Organizations are moving toward a definition of wellness that pairs individual mental health benefits with an organizational lens that improves the employee experience through the design of work.
Workplace wellness has undergone a transformation over the past few years. It’s no longer just about lowering health care spending—it’s also about organizational health, growth, and performance. Most leaders are gauging workplace well-being at a higher level that considers health care costs as well as how organizations function profitably, productively, and sustainably. We’ll explore how the most effective workplace wellness programs work and how to create them.
Workplace wellness refers to a safe, quality workplace where employees feel good about their job, the work environment, and the organization.
In the past, companies thought of wellness in the workplace in terms of employee wellness programs. The focus was mostly on the individual. Employee well-being in the workplace included things like fitness challenges, nutrition workshops, traditional health care benefits, or stress management webinars. The problem is, they didn’t address workplace situations that could be perpetuating poor employee well-being or provide comprehensive mental health benefits so teams could develop the tools to navigate challenges effectively. In other words, workplace wellness programs focused on changing the individual, not the organization.
“Workplace wellness used to be a programmatic focus on the employees themselves and how they could manage their own wellness at work,” said Keren Wasserman, an organizational development program manager on Lyra Health’s Workforce Transformation team. “The thought was that if organizations could help employees take control of their health through employee wellness programs it would have positive outcomes for the company like reduced health care spending.”
Today, more organizations are moving toward a holistic view of workplace wellness with an understanding that employee health and reduced spend, improved productivity, sustainability, and overall company health are all linked. Rather than seeing the employee as responsible for managing their own wellness, leaders are beginning to understand the effects of organizational wellness and work design on employee well-being.
Here are a few employee wellness program examples that can come together as part of a holistic approach:
Psychosocial risk evaluations that assess elements of workers’ job design and management that impact their mental well-being
Processes and programs in response to workplace psychosocial risk survey results
People management and skills training
Training leaders on ways to de-stigmatize mental health
Trainings and activities that build a healthy and inclusive workplace
Regular company meetings with transparent communication from leadership
It’s important that organizations provide individual mental health benefits, but that alone isn’t enough. Work can create mental distress and organizations need to consider how to design and improve the work experience to support employee health and combat burnout. This shift is not only good for business, but also employees. Traditional workplace employee wellness initiatives like EAPs that aren’t tied to a broader purpose may not resonate with employees and are largely ineffective at improving job performance or reducing health care spending.
Workplace wellness and employee wellness are interdependent. If you address the employee’s mental health challenges without tending to their stressful environment, they can’t excel. Recent reports by the U.S. Surgeon General and World Health Organization (WHO) show that organizational wellness is as important as individual mental health care and should help prevent and address distress caused by work. This includes examining psychosocial risks and hazards in areas like management practices, company policies, workloads, and internal programs.
Here are a few benefits of employee wellness programs:
Positive organizational cultures attract and retain talent, and workplace wellness programs play an important role. The American Psychological Association reports that over 80 percent of employees will look for companies that support psychological employee wellness in future job searches. Many companies are addressing this by providing individual mental health support and making organizational changes.
Employee retention is strongly linked with workplace well-being. Burnout and poor work-life balance are recipes for high turnover. When people feel supported and valued at work they’re less likely to seek other job opportunities. In fact, one survey found that better work-life balance is the top reason people want to change careers. Lack of career advancement opportunities is another factor in employee turnover, which is why employee wellness programs should include professional development.
Training is a vital part of an employee wellness plan. Research shows that employee training boosts productivity and work quality, as well as employee morale, job satisfaction, and workers’ self-reported well-being.
Work-related burnout and stress are the second most common factors affecting workforce mental health after financial stress, according to Lyra Health’s 2023 State of Workforce Mental Health survey. Workplace wellness programs that assess aspects of work design that impact employee mental health can reduce burnout by helping managers streamline processes, correct inefficiencies, and implement strategies that support work-life integration.
Research shows that toxic workplaces decrease employee productivity and effectiveness. When people feel supported and cared for, they’re more likely to commit to their jobs and do good work. Offering workplace wellness programs has positive effects on productivity. Additional research showed that 70 percent of members who sought care with Lyra showed improved productivity levels on the Work Limitations Questionnaire—an objective measure of health conditions that interfere with job performance and productivity. And in another study, 86 percent of people treated for depression reported higher levels of work performance and job satisfaction.
Employee morale plays a big role in engagement at work. Positive morale helps attract and retain talent, gives employees a sense of pride in their work, and increases employee productivity. Studies show that employees’ intrinsic motivation increases when they work in a supportive environment and feel valued by their managers. When workplace wellness initiatives are reimagined as giving managers the skills to support their team with effective communication, efficient processes, and expectations that allow for healthy work-life balance, employees may feel better about their jobs and their organization.
Some research finds that a healthy workplace culture is more important than salary for many employees. Organizations that promote a culture of wellness—for example, by talking openly about mental health and encouraging employees to use employee wellness resources available to them—may have healthier employees who are at lower risk for mental health conditions.
Organizations that support mental health see a return of $4 for every dollar they invest in wellness at the workplace. In one survey, HR leaders reported that employee mental health resources helped attract talent, boost employee retention, and increase ROI. Employers recognize the need for employee well-being programs, with 90 percent increasing their investment in this area.
Promoting wellness in the workplace involves determining problem areas, putting appropriate support in place, and assessing outcomes. Here are a few wellness tips for the workplace.
Effective workplace wellness programs begin with gathering data on work stressors. “Organization and benefits leaders can approach this through psychosocial risk assessments,” said Wasserman. “For example, Lyra has an organizational health evaluation to uncover indicators that interventions are needed to support employee wellness from an organizational perspective.” Lyra’s organizational health evaluation starts with tailored employee wellness surveys that provide a heat map of what’s happening across the company.
Once you’ve compiled the data, add context through conversations with team members and other analysis tools. Psychosocial risk assessments help identify training opportunities, where action plans are needed, and ways to fix broken systems and ineffective processes.
The next step in building well-being in the workplace is partnering with learning and development teams or consultants. These teams are measured by their ability to improve workplace performance. They’ll provide specific recommendations on additional training or improved processes and systems so that there’s a clear path to better performance.
An organization like Lyra can make data-backed recommendations on interventions on the individual, team, and leadership levels to guide decision-making on programs, training, and other initiatives. For example, one team may struggle with work overload and benefit from new prioritization processes. At the leadership level, recommendations could include examining cross-functional collaboration and identifying opportunities to streamline priorities so work is distributed in a balanced way.
“Another situation we’ve seen come up a lot is when organizations have recently gone through a lot of restructuring, there’s a need for more role clarity because employees are feeling confused,” said Wasserman. “They don’t know which aspects of their job are still considered in scope, and so defining roles and clarifying reporting structures is an example of potential interventions.”
This more holistic workplace wellness approach doesn’t mean there’s no longer a need for individualized support like mental health benefits. The difference is that the new approach ensures workplace wellness initiatives are chosen with a clear understanding of what supports organizational well-being as a whole. It focuses on the impacts to employees at work in terms of a distress and performance standpoint, then determines which types of programs and interventions would be most supportive.
Another example: Wellness challenges, such as step-counting competitions or nutritious lunch challenges, support individual health reasons while also creating a sense of community. In companies with a strong sense of community and inclusiveness, people are more committed to the organization and their work.
The last step is building a system that continually assesses data and training needs and helps workers take action. Organizations need to reevaluate workplace wellness strategies on a regular basis to create a continuous improvement process.
Sustainable organizational health requires a broader approach to employee wellness programs. The right support can help transform organizations into healthier, thriving workplaces that are set up for long-term success.