Virtual workplace wellness initiatives can take many forms, and an online video made in the style of Zack Galifinaikis’ Funny or Die talk show, Between Two Ferns, is more unusual than most.
Between Two Bells includes interviews with two Liberty Company Insurance Brokers executives – CEO and founder Bill Johnson and Chief Wellness Officer Anthony Dippolito – presented in a post-modern style as the men discuss the company’s approach to workplace culture and wellness. The video is funny, but it’s meant to highlight a serious topic. Four in five workers say job stress negatively impacts other areas of their lives, and two-thirds of employees don’t feel comfortable providing feedback to their manager, according to Mental Health America’s 2022 Mind the Workplace Report.
Yet in addition to standard health-insurance policies, workplaces offer an increasing number of initiatives that fall under the broad category of healthcare or wellness, which ostensibly mitigate stress. The corporate wellness market is growing and is expected to be worth more than $100 billion worldwide by 2030, according to a Market Research Future report. Three-quarters of companies are investing more in stress management and resilience resources for their teams, according to the 2022 Employee Wellness Industry Trends Report by Wellable Labs.
Many of these programs have virtual components, or are entirely online. For example, many employee assistance programs (EAPs) offer online education portals. Popular apps like Calm and Headspace have separate products for business clients, and all-in-one platforms like Grokker and On the Goga combine video, online resources, device integrations, and virtual communities.
However, while virtual services provide a way for remote and hybrid employees to access services regardless of their location, not every wellness offering is created equal – and even the best ones are unable to boost worker wellbeing in an unhealthy organization.
Wellness in changing workplaces
Workplace wellness programs date back to the 1950s, when the first EAPs emerged – in part to support veterans returning from World War II. As wellness programs expanded and matured, they focused on boosting workplace productivity by improving employees’ health. The 1970s marked the increasing shift of employee health costs from the government to companies, and emotional and mental wellness and work-life balance became considerations beginning in the 1980s.
From the 1990s onward, workplace wellness programs were commonplace – part of overall corporate culture. Today, workplace wellness initiatives are integrated throughout the operations of many companies.
Liberty is among the companies promoting this holistic approach, which extends beyond its office walls. Over the last three years, Liberty has introduced and developed workplace wellness programs with a hybrid approach in mind, said Liberty CWO Dippolito. That includes initiatives like health and wellness talks on a variety of subjects, 20-minute meditation sessions with CEO Bill Johnson, and step, hydration, and sleep challenges.
“In general, our number one priority is the employee – our initiatives are based off meeting employees where they’re at,” Dippolito said.
Workplace Wellness Programs Can Help – or Harm – Workplace Cultures
However, not all people experience workplace wellness equally. For example, workplace challenges focused on weight loss and diet behaviors can harm staff with a current or prior eating disorder and stigmatize fat team members. Physical initiatives like step challenges often exclude team members with disabilities or injuries. And some wellness initiatives actually shift additional costs to employees who don’t participate or meet objectives, or compromise medical privacy.
For its own wellness programs, Liberty offers a variety of initiatives to ensure that staff who aren’t comfortable with one topic or approach will have other options, Dippolito said. Many of the team members working on wellness initiatives are also on the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and learning and development (L&D) teams, which provides insights from areas that overlap with health and well-being, he said.
It’s also important to regularly review workplace wellness offerings, because evidence of their success is mixed and difficult to study. Some research suggests workplace wellness programs may reduce costs and up productivity. Other studies found improvements in positive health behaviors but not measurable health outcomes. A 2013 RAND Corporation report found the most effective workplace wellness programs communicated their benefits to staff, provided opportunities for employee engagement, got leadership involved, used existing resources and relationships, and continued to evaluate their impact.
Liberty sends out bi-annual engagement surveys to get more information about what its workers want and need and how the company can help, Dippolito said. “We do this because we want to ensure we are listening and responding to what employees want and what’s truly meaningful to them,” he said.
Employees Thrive When They Feel Safe
In particular, Liberty is focused on destigmatizing mental health issues and creating a psychologically safe environment for all staff, he said, pointing to their Between Two Bells videos as an example of that work.
Sixty-eight percent of senior HR leaders consider mental health and employee well-being a priority, according to the Future Workplace 2021 HR Sentiment survey. “The more organizations normalize mental health and well-being, the more psychologically safe it will be for employees to speak up about it,” said LaTonya Wilkins, founder and CEO of Change Coaches and author of Leading Below the Surface.
Those issues have a significant impact on workers and workplaces – excluding pregnancy, mental-health issues are among the top-five leading reasons U.S. workers file for short-term disability, Dippolito pointed out. In a recent Flexjobs survey, respondents who had recently quit their job cited toxic workplace culture, a lack of work-life balance, and poor mental-health supports among their top reasons for leaving.
“I find that there is a positive correlation between a team leader's understanding and participation in wellness initiatives, and employees' likehood to take advantage of those initiatives,” Wilkins said. That kind of understanding means helping employees understand what to expect when they call the EAP, instead of just passing along the website url.
“While the org makes the initiative available, it's up to teams to model and encourage usage of them,” she said. For example, Liberty encourages its staff to seek out the supports and resources offered by the company, said Dippolito, who added that that attitude needs to be modeled at the leadership level in order to be effective throughout an organization.
“I can’t give a prescription that will immediately change the course of a company’s cultural and wellness direction, other than it has to be a natural extension of the leaders on your team that make the biggest impact and influence on the organization,” he said.
And even the most carefully selected or well-designed wellness initiatives won’t improve employee well-being in an unhealthy workplace.
“If you don't have a psychologically safe culture, employees won't make full use of their benefits,” Wilkins said. In her work as a corporate coach, she frequently sees companies where staff don’t take all of their allotted paid time off or use their EAPs to their full capacity. And according to the Mind the Workplace Report, just 47% of employees are aware of their company’s offered mental-health services – and only 38% would feel comfortable using them.
Finally, while digital wellness resources can be valuable, conversation and in-person connection still have a role to play. For example, Wilkins suggests implementing well-being check-ins for meetings and one-on-ones.
“I encourage leaders to model supportive behaviors both within the team meeting and individually,” Wilkins said. “These behaviors include validating and acknowledging the employee, sharing stories of other people who have also experienced a similar state, and reiterating resources that are available within the organization.”