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10 components of an effective employee well-being strategy

Corporate wellness programs are getting renewed attention and now incorporate emotional, mental and financial health. Find out what the new holistic approach requires.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a spotlight on why old-fashioned corporate health programs don't cut it. Today's workers are experiencing new well-being challenges and they need approaches that speak to that need.

Even before the pandemic, 80% of companies considered well-being an important or very important part of their organization, according to research by Deloitte.

However, COVID-19, remote work and social isolation put these efforts to the test.

Despite the best of intentions, fewer than a third of companies say their employee well-being strategy is meeting the needs of their employees since the pandemic began, according to a survey by global advisory Willis Towers Watson.

Moving the needle on corporate wellness efforts should be more than a good intention. From taking a comprehensive approach to making a meaningful impact, here are 10 components of an effective employee well-being strategy.

1. A holistic approach

Well-being is an expanded view of health and wellness. It moves beyond physical markers to include emotional, mental, financial and other aspects of being healthy and happy. This also means business and HR leaders need to realize these facets extend beyond the nine-to-five, especially now, when the work-life lines have blurred for so many.

Leaders often think of employee well-being strategies as just serving the employee, said Jes Osrow, co-founder of HR consultancy The Rise Journey, based in New York. For efforts to work, companies need to remember they're serving the entire person.

"You can't just think about the person who shows up at work and puts in the hours; you have to think about that person outside of work [as well]," Osrow said.

For example, employees may be caregivers to children or parents or have hobbies that they can no longer participate in because of COVID-19, she said.

2. Leadership buy-in

Budgets are a concern for most companies, but leaders need to know that employee well-being strategies aren't just an item to check off on the financial statements.

"The challenge is that you need someone on the inside that is a believer," said Lauren Baptiste, founder of wellness coaching firm Acheloa Wellness, located in New York.

The Rise Journey's Osrow suggested talking to leaders about their own needs.

"Once they can recognize their own limitations … they might be able to see what this means for other individuals," she said.

3. An understanding of current offerings

Before refining the employee well-being strategy, HR leaders and other stakeholders need to understand what programs are currently offered and how well they're working. Few organizations are starting from scratch.

That review and assessment includes taking a look at the employee assistance program (EAP), Baptiste said.

"I can't tell you how many organizations I've spoken to in the last three to four months that don't know what the EAP does," she said.

An EAP, which employees can use to get confidential help with work-related and personal problems, can't do any good if employees aren't aware of it or if they don't understand how it works. In addition, companies may already have fitness incentive programs, wellness challenges or other efforts related to wellness and health -- all of which require assessing before adding on new offerings.

4. An awareness of employee sentiment

A well-being program can only succeed if companies offer what employees want.

The easiest way to find that out is to ask them in engagement surveys or polls, Osrow said. Organizations need to ask what wellness means to them and what will help them, whether it's time off, compensation, counseling or reimbursement for wellness-related services.

"There's a lot you can do that some people might buy into and some people don't," Osrow said. "If you can offer up a variety, ask your employees and allow them to buy into what they want," she said.

Or, as Baptiste put it, ask what will bring people joy.

5. A focus on incremental behavioral changes

Getting employees to buy into change, whether it's healthier eating, moving more or reducing stress, requires encouraging small changes, said Pam Reece, a consultant specializing in wellness and leadership presence.

For example, if companies are encouraging meditation or applied breathing, they can start with a goal of two minutes per day.

"This sets people up for success and helps them to believe that these changes are doable," she said.

6. An insight into well-being motivation

The cost of lifestyle diseases is astronomical. Obesity alone costs the US health care system $147 billion a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This points to an important facet of well-being -- it is highly complex.

Understanding the subtleties of behavioral change and how to personalize it is critical to success.

For example, a key component of an employee well-being strategy is to tie it into the employee's individual "why," such as why becoming calmer not only helps them focus more on the job, but also become a better parent to their kids, Reece said.

7. Metrics and measurement

While it may seem difficult to know whether employee well-being strategies are making a difference, the easiest metrics to measure are physical.

For example, looking at how many more or fewer sick days are being taken can help identify whether employees are benefitting from the program, Baptiste said.

8. Goals to define success

Companies will also need to have goals for their programs as part of their measurement strategies. They can set goals for participation and desired outcomes, said Matt Erhard, managing partner of Summit Search Group, a Canadian national recruiting agency. While these are related, tracking them separately can provide the most accurate assessment of how the employee well-being strategy is working.

"Just like with any big project, start with smaller goals that are easy to meet," Erhard said.

These should also be specific, measurable and timely, such as increasing employee enrollment in a program by 15% in the next quarter, he said.

9. Transparent communication with employees

The need for continuous, transparent communication can't be overstated.

From the beginning, companies need to explain what they're doing and why they're doing it, and provide clear timelines for programs, Osrow said.

For example, company and HR leaders can come right out and say they're holding focus groups or doing a survey to find out what employees need, Osrow said. After the well-being program rollout, the HR team can have check-ins to find out which offerings employees used and what's working. HR should also market available offerings on an annual basis.

10. An inclusion of organizational values

For a corporate wellness initiative to work, it needs to be part of the company's values, Baptiste said.

"I'm a big believer that it needs to be integrated into the professional and personal strategy, and, for organizations, tied to their values," she said.

For example, in financial services, an "end justifies the means" culture is common, Baptiste said. However, with so many companies seeing health challenges and turnover related to burnout, wellness strategies -- and employee wellness, in general -- need to become part of the organization's overarching strategy.

While there is no one-size-fits-all to employee well-being strategies, these common components can help organizations begin tailoring a program that will help their employees, whether it's improving mental health or becoming healthier overall. Knowing what employees want, and how to measure success, will be key moving forward, as will baking in employee wellness to the culture of the organization.

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