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What comes to mind when we say ‘workplace wellness’? Office gyms and healthy snacks?

Foosball tables and Friday night drinks? Virtual yoga and step challenges?

In theory, these initiatives sound like great ways to positively impact employee engagement and retention. But research suggests otherwise.

While workplace wellness programmes that emphasise nutrition, physical activity, and stress management may increase healthy behaviours, there is no direct link to improved employment outcomes such as absenteeism and job performance.

As a result, there has been a shift toward defining employee wellbeing in terms of whole-person care, which includes mental health and efforts to improve the work experience.

But before you write off the office step challenge, reconsider your wellness programme by first determining what employees truly want and what efforts will have a positive impact on business outcomes. You can then decide how to incorporate holistic wellness programmes into your current initiatives.

The shift to holistic wellbeing

Company cultures and wellness programmes must be adapted to fit an autonomous, less restrictive world. This means considering how different employees like to work: some are more motivated and energised when they are in the office and around other people, while others might prefer to work from home.

Flexibility is important. To ensure everyone is taken care of, HR managers must design employee value propositions (EVPs) that focus on the “whole person”.

In this article, we unpack six key pillars of holistic employee wellbeing and offer suggestions on how to create a better wellbeing experience for your people:

Emotional wellbeing

With the shift to remote and hybrid working, people have struggled to balance and separate their work and personal lives. Many have felt like they need to be “always on” and others have found it difficult to focus and be productive around screaming kids, barking dogs, and grocery deliveries.

The pandemic has increased stress and depression worldwide. And because employees don’t leave their emotional problems at the (hybrid) office door, there has been a steep rise in “presenteeism”, which is when employees are at work (whether at home or in the office) but aren’t productive or engaged because they’re sick.

Presenteeism leads to decision fatigue, an inability to focus, and things slipping through the cracks. At some point, it turns into a vicious cycle: chronic work stress can lead to mental health problems like depression or anxiety. This often manifests in physical ways, including sleep problems, unhealthy choices, or dependence on drugs or alcohol.

Mental health used to be taboo in the workplace, but it’s now becoming less so. And more employers realise that their people need help to deal with the stresses of life.

Here are ways to do that:

  • Help people talk openly about mental health. Make sure people feel safe enough to ask for help when needed. Give managers and supervisors sensitivity training so they can tell when someone on their team is struggling. Consider including free counselling in your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or partnering with a team of psychologists so employees can more easily access professional help.
  • Actively reduce workloads. Cut down on inefficient processes and manual, repetitive tasks that create frustration and boredom among teams. By automating and streamlining processes and building flexibility into your systems and procedures, you can free up time to focus on meaningful work, which is good for business and employee satisfaction.
  • Offer substance abuse and reward programmes. Many people turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their depression. Give your people the help they need by setting up anonymous programmes for substance abuse support. You could also partner with a wellness programme that rewards employees that actively improve their health.
  • Encourage time off and regular breaks. Encourage your team to take time off, unplug at the end of the day and on weekends, and take mental health days when needed. If leave is handled correctly, employees can take all the leave they are entitled to. This will lead to a more rested and engaged workforce. Of consider offering Paid Time Off instead of traditional leave. Unlike allocating a set number of days to things like family responsibility, annual, and sick leave, with PTO, employees can take their leave for whatever reason they choose without having to disclose the reason to their employer.
  • Create an inclusive culture. Accept people for who they are and let them be themselves at work. Define general “rules of engagement” that help create supportive and non-judgemental interactions in the office, such as respecting everyone, being sensitive, and valuing each other’s differences. Building a psychologically safe workplace means creating conditions where people feel safe speaking up, asking questions, making mistakes, raising concerns and suggestions, and questioning the status quo without fear of being punished or humiliated. Encouraging people to use their voices creates a climate of openness, creates small moments of learning, and ultimately builds a better, more inclusive organisation.

Financial wellbeing

Feeling financially secure means knowing you have enough money to meet your needs.

Yet, 54% of South Africans are unable to make their money last until the end of the month, and 57% say that financial stress has had a significant effect on their mental health.

Financial stress leads to depression and other health issues, like a higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and panic attacks. Absenteeism, presenteeism, lower productivity, and lack of engagement are immediate business risks.

Research has shown that South Africans want and need financial help from their employers.

Here are some ways to do that:

  • Offer financial education. Teach your people how to handle their money better through financial education, planning, and coaching programmes. These could include budgeting, saving for emergencies or retirement, and managing debt.
  • Offer a financial lifeline. More than half of middle-income earners in South Africa spend their salary within five days of getting it,and 59% of their money goes to paying off debt. When unexpected costs come up – like when the geyser bursts, kids need textbooks, or a pet needs the vet – employees might take out loans to make it through the month. This puts them in a never-ending cycle of debt that is hard to escape. By giving your employees options like payday advances, interest-free loans, and immediate access to earned wages, you can help them pay for day-to-day expenses without going into debt.

Physical wellbeing

Many companies have gotten physical wellbeing programmes down to a T. Most of the time, these include discounts on gym memberships, healthy snacks in the office fridge, and movement challenge competitions.

Because let’s face it. People won’t eat their veggies if they don’t like them. And a new pair of trainers won’t make someone go to the gym if they don’t want to.

But that doesn’t change the fact that physical wellbeing is closely linked to mental, social, and emotional wellbeing. And businesses can do more to support their employees’ physical health, especially for the average remote worker who commutes just 16 steps from their bed to their workstation and who only leaves their desks to go to the kitchen or bathroom.

Here are some ways to get people moving and help them live healthier lives:

In the office:

  • Reorganise the office to encourage movement. Help them take more steps by increasing the space between desks, meeting rooms, and collaboration areas. You might want to add standing desks or replace some chairs with exercise balls. You could also hold meetings while standing or walking.
  • Make recovery breaks a thing. Encourage people to get up from their desks regularly, even if it’s just for five minutes. These “microbreaks” have surprising benefits, like higher engagement and reduced fatigue. Introduce a “midday stretch” where colleagues gather in a collaboration area to do light yoga and stretching. Play music and get everyone to dance and shake out their stiff limbs. Create meditation spaces where people can take a break.

For remote workers:

  • Introduce 15-minute movement breaks. A little exercise goes a long way. Just 15 minutes a day can reduce stress and prevent health problems. Add two 15-minute movement breaks – in the mid-morning and afternoon – where remote workers are required to get up and move, whether that’s doing an online yoga class, going for a walk, or throwing a ball for the dog. They’ll return to their desks refreshed and energised. Be sure to schedule the breaks for the same times every day, so they become part of the routine.
  • Help them create an ergonomic workspace. Offer online physiotherapy or desk assessments to make sure the setup for working from home is as healthy as possible.
  • Sponsor face-to-face meet-ups. Sponsor a weekly, biweekly, or monthly coffee meet-up, where coworkers can meet for coffee and talk about anything but work. This not only gets remote workers out of the office but also helps to build strong relationships.

Social wellbeing

Hybrid and remote working have depleted social capital in the workplace, with many people feeling disengaged and isolated. A lack of face-to-face interactions and relationship management has taken its toll on company culture. Now, businesses need to create an environment that helps teams build strong relationships whether they’re in the office or working from home.

Here are some ways to rebuild social connections in a hybrid setting:

  • Encourage a sense of community and belonging. People need to feel like they belong to a group so they don’t feel alone or rejected. This is easier when you like the people you work with and are part of a great team. Change the office’s layout to make it easier for people to work together, meet, and chat. Have fun social events so your people can get to know each other.
  • Strengthen relationships between employees and managers. How managers and their teams work together sets the tone for the employee experience. Relationships should be built on trust and mentorship, and employees should feel safe and comfortable speaking up and asking for help. Managers should provide regular feedback to uplift and bring out the best in their teams.
  • Include remote colleagues. It’s important that employees who work from home feel connected and included. Businesses should be careful not to unintentionally create a social and cultural divide between people who work in the office and those who work from home. Host “general virtual assemblies” every morning, where coworkers can chat and connect over their morning coffee. Get people to share pictures of the pets and families and talk about their weekend plans over ‘virtual happy hour’. If you’re a manager, check in with your remote workers weekly to see how they’re doing.

Career wellbeing

If there’s one thing the Great Resignation has shown, it’s that people won’t stay in jobs that make them unhappy and stress them out. People are tired of outdated norms, like working from 9 to 5, being expected to be “always on”, making low wages, and getting sub-standard benefits. They’ve realised it’s not worth giving up their health, happiness, and personal lives for their jobs.

People want more opportunities to use their strengths and talents and know that their work and contributions are valued. They also want their employers to help them design careers that fit their skills and goals.

Here is what you can do to help:

  • Create a career playground. Unlike the career ladder, the career playground is less about managing your employees’ careers and more about giving them the freedom to make their own paths. 85% of the jobs of 2030 don’t exist today, so give your people room to try new things. Giving them the freedom to make, shape, and develop their own careers makes them happier, healthier, and more productive, which is good for your business.
  • Give people more chances to learn and grow. Help your employees learn the skills that will more closely align their jobs with their personal goals and ideas of career success. Help them get the skills and motivation they need to drive their development once they know where they want to put their focus and energy.
  • Create conditions for flow. People are more motivated and self-confident when they feel safe pursuing challenging goals at work. Supporting employees’ ability to achieve a flow state can take individual and business performance to the next level. Read this article for advice on how to create business flow.

Community wellbeing

People want to feel like their work positively impacts the world. That’s why careers have become less about making money and more about connecting their work to the greater good.

Help your people connect to their purpose by:

  • Aligning your business purpose and benefits strategy. Clarity of purpose leads to a greater sense of accomplishment for your people – and better results and impact for your business. Your benefits strategy should reflect your company’s culture and priorities. Make it clear why you exist and explain how your work connects to the greater good.
  • Tying company goals to individual goals. Your people should feel engaged by the company’s broader mission. They need to feel like they belong and can contribute to the business’s goals. Create awareness about how their purpose aligns with the overall business mission.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Employees have already proven that they can be productive and reliable while working remotely – now, they need their employers’ trust to better manage their time, workload, and productivity.

Building trust in a business means listening to your people, asking what works and doesn’t, and walking the talk. This requires an openness and willingness to change how you’ve always done things.

Businesses are responsible for empowering employees to take ownership of their health and careers – their holistic wellbeing.

Focusing on holistic employee wellbeing goes beyond just increasing productivity or achieving the bottom line – it’s about creating shared value that makes your employees feel encouraged, supported and psychologically safe so that they can thrive.

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