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Workplace Well-Being: Critical Learning For Business Success

Published by: TELUS Health,

Originally published on on May 25, 2020

Paula Allen, Senior Vice President of Research, Analytics, and Innovation, Morneau Shepell

COVID-19 has thrown most global organizations into a state of volatility. For those companies that are still operational, the majority of employees are now working remotely, many with children and/or ailing family members at home with them, meaning focus and productivity are key issues. For those workers who live alone, isolation, which can contribute to depression and anxiety, is a key concern, especially as more cities and towns go into lockdown or “shelter in place” orders.

Even those who had strong mental health before the pandemic is struggling with the psychological toll of the monumental life changes of 2020. In March 2020, Pew Research Centre questioned Americans about the impact of COVID-19. Eight-eight percent of those surveyed said their lives had changed because of the coronavirus, while 44 percent said their lives had changed “in a major way.” An alarming 33 percent said someone in their household had lost a job or taken a pay cut. In the last seven days, 48 percent of those surveyed felt depressed, 60 percent had trouble sleeping and 63 percent felt nervous, anxious or on edge.

For HR departments, this introduces a whole new set of requirements. Those with comprehensive well-being solutions are in a better place to help their employees’ transition through this disruption. Employers need to act quickly to ensure all workers – including remote and furloughed employees – are effectively supported to ensure productivity remains high.

Workforce Under Pressure

Even before COVID-19, mental health was a substantial issue. The World Health Organization estimates that one in four people are affected by a mental disorder. For millennials who now make up the majority of the workforce, the number of those who suffer from mental health is considerable. Psychology Today reports that as many as 17 percent of millennials are depressed, while 14 percent suffer from anxiety. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, depression is the leading cause of disability in the US for those aged 15-44. Lost productivity due to depression and anxiety – including increased absenteeism, widespread presenteeism, and high staff turnover – costs the global economy approximately $1 trillion US dollars.

Moreover, the Centre for Talent Innovation found that 62 percent of employees with a disability have an “invisible” disability – one where people cannot tell they have a disability upon meeting them. For employees to share accurate health information, they need to be sure that this news will be used sensitively, handled discreetly, and that they will receive support rather than be punished for their honesty.

Stress in the Workplace

Workplace stress is increasing. Morneau Shepell, the leading provider of technology-enabled HR services, recently conducted a quantitative survey, which interviewed 8,000 workers in the US, UK and Canada to determine international perspectives on employee well-being and mental health. It found that 45 percent of workers believe that mental demands at work had increased over the last 18-24 months, while 22 percent indicated work was their primary source of extreme mental stress.

In addition to increased workplace stress, pressing family issues such as childcare, elder care, divorce and spiraling debt means that many people are at the breaking point. Twenty-four percent of those surveyed in the study said that financial concerns caused them to miss work, while 36 percent said it negatively impacted their productivity.

HR is often the front line for mental health support in the workplace. While other areas of the business may see well-being support initiatives as a cost center, most HR professionals are acutely aware of how mental health issues can affect workplace productivity and, even, the company’s bottom line.

It can sometimes be difficult to filter that message throughout the organization, but there are signs of change. A recent qualitative study by Morneau Shepell found that most leaders are aware of the benefits of well-being support. In recent years, there has been a significant shift in how CEOs and leaders view investing in health and well-being programs. What may have once been seen as a perk is now increasingly viewed as a necessity.

In 2019, Morneau Shepell conducted ‘The LifeWorks Workplace Well-being Priorities – CEO Perspectives’ study, to investigate well-being in the workforce and the impact of mental health. The qualitative survey included interviews with 20 US-based CEOs and presidents that manage companies with more than 1,000 global employees. The study found that leaders are aware that greater workplace well-being support is needed, but the majority struggled to find the appropriate means of support, and furthermore, an effective way of measuring well-being in the organization.

How Organizations Can Support Employees

In the past, organizations offered “safety net” well-being programs, which is there for the small group of employees at the precarious stage when they reach out to HR. But, by leveraging digital mobile-first technology, there is now the opportunity to engage 24/7 with the total workforce: letting them set goals for their health or financial well-being, offering access to key benefits and rewards, encouraging positive reinforcement from leaders and colleagues, as well as providing help and advice. This can substantially reduce the number of individuals in crisis, meaning less absenteeism, less presenteeism and a reduction in staff turnover.

It’s important to note that compensation is no longer the main consideration when attracting and retaining employees. Individuals have shown that they are now willing to change positions for the right benefits. Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed would consider changing jobs for the same salary, if the new workplace offered better employee wellness support. Notably, 60 percent would switch to a role with less pay for better care. This was consistent across all salary brackets – even for those that defined themselves under financial strain – indicating that financial planning assistance is a key requirement for many employees.

Progressive organizations recognize that they need to broaden their attitudes towards workplace well-being, taking a holistic approach that considers all aspects of the individual’s health. They also understand that they need to work with employees at all stages of the continuum of care, offering flexible options to the whole company that addresses the mental, physical, social and even the financial health of the team.

The Bottom Line

The good news is that awareness of mental health issues, and the need for well-being initiatives, are increasing. Employees, especially those under 35, expect a comprehensive level of support and, for many companies, offering well-being resources can ensure a competitive advantage in the market. Effective wellness programs reinforce positive company culture, encourage collaboration across teams and help attract and retain key talent, meaning less staff turnover.

The data is clear. Investing in workplace well-being delivers substantial returns. In fact, establishing effective employee well-being programs can actually be a cost-cutting measure for businesses. The World Health Organization found that for every US$1 put into scaled up treatment for mental health disorder, there is a return of US$4 in terms of improved wellness and productivity. Simply put, this is good for employees, and good for business.

Make your employees feel loved