Why wellness doesn't always work

Lots of money spent but poor mental health continues to plague workers

Why wellness doesn't always work

During the pandemic, as mental health outcomes have gotten steadily worse for many employees, organizations have offered a wide variety of programs and benefits in order to make workers feel better.

But they haven’t always worked terribly well, according to a new study that attempted to quantify the best ways to boost wellness.

The Returns On Wellbeing Institute (ROWI) in Cape Cod, Mass. recently looked into best practices for businesses to invest in wellbeing and while they came up with some good ideas, they also found that organizations have a lot of work to do in other areas to address the litany of problems.

“People talk a lot about building a good culture within their workplace and introducing programs like this but if you’re only focusing on specific elements, like physical health for instance, you’re not supporting them in all the areas of their life that might have an impact on their work,” says Sophie Bryant, digital marketing manager at CloudAdvisors, a Vancouver-based benefits marketplace.

By throwing money at the problems inherent in a pandemic-affected workplace, many companies are not getting effective results, according to the ROWI report.

“We were rather surprised to find out that corporate America — and I’m sure Canada too — was spending over a billion dollars a year for programs and not getting much [in the way of] returns and employees aren’t getting healthier; they’re getting less engaged and turnover is increasing, and there seemed to be something terribly wrong about that paradigm,” says Jim Purcell, cofounder.

High awareness

Eighty-five per cent of employees think employers should be focusing on mental health programs in the workplace, according to a national study.

“Employees are much more aware of mental wellness than they were before the pandemic hit. This means it’s something that should be an important consideration for all managers and CEOs as well,” says Anthony Ariganello, CEO of CPHR Canada.

These results come at a time when the mental health of workers remains stubbornly negative, according to an ongoing survey that has been showing steady declines since the pandemic was declared in early 2020.

Canada’s Mental Health Index score for June 2022 is 64.1 points out of 100, declining from May’s score of 64.9 points, according to LifeWork’s survey of 3,000 respondents in Canada, conducted June 3 to 13, 2022.

“While many organizations have marked the recent months as a return to a semblance of normalcy, it is clear we are not out of the woods just yet,” says Stephen Liptrap, president and CEO of LifeWorks.

“We have not seen a collective mental health score this low since January, which signals that conversations surrounding employee wellbeing and support should be continuing to ramp up, not slow down.”

Employers who care

It showed that for almost three-quarters (74 per cent) of respondents, stress at work remains a top concern and it’s important for organizations to continue showing employees that they care about their personal wellbeing.

Employees who felt their mental health was supported by their employer during the pandemic have a mental health score more than seven points higher than the national average and nearly 15 points higher than those who did not feel their mental health was supported.

While this has shone a spotlight on workers, what about for those who truly care about them, senior leaders? What are the best ways to also provide them with a modicum of wellness?

A new “playbook for action” that was recently published by Deloitte Canada and LifeWorks pointed to four key areas for organizations to address: focus on peer relationships, reduce mental health stigmas, provide better internal support and rethink work.

These steps begin with sometimes tough conversations while on the job, especially with those who know what it’s like to lead during trying times.

“What if peers came together more to actually talk about… ‘The things that you’re doing, I’m doing, he’s doing, she’s doing’ and look for opportunities to synergize: Can we bring projects together? We all want to own our own thing; we get very territorial and maybe by actually combining certain things, we can make it better for the customer because we can remove unnecessary work from the system and free people up,” says Zabeen Hirji, executive advisor for the future of work at Deloitte in Toronto.

While it’s crucial to help senior leaders, so they can thrive and help others, don’t neglect direct reports, says Hirji as they can often provide some solutions as well.

“Let’s involve employees: they have so many ideas of how to make things better, and I’m still astounded by how many organizations don’t fully tap into that and even tapping into their knowledge to break down hierarchies.”