The world of work is shifting and transforming more quickly than we ever thought possible. What humans currently do, and will be doing for work in the future, is changing. The World Economic Forum predicts that ’65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist’. While demographic shifts and technological advancements play a role, there is already a clear indication that the health and wellbeing of workers will impact and define the future of work.
For many workers today the most substantial wellbeing impediments are mental, not physical. These include: toxic feedback; stress; unreasonable deadlines; juggling multiple priorities; increasing expectations of customers; and people needing to deliver more with less. These issues have the potential to create hazards mentally and impact physically. In the knowledge economy, people may still be able to work if they have physical ailments. However, people are impaired in all aspects of their work when they are not fit mentally.
The events of the past few years ended the illusion that we can separate our wellbeing (physical, mental, and spiritual) from our work. Between a global pandemic and the related shift in how and where we work, study, and live, there is no longer any question that our holistic wellness is a prerequisite for any action. This has been an awakening for us as humans, but particularly for leaders who have so much influence over their team’s wellbeing.
“Your well-being must never become an afterthought. It must be your first act.”
Health is Wealth
The global crisis may be subsiding, but the Future of Work is happening now. If you want to lead in 2022 and beyond, formally or informally, in any sector, at any level, you need to include the Future of Wellbeing in your Future of Work strategy. Without a strategy update, you will not manage to get or keep the talent, customers, investors, or innovation required for success in this new era for our economy. The Future of Work is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.
The future-ready organisation is first and foremost, ‘purpose first,’ according to McKinsey, as well as being clear on the value it adds, and cognisant that talent is more scarce than capital, culture is the secret sauce, and continuous learning is everyone’s day job. These elements did not magically appear out of nowhere in 2020, but their importance was accelerated and deeply felt. When employees lose the office experience, or risk their lives each time they clock in as frontline workers, knowing why they are showing up is mission-critical. As customer needs evolve in real-time, continuous learning about what we offer them, as well as where and how, is the difference between a successful transition or unplanned obsolescence.
“It’s in our biology to trust what we see with our eyes. This makes living in a carefully edited, overproduced and photoshopped world very dangerous.”
The $575 billion Cost of Not Investing in Team Wellbeing
Wellbeing is no longer an individual matter, but an organisational one. Often, employee wellbeing isn’t a leaders’ first consideration or priority. While it might have been easy to dismiss wellbeing as simply a personal matter in the past, top leaders who emphasise it will see significant returns. For instance, employees with high wellbeing are more resilient during widespread or personal tough times, are less likely to have unplanned days out of the office and have better performance than those with low wellbeing. The data tells us that remote workers have experienced wellbeing challenges including ergonomics and lower back pain, poor mental and emotional wellbeing, less exercise, low self-care, as well as fewer social connections. Here’s how leaders can address each of these relevant topics with their teams and organisation.
Stress and Mental Wellbeing
On average, only 5% of employees reach out to their employee assistance program (EAP) each year. Yet many people are experiencing mental stressors: Gallup data from last May showed that about half (47%) of employees felt worried and 24% felt lonely “during a lot of the day yesterday”. Leaders can encourage EAP usage by bringing in experts to discuss it, identifying champions of mental health within the organisation, and consistently communicating the program benefits. Leaders don’t have to be mental health experts; they just need to be a conduit to the right resources. Once they know what’s available, your people can take responsibility for the next steps.
Zoom gatherings and virtual drinks have been helpful for boosting team relationships because employees have an opportunity to be more open and vulnerable (a window into their homes, pets, and children). However, virtual cannot and will not ever replace in-person interaction. To promote social wellbeing, leaders must create a work environment that is conducive to friendship. Gallup finds that women who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are twice as likely to be engaged as those who say otherwise. The more fun your employees have at work, the more dedicated they will be to achieving their tasks and goals. Strong social connections outside of work are essential as well. Leaders need to make a point of asking employees to share stories about time spent away from work to demonstrate they authentically care.
One of the best ways to sustain team physical wellbeing is by providing a robust organisational wellness program. Leaders can actively take part in wellbeing initiatives to strengthen relationships and encourage employees to participate. When leaders are involved, it “green lights” individuals to activate and experiment with new ways to move and live healthy lives.
As we moved to home offices, many of us settled into chairs and workspaces that don’t meet the needs of our body’s musculoskeletal (MSK) system. One in two people in the United States has an MSK condition. This comes at a cost of $213 billion each year in healthcare and lost productivity. Even if leaders can’t immediately offer home ergonomic solutions, they can help their teams by sharing free resources like professional videos and advice about reducing the risk and severity of ergonomic ailments.
Prioritising self-care over a long list of responsibilities is easier said than done for many. And self-care is more than a trip to the day spa or a massage every once in a while. It includes a range of activities from getting the right kinds of vitamins and nutrients to relaxing, and even intentionally using your strengths. Gallup research found that those who spent more time using their strengths experienced less worry, stress, anger, sadness and pain. Employee wellbeing isn’t something leaders can afford to overlook – on the contrary, it’s more important than ever! Leaders who prioritise employee wellbeing will begin to see how it correlates directly with employee engagement along with a host of personal and business outcomes.
“In paying attention to our wellbeing, we address the needs of our environment – the society that we live in and our planet. Sustainability depends on community – when we learn to be happily reliant on each other, we’re less likely to turn to material consumption to meet our emotional needs.”
The Future of Wellbeing
This article is not a salute to Insta-wellness: wellness as a status symbol, wellness for the wealthy, or spaces where one fad replaces the last. The future of wellbeing holds the health and happiness of billions of people at stake. It’s hard to find a more compelling motive than that! Wellness is no longer a perk to be promoted out in the form of team yoga sessions or a meditation app. We have come to an inflection point where mental health and wellness must be identified as a fundamental building block for achieving long-term business success. To thrive, rather than merely survive, we must take care of the bodies, minds, and spirits of ourselves and our teams.
When people feel rested, nourished, safe, and that they belong, they are able to achieve peak performance, which has been shown to increase productivity by 500%. Trust grows among teams of people who are well, and that reduces the drag of stress and burnout. The resulting increases in team performance in terms of collaboration and efficiency make the Future of Wellbeing worth the investment. Research and first-hand experience of the past 18-months demonstrates in no uncertain terms that, as we have integrated work and life in terms of technology, time, space, and ultimately identity, we must also pursue holistic wellbeing in both professional and personal spaces. In an era in which human talent is the differentiator between competitors, investing in your people’s wellbeing is no longer an option.
“Our bodies play a huge role in the accomplishment of our goals and our overall happiness. Embodiment… is about tuning into our physical bodies and learning ways to support our health and well-being so that we can do what we need to do, and enjoy the journey.”
Making Financial Sense
Candidates will not even consider pursuing opportunities with companies that do not offer holistic wellness programs. Unhappy employees will leave. Leaders, take note: while 70% of you believe you provide good access to health and wellness benefits, only 23% of your employees agree. Times have changed and we must adapt as quickly – and thoughtfully – as possible.
Bottom Line Cost Savings
The NY Times reported workers cost US-based employers $575 Billion in 2019. That was before the pandemic! Imagine what that figure will be for 2020. The rates of burnout, anxiety, and stress that are emerging as trailing indicators of the shutdown suggest that 2021 figures will continue to increase, with particular costs related to mental health even as we are at less physical risk of illness. Many health systems around the globe have long realised the return on preventive care.
Top Line Growth and Innovation
It’s not rocket science – employees who are well, perform better. They show up ready and able to work, leading to a 6x return on wellness investments. Beyond showing up, people who are holistically healthy do the uniquely human things we need people to do in this era of automation. They are empathetic, creative, collaborative, and resilient. People who are not well of body, mind, or spirit, cannot possibly be expected to have those traits, and they are a challenge to be around.
“Burnout occurs when an individual has experienced prolonged demands, chronic stress, fatigue, a lack of support, and a decrease in satisfaction in what they are doing.”
The Burnout Badge
Modern life is scorched by two phenomena: overconsumption and a celebration of overdoing it. Consumers grow more impatient by the day, primed by the escalation of the on-demand economy. They want it all, for less, and the want it right now! Expectations derived from this unforgiving economy have trickled down to workers. Workplaces celebrate employees who are on-demand themselves: ready to ‘deliver’ at any and every moment. This is especially true in cultures known for a religious-like zeal for work, leading to drastic measures. Japan set a legal limit on working overtime to 45 hours per month. South Korea’s government now shuts off employee computers to prevent overwork.
In May, the World Health Organisation added occupational burnout to its International Classification of Diseases. To make matters worse, after the working day, most people spend an average of 2 hours and 16 minutes each day on social platforms. Scrolling and swiping through streams of content that normalise the perfectly fit, 23-year-old millionaire entrepreneur who only has picture-perfect fun while ticking exotic people, places and things off their bucket list. The pressure to ‘live the best life’ is omnichannel. Consumers’ efforts to be always on – personally and professionally – are causing many to burn through their mental and physical reserves. Amid a growing focus on wellbeing and an epidemic of exhaustion, individuals and employers are finally confronting their demanding lifestyles and unrealistic personal standards.
This shift has compelled brands all over the world to wage a battle against burnout. This is no mean feat when some of the ‘big boys’ glorify the #hustle and make slowing down shameful. Boys like Jack Ma and Elon Musk wear burnout as a badge of honour. Ma is on record boasting that working 996 (9 am to 9 pm, 6 days per week) is “bliss”. Musk is on record saying, nobody “changed the world on 40 hours a week.” In spite of the narrative, knowledge of the medical consequences associated with burnout (including diabetes, high cholesterol, and death for people under 45) is rising. Here’s the thing: burnout is becoming too expensive to ignore. It accounts for USD 125-190 billion in healthcare costs yearly, a figure that is only set to rise.
“Just because you take breaks doesn’t mean you’re broken.”
The Burn Unit
Rising rates of burnout are driving a booming ‘self-care’ sector, now worth USD 11 billion. Bombarded with wellness innovations – and peers proclaiming how ‘well’ they are on social media – consumers feel inadequate and cannot escape their burnout. Human behaviour is a sensitive thing: while awareness is key, constant awareness exacerbates the problem. When our brains and bodies feel overstimulated, it’s common for us to overreact more easily. When we’re so reactive, the slips and mishaps that cause more stress happen more often. This only compounds the problem. Let’s say you have been locked out of your email account and you call the IT helpdesk to get back in. Perhaps because you’re in freakout mode, you don’t explain the problem well, which means you’re on the phone with the helpdesk for much longer than necessary. This ultimately makes you late for an important meeting, and so it goes on. It’s an endless loop of stress and overwhelm that makes your day feel impossible.
If you’re feeling exhausted from a massive year of change, pause for a moment and know that it’s okay. Choose to take the necessary time to invest in your own wellbeing – you’re worth it! Demonstrate your self-love by taking care of you. This could take the form of simply getting better (or more!) sleep, speaking with someone about the challenges you are facing, investing into your physical or spiritual health, including vitamin and nutritional support in your diet, or taking a much-needed break from electronics. It is not only okay to prioritise your personal wellbeing – it is the key to your brightest future and the wellbeing of those around you. Bringing your best self to work is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself and your colleagues, customers as well as the wider community.
“Absence of disease is “NOT” good health.”
3 Most Common Mistakes of Wellbeing Initiatives
Corporate wellness spend was rising before the pandemic, by about 5% a year. This figure is expected to skyrocket once numbers for 2020 are shared. Like professional development, not all wellness programs are created equal. It’s not a case of ‘if we build it, they will come.’ Here are some common mistakes to avoid.
1. Not walking the talk
Too often leaders talk about work-life balance, mindfulness, or unplugging, but continue to work seven days, race through meeting agendas, sign on [and send emails] from holidays. Leaders must model their own wellness practices and use of the company’s wellbeing investments transparently so their teams feel they have permission to do the same.
2. Conflict with Responsibilities and Processes
When wellness offerings are logistically or technically distant from employees’ realities, they have no value. If you have frontline workers who are not in front of a computer much, your offerings must be app-based and available on-demand. If employees are expected to be at their desks in Zoom meetings for hours back-to-back, lunchtime physical fitness offerings won’t work. If you’re not adjusting the workload to accommodate for the additional burdens of work-from-home, no amount of mindfulness can prevent burnout. Ensure that you are setting your employees up for success with the wellbeing initiatives you invest in.
Every ‘body’ is different. Our diversity is our strength across race, age, working style, metabolism, sleep patterns, and more. In this way, no single tool or process will work for everyone. A portfolio of wellbeing offerings must be designed to represent the full breadth of working, thinking and behavioural styles, as well as job profiles at your organisation. Community design can inform this process to build a durable ongoing wellbeing program throughout the rest of 2021 and beyond.
“If you are good at something, make sure that thing is also good for your wellbeing.”
Love Your Work
Rather than viewing work as separate from life, or simply an obstacle to overcome, work is an important and significant part of our life’s journey. People work for much more than just remuneration. Leaders who can regularly communicate the organisation’s purpose will be more motivated and inspired to do their best work, and for work to enhance their wellbeing rather than inhibit it. The global pandemic simply increased the recognition that health, social connection and meaningful purpose are essential factors that impact and define the future of work. Workplaces need to adapt and respond so that workers are looked after while also being stretched and grown. This all needs to happen in an environment where they can flourish and thrive. In this way, our work will love us while we love our work.
“Dig the well before you are thirsty.”
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