- How an organization communicates about resources and the importance of health and wellness is just as important as having a wellness program.
- Organizations need to discuss health and well-being openly and regularly to improve employees' comfort in disclosing and using support resources.
- Interpersonal relationships between peers enhance workplace wellness by increasing belonging and the perception of support.
Mobile apps, fitness tracking devices, wellness days, and financial health training—workplace wellness is a prominent topic of discussion today. Companies across the U.S. are investing in wellness initiatives. In addition, major health organizations such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Massachusetts Department of Health published guidelines to help organizations develop wellness programs.
Despite increasing attention to workplace wellness programs, their overall effectiveness has been unclear (see McIntyre et al., 2017; Song et al., 2019), and employees continue to struggle with adverse effects of work-related stress, such as depression and anxiety (World Health Organization, 2022). So, what is missing? Where are organizations falling short?
Key Takeaways From 2022 Workplace Wellness Reports
We can turn to two recent reports to better understand where workplace wellness is today and what is needed moving forward. These reports include Mental Health America's (MHA) Mind the Workplace Report and the Surgeon General's Workplace Mental Health and Wellness Framework.
The MHA report is based on data collected from 11,301 employees across various industries. According to the MHA report, only about 35 percent of employees reported that their organization's leaders speak about mental health at work. This finding is vital to highlight because leadership's communication plays a central role in perceived organizational support and employees' view that the organization cares about their well-being (Eisenberger et al., 1999).
Research has found that if employees perceive that they risk negative repercussions of disclosing health-related problems (e.g., stigma, being viewed as weak) they will be less likely to reveal that information or seek support (Lee & Li, 2020). Notably, the MHA Mind the Workplace Report stated that less than 40 percent of employees reported feeling comfortable utilizing services offered by the organization for a mental health-related concern. This could result in ongoing or unresolved issues and a lack of resource utilization. Therefore, instead of simply offering a wellness program and incentives for participation, leadership should focus on improving communication about health and wellness to increase buy-in and long-term engagement.
The Surgeon General's Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being Framework provides a structure for how organizations can cultivate environments that promote sustainable health and wellness. The framework provides an extensive overview of the five essential components of employee wellness: protection from harm, connection and community, work-life harmony, mattering at work, and opportunity for growth.
Across all of these components and the findings from the MHA report, the importance of communication is evident. However, if you did a Google search on workplace wellness right now, you would find numerous articles, blog posts, and videos with tips on engaging employees that do not emphasize the significance of day-to-day communication about health and wellness at work. In addressing the human needs underscored by the framework, organizations need to discuss health and well-being more openly and regularly to improve employees' comfort in disclosing and using support resources.
In addition to more communication about mental health from leadership, the framework highlights the importance of interpersonal relationships between peers in enhancing workplace wellness. Connection and community relate to employees' sense of belonging and perceptions of available social support. When individuals feel cared for, they can better cope with uncertainty and stress (Albrecht & Adelman, 1987; Cobb, 1976). Essentially, when employees feel as though peers and leadership support them, they are more likely to feel as though they can handle adversity and can therefore cope more effectively.
Addressing inadequacies in communication is the next logical and necessary step to improving workplace wellness. Organizations should recognize the opportunity to continue building on what we already know about workplace wellness and acknowledge the value of strong internal communication and relationships moving forward.
Next Steps for Leadership
Learning from your employees. Organizations should collect qualitative data to gain first-hand insight from employees to understand their current perspectives on the messaging around mental health and the authenticity of leadership’s devotion to their well-being. Organizational leaders must start with the views and experiences of their own employees to truly understand what is needed.
These data can be collected via focus groups or one-on-one interviews with employees across divisions and levels. After implementing needed change, organizations should check in with employees to ensure their needs are effectively addressed. Wellness is dynamic. So, companies need to continuously explore the views of their workers.
Enhancing messaging about health and wellness. Leadership should also identify opportunities to incorporate health and wellness discussions into routine training and meetings to normalize such communication, demonstrating a consistent concern for employee wellness. Furthermore, organizations should promote regular peer-to-peer check-ins to help normalize a culture that genuinely values workplace wellness.
Organizational leaders can encourage employees to share their experiences with others to promote a sense of unity and inspire others to join. Organizations should also offer opportunities for relationship building, provide skills-based training on peer support, and educate leadership on having difficult conversations and authentically communicating about the importance of wellness.
For example, internal communication should include messages acknowledging particularly stressful times (e.g., approaching deadlines) and reminding employees of available support or providing evidence-based recommendations for effective coping. Though, it is essential to note that just sending email reminders about a wellness program or offered services does not allow for the relationship building needed to cultivate a culture in which employees feel confident in being supported in seeking help. Thus, leadership needs to spend time with employees regularly discussing health and wellness. For such relationship building, leaders must offer spaces to share their experiences with employees and allow them to share theirs.
These two reports demonstrate that workplace wellness involves more than just offering a program. How the organization communicates about resources and the importance of health and wellness is equally important.
Albrecht, T.L, Adelman, M.B. (1987). Communicating social support. Sage
Cobb, S. (1976). Social support as a moderator of life stress. Psychosomatic Medicine, 38(5), 300–314. https://doi.org/10.1097/00006842-197609000-00003
Eisenberger, R., Rhoades, L., & Cameron, J. (1999). Does pay for performance increase or decrease perceived self-determination and intrinsic motivation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(5), 1026–1040. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1246
Lee, Y., & Queenie Li, J.-Y. (2020). The value of internal communication in enhancing employees’ health information disclosure intentions in the workplace. Public Relations Review, 46(1). https://doi.org /10.1016/j.pubrev.2019.101872
McIntyre, A., Bagley, N., Frakt, A., & Carroll, A. (2017). The dubious empirical and legal foundations of workplace wellness programs. Health Matrix: Journal of Law-Medicine, 27, 59–80.
Mental Health America. (2022). Mind the workplace: Employer responsibility to employee mental health. https://mhanational.org/sites/default/files/MTW_Report_2022.pdf
Song, Z. & Baicker, K. (2019). Effect of a workplace wellness program on employee health and economic outcomes: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, 321(15), 1491.
U.S. Surgeon General. (2022). The U.S. Surgeon General’s framework for workplace mental health and well-being. Public Health Services. https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/workplace-mental-health-well-be…
World Health Organization. (2022). Mental health at work. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-at-work