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From sleep pods to yoga and fitness trackers, the corporate world is investing big in improving employees’ health and welfare

Human Resources

$66 billion burnout buster

Published 12 July 2021 in Human Resources • 10 min read

From sleep pods to yoga and fitness trackers, the corporate world is investing big in improving employees’ health and welfare, writes Anand Narasimhan 

Companies have massively expanded wellbeing programs offered to employees in recent years, and this is likely to gather pace in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The Global Wellness Institute projects that the workplace wellness market will be worth $66bn within a year, up from $48bn in 2017. “There’s a lot going on in this space and you’re seeing different organizations come up with lots of different ideas,” says Brooke Finlayson, Chief Learning Officer at food multinational Mondelez.  

Wellbeing programs primarily focus on helping employees to look after their health and make them more resilient to workplace stress. There is an obvious business benefit in improved performance and productivity, but also in reduced absenteeism, improved staff retention and lower health insurance costs. 

The World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1tn annually in lost productivity. Taking care of employee wellbeing is no longer a luxury but a strategic necessity, according to Ally Fekaiki, founder of Juno, the wellbeing benefits company.  

Chris Tamdjidi, the Managing Director of leadership development company Awaris, says there has been a marked increase in depression and anxiety problems during the pandemic, although the impact has varied. “You have single mothers working from 4am to 6am to get stuff done before the children wake up, and then you have senior people who are in a beautiful house in the countryside,” he says. “The percentage of senior people who feel that they’re doing well is twice that of single mothers or single people.” 

André Spicer, Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Bayes Business School at the University of London, says: “You would have hoped remote working would have made things better, because people have more control over their schedule and are at home, but there seems to be a lot of evidence suggesting that some aspects of wellbeing got worse.”  

So what are organizations doing to solve these challenges? I have looked at the world of corporate wellbeing programs from the following four angles:  

 

Initiatives 

Until recently, companies might simply have provided health insurance, but many now offer a glittering array of wellbeing support schemes. Employee health continues to be the key area for such initiatives. 

Microsoft makes available help in the form of onsite healthcare or 24/7 online access to a doctor, health screenings, health coaching and support in giving up smoking.  

Mondelez provides lectures and workshops on nutrition, and healthy options in the company cafeteria. Companies including analytics specialist SAS to facilities provider Draper have set up physical training programs, ranging from onsite gyms and fitness classes to weight management programs and offsite gym memberships. In addition, they offer employee assistance programs for mental health, including counselling, stress management and meditation or mindfulness classes. 

In recent years, wellbeing initiatives have expanded beyond employee health.  

Some may have a direct impact on working life, through the facilities provided (such as sleep pods at Huffington Post) and flexible worktime arrangements (for example, unlimited personal time off at Netflix and Kronos). Other initiatives may involve social activities aimed at building team spirit, such as workplace outings and parties for employees’ families. 

Programs may be offered to support employees’ personal and professional development: onsite classes, perhaps, an employee library, or access to a life coach. Help is increasingly offered in the lives of employees outside work, such as laundry and dry-cleaning services, grocery deliveries and access to financial advisors. Fidelity Investments is one example of a company supporting the charitable activities of employees, either through time off or donations. 

The mushrooming of wellbeing initiatives points to the need for joined-up thinking. In some cases, a long list of wellness benefits may represent little more than corporate branding or window dressing, with few people actually accessing the services on offer. “Some companies have an impressive list of initiatives, but when you ask about the usage, only one to three per cent are using them, which means the culture doesn’t allow you to use them,” says Eivind Slaaen, Head of People and Culture Development at the toolmaking company Hilti. 

Also, different functions within companies – including employee welfare, compensations and benefits, and employee health and safety – have provided distinctive origins for wellbeing initiatives. Finlayson notes that Cadbury’s, which is now part of Mondelez, has a long history of employee welfare initiatives. Cadbury’s built homes for its workers in the UK and had doctors’ clinics at a number of its facilities.  

The increasing sophistication of employee-benefits providers has expanded the range of wellness initiatives offered. One solution to the initiative sprawl might be the appointment of a Chief Wellbeing Officer. At the accounting firm Deloitte, Jen Fischer, who has carried the title of US Chief Wellbeing Officer since 2015, aims to align employee performance with the company’s strategic direction.  

 

Implementation 

Wellbeing initiatives can be delivered in many forms. Many companies provide employee assistance “in house” as discreet programs or initiatives integrated into work patterns. 

Yves Givel, Senior Vice President of Human Resources for Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Southwest Asia for Hyatt, introduced mindfulness and the concept of mindful leadership to the hotel group in 2018. He made the move after training as a teacher on the Search Inside Yourself program, which aims to develop skills in empathy, compassion and overall emotional intelligence. Over the past three years, he has run 17 mindful leadership programs for more than 500 leaders at Hyatt.  

Increasingly, companies are outsourcing wellness initiatives to employee benefits specialists such as Juno and Meet Ben. Such providers offer employers a wide range of personal development and wellness choices for their employees. And companies often also buy in technological solutions to offer to staff, with Headspace’s mental health app and Fitbit’s fitness tracker frequently cited as examples. 

Some companies may engage in wellbeing without really believing in it – soul washing

Toolmaker Hilti carries out many wellbeing initiatives in house, but it also makes use of partners when specialist support is needed. The firm has a well-established wellbeing program. An annual employee engagement survey is used to identify specific needs, and two-day seminars called Team Camps are then used to deliver initiatives tied to the overall business objectives of the company.  

Companies need to think ahead when they are planning wellbeing initiatives, particularly when they are looking for partners. Slaaen says it can take up to three years from starting discussions on a topic until the organization is ready to take it on. 

The issue of resilience during the pandemic has opened the door to dialogue about employee mental health, a topic that was previously off-limits. “What is now transpiring is a lot of challenging conversations around mental health and in some cases post-traumatic stress disorder for people that needed to go to work during the pandemic,” says Finlayson. 

A health tracking poll from KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), the US-based health policy analysis nonprofit, found that, during the pandemic, four in 10 adults in the US reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from one in 10 the year before. Many adults reported difficulty sleeping (36%) or eating (32%), a jump in alcohol and drug consumption (12%), and worsening chronic conditions (12%), which they attributed to stress over COVID-19. Young adults reported a rise in suicidal thoughts. Several large-scale studies in Europe and North America found a clear drop during this period in overall life satisfaction – in some cases by as much as 17%. 

 

Impact 

So what ensures that wellbeing interventions work well, and what are the pitfalls to avoid? 

An important pre-condition is a corporate culture with wellbeing at its heart, such as Hilti’s dual focus on care and performance, says Tamdjidi. 

Similarly, Hyatt has developed a wellbeing culture through its Feel, Fuel and Function framework, based around an alignment between the wellbeing of customers and employees. Givel says colleagues have been receptive to his mindfulness offering because of the company’s culture and alignment: “I’m lucky that I work for an organization where prioritising our own and others’ wellbeing is important.” 

Companies that are committed to wellbeing will adopt a strategic approach, analyzing the specific needs of their workforce and deciding which interventions will best address these, based on hard evidence, says Tamdjidi. A successful wellbeing approach will also be coherent with the core values of the company and the business outcomes it is trying to achieve, he says. 

It is also vital to carry out proper assessments of the impact of interventions. “It’s very important to do valid statistical assessments and not just look at the average change in particular values,” he adds.  

Many experts argue that programs need to be voluntary to ensure success, because reluctant participants may be resentful and unlikely to buy into the initiative. “It’s not something you can force. I was asked to teach in a company where two-thirds of the participants were forced into it, and it was terrible,” says Givel.  

However, others say there may be a case for concentrating efforts on those who are harder to reach. “You also have to design wellbeing interventions for those who don’t want interventions. Manufacturing workers are typically in the lowest 10 per cent of the population for mental health. Many companies won’t really do interventions for people in manufacturing (…) but if that’s your biggest population, you’ll have a big impact if you improve their mental health,” says Tamdjidi.   

 

Informed skepticism 

While corporate wellbeing initiatives may have benefits for both employers and employees, some observers also see potential problems, the most common criticism being that they act as a sticking plaster that doesn’t address the underlying causes of workplace stress. 

Programs need to be voluntary because reluctant participants are unlikely to buy into the initiative

Moreover, some companies may engage in wellbeing for the wrong reasons, without really believing in it – “soul washing”, to coin a term. This happens when companies promote initiatives as evidence that they have wellbeing policies in place in the event of an employee legal challenge, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis, says Spicer. “Most organizations are saying ‘OK, we realize you’re stressed during the pandemic. Here’s our wellbeing offer.’ And most of the time that wellbeing offer is essentially an outsourced call centre where you can ring someone up, and maybe if you’re lucky have a counselling conversation and some online videos.” 

Another concern is a blurring of the line between work and people’s personal lives. “Clearly, we want companies who seek to look after their employees’ wellbeing, but a boundary also needs to be drawn between your public life and your private life,” says Spicer. Wellbeing programs also create a risk of a new form of discrimination in the workplace, based on health status, he says. 

The fitness tracker Fitbit, along with Headspace's mental health app, are often-used technological solutions to employee wellbeing

And while it is perfectly fair for companies to want to improve employees’ productivity, many interventions appear to have more to do with compliance with hitting certain health and fitness targets. “The danger really is that it becomes an additional source of stress for employees, so they start having to worry about not just how productive they’re being at work but also, ‘Am I exercising enough, if my boss is getting my metrics about how frequently I’m going to the gym?’. It extends work into the gym and into everyday life,” he says.    

Moreover, the cost-benefit ratio of wellbeing investments may not be as favorable as many companies expect, because studies show that many workplace wellbeing interventions have relatively minor effects, and in some cases they can actually backfire, he adds.  

Spicer says mindfulness can help people to deal with personal anxiety and develop an ability to focus and concentrate, but its effects are more limited than often claimed. “It’s not going to significantly shift the dial on employee wellbeing, nor is it going to make people massively more productive.”  

The design of the workplace and the way work is organized can play a vital role, he adds. Stable work patterns can help greatly, because those with chaotic shift patterns, precarious jobs and short-term contracts are particularly prone to poor wellbeing. And signalling on the beginning and end of the working day can foster healthy working habits and ensure that boundaries between work and personal life are respected. “Many managers are beginning to realize that they shouldn’t be emailing their staff at 10 o’clock at night.”  

The biggest determinant of satisfaction at work for many employees is the ability to make meaningful progress on an important task, says Spicer, so scheduling an hour or two each day where people can focus on such tasks can be invaluable. “This is one of the least costly and most effective interventions that employers can make to improve employee wellbeing.”  

The expansion of corporate wellbeing programs is likely to be one major legacy of the pandemic. With its $66bn price tag, organizations want this investment to pay off. To ensure that it is a meaningful legacy, companies need to avoid “soul washing” and be thoughtful and sincere about the type of initiatives offered and how these are delivered to employees. The impact of wellbeing initiatives has to be calibrated to ensure their relevance, and an open dialogue with employees must be had when there are ethical concerns raised about their intentions. Whatever form it takes, constructive action is needed now if we are to avoid a mental health disaster. 

Authors

Anand Narasimhan - IMD Professor

Anand Narasimhan

Anand Narasimhan serves as Shell Professor of Global Leadership and Dean of Faculty and Research at IMD. He is an expert in leadership development for senior executive teams and boards, and his research focuses on institutional change, organization design, social networks and emotions in the workplace.

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