Businesses will confront a series of challenges in 2023, not the least of which is an expected slowdown or recession as the Federal Reserve seeks to put the brakes on elevated inflation. The so-called tripledemic—simultaneous outbreaks of Covid, flu and RSV—of the holiday season was certainly a reminder for HR leaders that fighting contagion remains a priority. At the same time, many workers—honestly, everyone at this point—are exhausted and burnt out from the last three years, and an economic downturn certainly won’t help employees who may already feel they are on the brink emotionally and psychologically. It’s within this swirl of competing priorities that many CHROs find themselves focusing on well-being and developing resilient workforces.
No company, much less a CHRO, can fix inflation or magically relieve the lingering stress of three years of pandemic, but they can take concrete actions to help their employees cope, or even thrive, despite the circumstances. The companies that succeed in helping their workers become resilient in the face of challenges will fare better during periods of turbulence and be better positioned to soar on the other side. A key part of resilience is well-being; the more secure workers feel, and the healthier they are in all aspects of their lives, particularly mentally and emotionally, the better they will do under pressure.
“As remote work has blurred the lines between work and the personal, employee well-being has become even more important,” says Kathleen Kappes, vice president of human resources at insurance provider RLI Corp. “Leaders are realizing the toll that stress has placed on the workforce and therefore, the importance of emotional and mental health.”
The need for better mental health and well-being support in companies acute right now. “Going into 2021, the word of the year was burnout. Going into 2022, the word of the year was still burnout, unfortunately,” says Regina Ihrke, North America well-being leader at Willis Towers Watson. “In 2023, can we get ourselves out of where we’re at? Maybe. We’ll see employees self-selecting through things like quiet quitting, and this why they leave jobs.”
The intensity of this problem isn’t a secret, and employers are responding. In a survey of 455 U.S. employers—employing some 8.2 million people—published in October 2022, Willis Towers Watson found that while only 44 percent currently offer manager training on topics such as “general mental health awareness or identification and intervention training,” more than two-thirds of companies intended to make employee mental health and well-being programs “one of their top three health priorities” over the next three years.
But what does it even mean to talk about well-being? How is this different from just having a mental health or EAP program? And how can companies be successful in cultivating well-being and resilience?
Well-Being is Everything
“Employee well-being means looking beyond people’s physical health and the job they do,” says Keely Arrington, product manager at employer mental health provider Uprise Health. Well-being goes beyond some of the traditional silos, such as mental health, physical health or financial health and instead looks at the whole person in the context of their team, the larger company and even their place in their family and community. Well-being is “the collective feeling of safety,” Arrington explains, which ultimately becomes “the foundation for a strong team culture.”
“Our focus around resilience has been building self-awareness, and well-being is part of that, as well as building positive relationships with coworkers and for them to really find a purpose and connect to the organization,” says Amanda Daniel, CHRO at microchip manufacturer SkyWater Technology. Resilience and well-being are “more than a series of programs….Programs aren’t going to produce amazing results if the culture isn’t right and people don’t feel like they have a purpose for being here every day.”
Indeed, a sense of well-being is deeply connected to the health of a company’s culture. It encompasses not just the slogans and professed values of a company, but also “non-verbal cues that people use to create safe connections in groups,” according to Arrington.
Well-being in many ways can be an antidote to burnout, but creating a culture of well-being requires more than just programs. Cultivating well-being is particularly challenging as we navigate the long tail of the pandemic. “We went from working in an office with water breaks, lunch, you see people, to this huge pendulum shift [of remote work] where everybody is included in every meeting, and we’re going to be on calls all day long. And now we’re back in the office, but we’re still working as if everybody is still at home,” says Ihrke. “That’s a moment of ‘how do I address this burnout and connect it to employer strategy?’”
The idea that companies bear some responsibility for the well-being of the employee is in many ways a recent trend. Previously, it was seen as a matter of personal responsibility, with employees being charged with seeking help if they needed it. Now, Arrington says, “more employees see well-being as the responsibility of the workplace, which means delivering team well-being is now up to the line manager in many cases.”
Workers’ expectations that the company will look out for their well-being—their health and best interests across various aspects of their lives—can put a great deal of stress on managers. Consequently, CHROs need to ensure that managers are empowered and trained to make well-being a part of the culture of their teams and the company while still balancing the need to generate results and hit benchmarks. SkyWater Technology’s Daniel notes that it requires collaboration starting at the top and running on down. “Our business partners are really key to partnering with leaders on the needs of their employees,” she says. “Our leaders have really taken well to using their HR business partners to say, ‘Hey, I’m seeing that my employees are struggling with X, Y, Z, what resources do we have that can help me as a manager help my employee?’”
While it may seem counterintuitive to have managers focus on the well-being of employees, it can pay off in terms of better performance and a more resilient culture, particularly during challenging periods for the company.
Personal and Professional
Arrington notes, “There is a tension that happens when well-being comes into the workplace, a tension between personal and professional.” For instance, mental health is generally understood to be one aspect of well-being, yet until recently, discussions of mental health with staff “has been verboten.” Yet at the same time, “research shows that the best teams intentionally create challenging conversations and work through them together. Well-being conversations do this by working through the taboo of discussing personal things like mental health in a professional setting.” To be successful at leading the sorts of discussions, however, leaders must model vulnerability to build a culture of safety and trust. Making well-being a part of a company’s culture requires that leaders “work from the top down.”
Well-being is ultimately a concept permeating a company’s culture and emerging from it. It’s not something that can ever be totally achieved. There’s no box to check indicating that well-being has been accomplished. However, employees who are living in a state of well-being, and teams and cultures that promote it, may be more resilient in the face of challenges and setbacks.
In simple terms, people who feel safe and healthy and who feel like they have the resources and support they need will perform better under stress. And there are specific tools that CHROs can use to build and support a culture of well-being. Without these tools, the well-being of employees may suffer as their mental, physical or financial health deteriorates. RLI takes a holistic approach to building a resilient workforce. “Well-being is the overall health of an employee, including physical, mental, emotional and financial,” says Kappes.
The company supports employee physical health with everything from sponsoring physical activity events and company contests to promoting preventative care by offering medical premium discounts to all employees who complete annual screenings. The company also provides education to employees about the mental health offerings available through its employee assistance program. It supports employee financial well-being by emphasizing retirement benefits within its total rewards package and by “encouraging employees to participate in education and financial planning activities,” says Kappes. The final piece of the well-being puzzle at RLI is a deliberate focus on fostering an inclusive work environment and providing developmental opportunities and training within RLI and outside the organization.
Most organizations, like RLI, have been benefits-focused, and primarily around three pillars—physical, emotional and financial health. The next step is developing a culture of well-being by moving away from these pillars and toward a more holistic approach. “If you want to have an employer well-being strategy, you need to have it connected to everything from total rewards to the work environment to the employee experience,” says Ihrke.
SkyWater Technology seeks to foster a well-being mindset starting from onboarding, says Daniel. Well-being is a key focus of how the company structures its development programs, how the HR team seeks feedback from workers, and how recognition and performance management programs operate. A well-being mindset requires that HR and managers “make sure that performance and behaviors align to our values and really our overall internal communications.”
To help accomplish this, Daniel hired a director of organization development who has created “culture builder” programs which every employee goes through on a quarterly basis. “We’ve designed them around a culture of respect, a culture of empowerment, and resilience,” Daniel says. The programs grapple with a fundamental question—how to be resilient. To understand what issues employees may be struggling with, the HR team uses surveys but also holds regular feedback sessions called “lunch with leaders,” where executives sit with workers to hear first-hand about the challenges or stresses they are encountering. The company’s well-being programs are then tailored around that feedback.
Cultural changes can be as small as not sending emails after 6 p.m. or requiring everyone to be in every meeting. It requires managers making sure people aren’t working during their paid time off. It can mean pushing employees to take more than two days of PTO at a time. “Culture comes in the micro areas,” Ihrke says. But the collective effect—on employees, on the workplace, on the company—is macro.