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Employee wellness and community

Last week I had the pleasure of giving an employee wellness presentation to one of my corporate clients in person for the first time in 1 1/2 years. They recently brought their employees back to the office and so we wanted to do something different.

So we decided to do a presentation on how to eat healthy on your busiest days. The second part of the event was a communal lunch where everyone got to assemble their own salad.

While my presentation was informative and fun, the real star of the show was the communal lunch. There’s just something about gathering together and sharing food that really creates a stronger sense of community. There’s a reason why food is so often part of our big celebrations and holidays!

As I watched everyone chatting, laughing, and making their way through the assembly line, it made me think about the importance of including community in wellness programs. The last couple years spent working from home have taken their toll on us. And, while a wellness webinar may provide some helpful tips and advice, being able to share in that experience with others makes a difference. Whether it’s hearing others’ stories or collaborating on solutions to a problem or just the reassurance that comes from knowing others are in the same boat as you.

So I recommend that, as you plan out your wellness program, ask yourself how you can build community into it. That could look like:

  • Making sure breakout rooms are included in webinars for folks to interact with each other
  • Allotting more time to your wellness program to allow for discourse
  • Including team or group activities
  • Sharing a meal together
  • Having your employees play a role in planning your programming

How have you included community in your company’s employee wellness programs? Do you think there are ways you could increase that communal aspect?

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Make Your Employee Wellness Program Effective

How can you make your employee wellness program effective?

Last week we talked about ways to measure the effectiveness, but we need to know the components of effectiveness as well.

Understanding Employee Needs & Goals

First and foremost, you must understand your employees’ needs and goals in order to create a program that caters to them. Regardless of whether your goals are to reduce healthcare costs, decrease absenteeism, or something else, the program must result in changes in employee behaviors and health to achieve those other goals. Understanding employee needs provides direction for your program design. What health issues do your employees struggle with? What obstacles prevent them from reaching their health goals? Where is there room for improvement in daily habits? Gather this information and build your program around it.

Participation

If your employees can’t or don’t want to participate in your wellness program, it can’t be effective. You can’t reap the benefits without participating.

You’ve taken care of step 1 if you’ve designed a program around employee needs because Step 1 is to get employees to want to participate. The programming must appeal to them.

But wanting to participate is very different from being able to participate. If workloads are out of control, employees feel pressured to skip their breaks, or are generally overwhelmed and burned out, they will not participate. Part of planning your program is to make sure employees can actually participate in it.

Another component of the ability to participate is the inclusivity of the program. Not all employees may be able to participate or feel comfortable participating in certain activities. Take those needs into account so you can offer alternatives.

Follow Through

Just as you need to make participation in the program feasible, you need to make follow through on program action items as feasible as you can as well. This could mean the provision of tangibles, such a fitness trackers or food journals. It could also mean encouraging breaks or better managing workloads. Or it could mean new initiatives, like an employee walking group. Remember, because of the tremendous impact work has on our lives (we easily spend up to 30% of our time at work), the onus cannot fall solely on employees to make healthful changes.

Assess and Reassess Regularly to Make Your Employee Wellness Program Effective

Waiting until the conclusion of an employee wellness initiative to find out that it wasn’t helpful is useless. Instead, check in regularly on the effectiveness of your program so you can course correct before it’s too late.

There are many components that contribute to your ability to make your employee wellness program effective. But if you are organized, methodical, and take these factors into account, you will be able to create a more effective program.

woman sitting in front of macbook

How to help employees manage workplace stress

Since April is Stress Awareness Month, I think it’s worth looking at how managers can help their employees manage workplace stress.

Prior to the pandemic, a Metlife survey found that 60% of employees believed supporting mental well-being should NOT be an employer’s responsibility. However, their most recent survey found that now 62% DO believe it should be an employer’s responsibility. And I agree!

Think about it:  Let’s say you work 40 hours per week. Multiply that by 50 (assuming 2 weeks vacation), that’s 2000 hours per year which is about 23% of your year. But, realistically, many of us, perhaps most of us, are working more in the range of 50-60 hours per week (or we don’t have or use our PTO). So that is about 1/3 of your year spent at work! That translates to tremendous potential for work to impact your mental well-being.

Furthermore, we know that employee burnout is not only a massive problem but also that it’s a systemic issue, not an individual employee issue. This further underscores the need for employer support for mental well-being.

How to Manage Workplace Stress

I think of stress management as a 2-part process:

  1. Minimizing the stressors within your control
  2. Mitigating the effects of the stressors outside of your control

As you can see, part 1 is proactive and part 2 is reactive. Very often we only think about the reactive part because the proactive part has a lot to do with saying “no” and having boundaries, which can be uncomfortable.

It can be extremely challenging for employees in particular to take action on part 1. But it’s essential because reactive stress management can only get you so far. Once the waters get too deep, you can’t get your head above them. And we know that unrelenting and unmitigated stress is a major contributor to burnout.

Employees must be able to advocate for themselves when it comes to their workload and managers must make that doable. This comes from open communication, workplace culture, modeling balancing behaviors, among other strategies.

So, as part of Stress Awareness Month, I encourage all managers reading this to ask yourself these questions:

  • Do your employees feel empowered and comfortable to turn down tasks they don’t have to take on immediately?
  • Do they feel like they are able to approach you and ask for help prioritizing their workload?
  • Are they able to ask for support with their workload without fear of adverse consequences?

If you answered no to any of those, how can you make the workplace more amenable to help employees proactively manage workplace stress?

group of people watching on laptop

Fixing low turnout for your employee wellness program

One of the objections to employee wellness programs that I frequently hear is previously they experienced low turnout.

As a wellness program provider, I have heard this several times from businesses of different sizes and across different industries. Getting solid participation in employee wellness programs can be a challenge. And creating incentive to participate without crossing over into coercion can be equally challenging. 

So what is an employer to do to increase low turnout?

The first step is to really be in touch with your workforce.

  1. Survey your workforce to determine which wellness topics and program types appeal to them the most.
  2. Pay attention to workloads and deadlines. You can have the greatest program lined up, but if employees don’t feel they can attend because of deadlines or an overwhelming workload, they won’t make it. You need to be strategic about the timing of your programs and/or find ways to make it easier for staff to attend. 
  3. Don’t forget about the quiet ones. There tends to be a group of frequent flyers in every office – the outgoing, more gregarious employees who live to participate in group activities. How can you reach out to the quieter, less outgoing staff members to encourage them to join in? This could mean personal invitations, different types of events where the social pressure isn’t so high, or asking them specifically what they are looking for. 
  4. Aim for more variety in your offerings. There are many reasons why folks opt out of participating in wellness programs. For example, a healthy eating seminar could be triggering for a staff member who is in recovery from an eating disorder. A group fitness classes may be intimidating to staffers with diverse bodies or abilities. Offering variety ensures you’re not alienating subpopulations of staffers from an entire series. 

Offer incentives to participate

But be sure those incentives don’t turn into penalties for not participating.

  1. One type of incentive is to simply make it easy for staff to attend. This could be blocking off time on the calendar for everyone to avoid meeting conflicts, frequent reminders of the program, making a live and a virtual option available, to name a few.
  2. You could offer small prizes for participation, like entry into a raffle or small gifts like a yoga mat. Keeping it small is ket not just for your budget but for also ensuring participation is still optional.
  3. Avoid the participation challenge approach where the more events attended increases an employee’s odds of winning. This approach can expose disparities in the workplace, engendering resentment among staff (ex. Why is his workload so light?). It can also alienate certain staff members if not enough variety is offered.
  4. Do not make participation mandatory. Sure this is a great way to get your attendance numbers up, but folks may not get much out of the program and you also run the risk of unwittingly doing harm to staff members who would otherwise have not participated for personal reasons (see point 4 above). 

Keep in mind there are a number of reasons for historically low turnout and many have nothing to do with the program itself. Rather than giving up on offering something of value to employees, troubleshoot the situation and seek out creative solutions.

people raising their hands

How to make your employee wellness program more inclusive

How can you make your employee wellness program more inclusive?

Over the years, I’ve heard some upsetting stories about workplace wellness programs – from cultural foods being dismissed as unhealthy to stigmatizing weight loss challenges, from culturally insensitive remarks to employees being pushed, pulled, and prodded to explain why they don’t want to participate.

While there are plenty of good intentions out there, we can’t overlook the fact that the wellness industry has an exclusivity problem. And, if we’re being honest, the American workplace does, too. If employees feel uncomfortable, singled out, or stressed out by a company wellness program, then that program is harming their wellness rather than helping it.

Here are some tips to help make your employee wellness program more inclusive:

  • Consider your workforce’s cultural and ethnic composition. Many nutrition programs take a white-centric approach and mistakenly assume all cultural foods are unhealthy. Not only is this untrue, it is also stigmatizing to have a nutrition professional dismiss an entire culture’s foods. Employees should not feel self-conscious bringing their cultural foods into work for lunch.
  • Consider your workforce’s overall socioeconomic status. If a company’s wages are relatively low, advising its employees to “shop the perimeter” of the grocery store (ie. only buy fresh produce and meats) is not particularly helpful since it may be economically unfeasible. Your wellness program must propose accessible solutions to your employees to be helpful.
  • Avoid weight loss challenges. These challenges are incredibly stigmatizing to employees in larger bodies, making the workplace an uncomfortable and sometimes hostile place. These may also be triggering to employees with a history of eating disorders and disordered eating. Finally, the data shows these challenges are completely ineffective as employees don’t make lasting healthful changes. So why risk harming the well-being of some staffers?
  • Incentivizing participation is great, but keep in mind that employees may have their own personal reasons for not participating that they are not obligated to disclose to you. For example, an employee in eating disorder recovery may choose not to participate in a healthy cooking class that discusses calorie counting. An employee with a larger body may feel too self-conscious to participate in a fitness class. Participating in certain activities may be considered inappropriate in some employees’ culture. The workplace needs to be a safe space where employees feel free to choose whether to participate in activities based on the reasons important to them.

Your HR department should be heavily involved in planning your wellness programs to help ensure company demographics are considered. Be sure to share a company profile with your prospective wellness program providers including that workforce composition information and ask them what they propose in light of that information. You could also request to see examples of their previous programming for other companies to get an idea of whether they are appropriate for your workforce.

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