Wellness is an active process of becoming aware of and making choices toward a healthy and fulfilling life. It is more than being free from illness; it is a dynamic process of change and growth.
—Global Wellness Day website
For employees to perform well, they must be well. To accomplish that, they must practice living a healthy lifestyle by taking care of themselves physically, mentally, and socially. Companies that want to help their employees be well need to provide workplace environments that support the health and well-being of the whole individual. Although many companies offer medical benefits, only a few have wellness programs that promote holistic wellness on a daily basis. Often companies assume that such programs are too expensive or too difficult to implement, but they may be unaware of the strong correlation between a person’s well-being and his or her performance.
The Wellness and Performance Connection
It’s been well established that employees perform better when they are engaged in their work. But it is hard for them to be engaged when they’re unwell in any way. Even a mild illness such as a cold can decrease employees’ energy levels and distract them from their current tasks. Stress can have the same result and, because it’s a chronic and increasingly widespread condition, can lead to even more problems. Unfortunately, today’s employees are more stressed than ever before. In one recent survey, for example, 87 percent of respondents said they were stressed in the workplace, and 15 percent of them described their workplace stress as “not manageable.”
Not only can chronic stress lead to burnout and turnover, but people who stay in stress-inducing environments increase their risk of stress-related illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, obesity, and mental illness. Stressed employees are also expensive: by some estimates, through healthcare costs, accidents, absenteeism, employee turnover, decreased productivity, and worker’s compensation claims, highly stressed employees cost U.S. companies as much as $300 billion each year.
Clearly, it is difficult for employees to deliver peak performance when they are under stress, have a physical ailment, or feel socially isolated. Fortunately, the opposite holds true: employees who are well and happy perform significantly better. One psychologist found that when people felt more positive, they had a “happiness advantage” that made the brain “31 percent more productive” than when it was “negative, neutral, or stressed.” The same research found that positive brains were “37 percent better at sales” and made physicians “19 percent faster [and] more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis.” (In cases, happiness could mean the difference between life and death!)
To be clear, an organization can’t “make” its employees happy. It can, however, develop a collaborative culture of health and promote wellness initiatives that empower employees to work toward becoming their best selves.
Getting on Board with Wellness
As companies realize the impact of wellness on their employees, leaders are increasingly developing and promoting various programs that encourage employees to be more active and to pay more attention to their health. Nearly half (46.1 percent) of the companies surveyed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “offered some type of health promotion or wellness program.” Programs for physical wellness can include onsite gyms or even napping pods. Examples of activities that focus on social wellness include table tennis, Friday happy hours, coed softball leagues, or team challenges that build community.
Not every company has the budget or the space to launch a wide spectrum of wellness programs. But there are plenty of inexpensive and accessible options. For example, some companies have begun offering employee yoga classes. Because prolonged sitting and inactivity can lead to health problems, the Hatha Yoga approach, which focuses on stretching the hips, hamstrings, shoulders, and wrists, is particularly helpful for office employees who typically sit at desks and work on computers all day. Breathing techniques used in yoga bring oxygen to the brain and increase relaxation or energy as needed; they also facilitate meditation, which increases mental clarity. In addition to physical and mental benefits, workplace yoga classes also bring social benefits when employees try something new together.
Encouraging Physical Movement through Fun Activities
Physical movement doesn’t just burn calories—it also causes a person’s cardiovascular system to perform better and even helps him or her to think more clearly. Walking increases blood flow to the brain—particularly to the areas of learning and memory—thus improving attentiveness. And simply walking more can dramatically boost creativity, too.
Not everyone wants to sweat it out at the gym, but companies can incorporate movement into the workday. For example, instead of booking conference rooms for meetings, managers could try “walking meetings” that get everyone moving (and, when done outside, help them get some fresh air, too!). Another option is to take a page from the online shoe retailer Zappos, whose wellness director “puts [playground toys] on the plaza and sees what happens.” On these days, called Recess Tuesdays, “people will come outside, shoot some hoops, play tetherball [and] volleyball, and monkey around.” This type of program succeeds in part because it draws people in without forcing them to participate. (And of course, who doesn’t want some adult recess time?)
Companies can also encourage wellness through friendly competitions, such as step challenges or weight-loss challenges. These activities can help employees meet coworkers outside of their usual social circles and feel a sense of accomplishment. If participation is voluntary and the senior leaders are all in, employees may feel more motivated to participate (and more enthusiastic about the program).
Creating Relationships for Social Wellness
Making employees feel that they belong is an important aspect of a successful wellness program. Numerous studies have shown that employees who have best friends at work are more engaged and less likely to leave—and that employees who are lonely at work are less productive, less healthy, and even more likely to quit. Unfortunately, most employees fall into the latter group, and businesses pay a high price for it: in just the United Kingdom alone, the effect of lonely employees costs employers about $3.5 billion per year.
By creating social wellness programs that bring people together, companies can help employees cultivate relationships. Celebrations and other social activities show employees that they are seen and valued. Departmental retreats, virtual coffee dates with people on remote teams, non-work– related classes, lunchtime potluck meals, and learning how to form flash mobs are just a few of the fun activities that can bring people together. Providing break rooms—and opportunities to use them—can foster interaction throughout the day. Using collaboration software (such as Slack) for informal team conversations can help all employees, including remote workers, feel connected wherever they are (especially when the GIFs start flying!).
An organization that sets out to build a healthy workplace culture must remember that this change is not a one-and-done process. By using a wellness survey to find out the area of greatest employee concern (i.e., their greatest pain point) and starting with activities—even simple ones—to improve that area, the company sends the message that it cares about its employees and recognizes the importance of holistic wellness. When an organization builds a healthy organizational culture in which people have a sense of well-being, not only will they be more engaged at work, but they will begin to thrive in all other aspects of their lives as well.
Pamela DeLoatch is a B2B technology writer who specializes in creating marketing content for the HR industry. With a background as an HR generalist and specialist, she writes about the employee experience, engagement, diversity, HR leadership, culture, and technology. She can be reached via Twitter at @pameladel.