduction, credit repair, home buying, and retirement investing. Retirement vendors are often willing to provide such courses, and employees will benefit from learning good financial habits that support their long-term financial wellness.

4. Social Health

Social health has become more of a concern over the last year, as employees struggled with the isolation and loneliness of remote work and social distancing. Supporting the social health of your employees means helping them build satisfying personal relationships within and beyond the walls of the company. As the world begins to open back up, employers might consider hosting social gatherings like picnics, parties, or other events for employees to build and nurture relationships.

5. Professional Health

“Professional health” refers to the avenue of well-being that encourages employees’ personal and professional growth. We have certainly seen an increase in the desire to upskill and reskill throughout the pandemic, which has challenged employers to think about how they design, develop, and deliver training across their organizations. Some companies are also restructuring their onboarding processes to better accommodate remote workers. Others are offering management training to ensure company leaders are fully equipped to lead and support their teams.

In summary, to best support employee well-being, start by amplifying the resources that already exist within the organization. Next, encourage employees to take personal ownership of how they leverage those resources. The goal is to be proactive in providing appropriate tools and resources to ensure employees have what they need now and in the future.

Dr. Kristal Walker is vice president of well-being at Sweetwater

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Dr. Kristal Walker is vice president of well-being at Sweetwater. A 15-year learning, leadership, and organizational development veteran, Dr. Walker manages the overall well-being portfolio and diversity and inclusion initiatives at Sweetwater. She oversees mental health initiatives and the implementation of special projects that support the holistic well-being of employees.