Moving Beyond Perks: Embedding Wellbeing as a Core Organizational Value

Author(s): Grace Ewles

By Grace Ewles

The new year offers a time to reflect on lessons learned and to identify opportunities for change. For many, this includes a re-evaluation of priorities, values, and goals, and one of the most common resolution themes is wellbeing. Although wellbeing has traditionally been viewed from an individual lens, often reflecting personal goals or aspirations, the importance of employee wellbeing for organizations has become evident in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The additional stressors faced as a result of the pandemic have taken a significant toll on employees’ physical, mental, and social wellbeing.

Employee wellbeing has a significant impact on organizations’ bottom line. According to the World Health Organization (2021), there is an estimated $1 trillion in lost productivity globally each year as a result of mental health conditions alone. A further $217 million is lost annually in workdays in the US as a result of absenteeism and presenteeism (Mind Share Partners, 2019). However, organizations that support employee wellbeing see a large return on investment. McLean & Company data demonstrates that organizations that prioritized employee needs over organizational needs during the pandemic were more likely to experience high overall organizational performance (1.5 times higher than those that didn’t) and workforce productivity (1.4 times higher) (McLean & Company 2021 HR Trends Report; N=426, N=421). Moreover, organizations with effective wellbeing programs see increased productivity, financial performance, engagement, and decreased absenteeism, turnover, and healthcare costs, among other benefits.

Given this increased focus on employee needs, it is not surprising that providing a great employee experience jumped to the second highest priority for organizations in 2022 (McLean & Company 2022 HR Trends Report, N=826). However, despite 83% of organizations recognizing the importance of employee wellbeing (Willis Towers Watson, 2020), this has not necessarily translated into action. In fact, 66% of organizations report that they do not have a wellbeing strategy in place (McLean & Company 2021 HR Trends Report, N = 431), and many organizations that do have a formal wellbeing program see limited uptake of wellbeing initiatives among employees. Employee data indicates a further disconnect, with just one in four employees reporting feeling supported by their organization’s wellbeing program (Willis Towers Watson, 2020). Together, this data highlights that traditional approaches to employee wellbeing are falling short, suggesting an opportunity for organizations to re-evaluate how they support their employees.

Moving Toward a Holistic Approach to Wellbeing

Creating an effective employee wellbeing program requires a mindset shift. Traditionally, wellbeing programs have been limited to one or two wellbeing dimensions (e.g. physical, mental), with many programs taking a reactionary approach (i.e. responding to wellbeing needs after a problem has emerged rather than creating a culture focused on promoting health and wellbeing). This approach provided a limited understanding of wellbeing that addressed only a small range of possible employee needs. McLean & Company defines employee wellbeing as “an umbrella term referring to the various aspects of an employee’s experience that support their overall health and happiness, both within and outside of work,” including six core dimensions: physical, mental, interpersonal, financial, purpose, and belonging. This approach aims to capture the breadth of the employee experience while acknowledging that wellbeing needs can blur boundaries between work and home. Holistic wellbeing programs provide a range of initiatives that can meet a variety of employee wellbeing needs.

Tailoring Initiatives to Employee Needs

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to employee wellbeing, and with so many options available in the wellbeing space, it can be overwhelming trying to determine where to start. Effective employee wellbeing programs are designed using a data-driven approach to identify and support employees’ unique needs. We recommend collecting quantitative and qualitative data to provide a high-level understanding of wellbeing across the organization as well as the unique needs for various employee segments (e.g. based on location, role, demographics). See McLean & Company’s Wellbeing Survey Questions for sample questions and survey messaging to capture employee needs. From there, select and prioritize initiatives that target employee needs. For possible wellbeing initiatives, see McLean & Company’s Wellbeing Initiatives Catalog, which provides ideas across a range of categories, including policies, total rewards, technology, and education and training, among others.

Addressing Systemic Barriers

Many sources of stress at work are outside of employees’ control, with workload, time demands, role clarity, and a lack of support from direct supervisors reflecting some of the top contributors to employee burnout (Gallup, 2018). Given these broader-level influences, there is a call for organizations to shift their approach to employee wellbeing to one that recognizes and identifies the environmental factors that either encourage or inhibit wellbeing.

In addition to informing the selection of initiatives, wellbeing data can also be used to identify potential systemic barriers that inhibit wellbeing at the organization. Here, it is critical to consider the organizational culture (e.g. norms, values), role of leadership (e.g. role modeling behaviors, top-down communication regarding the importance of wellbeing), as well as the employee experience (e.g. workload, timelines, role expectations and accountabilities). Addressing such systemic barriers moves organizations from taking a reactive approach to wellbeing to one that embeds it as a core organizational value.

Given ongoing concerns related to talent attraction and retention, 2021 provided a number of key learnings that can help organizations re-evaluate goals and priorities for the coming year. Developing a holistic approach to employee wellbeing provides an opportunity to enhance the employee experience and can result in significant long-term benefits that support the bottom line and strategic organizational objectives.

McLean & Company Sources:

2022 HR Trends Report
2021 HR Trends Report

External Sources:

“Mental Health at Work 2019 Report.” Mind Share Partners, 2019. Accessed June 2021.
“Mental Health in the Workplace.” World Health Organization, 2021. Accessed June 2021.
“The 24th Annual Willis Towers Watson Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey.” Willis Towers Watson, 2020. Accessed June 2021.
Wigert, Ben and Sangeeta Agrawal. “Employee Burnout, Part 1: The 5 Main Causes.” Gallup, 12 July 2018. Accessed June 2021.

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