The pandemic has put a lot of topics in new light and stark relief—and wellness is among these. The bad news is that wellbeing has declined for many, making it an especially current and critical issue. The good news, however, is companies are redefining, reinventing and expanding their approaches to wellness, happiness and fulfillment. And this is very positive for employees, and for business.
Beyond particular new solutions to wellbeing, it will be necessary to make strategic shifts to wellbeing—and they are likely adjustments your organization could be considering in order to attract, retain, serve people and nurture performance.
I spoke with senior-level experts at PwC, Wiley, KPMG, ServiceNow and Monster and their insights are informative. DeAnne Aussem is the Managing Director, Leadership Development & Wellbeing Leader for PwC. Danielle McMahan is the Chief People Officer for Wiley. Claire Barnes is the Chief Human Capital Officer for Monster. Gretchen Alarcon, is VP and General Manager for HR Delivery for ServiceNow, and Tracey Keele is Advisory Partner and Culture Co-Lead for KPMG. While none of these leaders claim their companies have all the right answers—no one does, after all—they have some terrific insights from which we can learn.
The pandemic has accelerated progress toward the future of work, and we can use this moment to harness thinking differently and move forward innovatively. McMahan explains, “We knew that [COVID-19] was going to forever change the way we work…[It] hurled us into that future of work. We’re already there.” None of us can argue the world has changed, work has changed and employees has changed. Barnes agrees change is significant. She says, “The world has changed because of what we’ve all experienced in the last 12 months. We’re recognizing that and we’re thinking about how that will reflect on our strategies and processes moving forward.”
People and their work are shifting. And as we’ve accelerated to new ways of working, wellbeing is a renewed priority. Says Alarcon, “For a lot of organizations, [wellbeing] has definitely risen to the top in terms of a priority, and I think what the pandemic has really shown us is there’s a lot that humans can do in terms of their resilience. But our focus still needs to be on how have things changed…it changes the way people need to think about how they are spending their time and how they are engaging.”
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Employee Expectations Are Changing
The backdrop for the acceleration and shifts in wellbeing is the nature of employee expectations—and the extent to which they are shifting. Employees are expecting more—even demanding more. All the experts agree people are appreciating the new levels of support they’re receiving and—importantly—expecting them to continue.
Employees value the new levels of priority on wellbeing from senior leaders, and employees are feeling more free to ask for support when they need it. Especially in terms of transparency, Barnes says, “Over the past 12 months, we’ve seen a real shift. The main thing is, they’re keener than ever for us to be transparent about our approach on these things. Employees are expecting us to have this at the heart of our culture.”
How companies support employees is another area in which expectations are shifting. Keele says, “The situation overall has fundamentally shifted folks’ expectations about what they expect of an organization to that organizations be much more caring and compassionate. This is core to our values.” The duration of the pandemic, and the continuing challenges it has created, has also made for constant adjustments. Keele reinforces this point, “We found that things that worked early on, don’t necessarily work as well anymore. So the expectations are changing all the time.” Says Aussem, “Some of our benefits and offerings have evolved based on what people have asked for.”
Tools and technology are no small matter either. At the beginning of the pandemic, people may have been more willing to put up with challenges like inferior technology or furniture, but as the work from home reality continues, they expect more robust and long-lasting solutions. Alarcon sees this clearly. She explains, “The expectations are shifting. As we’re a year in, employees are saying, these tools I was willing to deal with for a year, I’m no longer willing to [endure and] I need better support. We rethought how work got done, but [haven’t] put those changes into action in a way they’ll be sustainable. [Employees need to] really trust that these changes are something they will see ongoing.”
Shift 1: Wellbeing Is Central
Arguably, wellness has been on the proverbial radar screen for a long time, but it’s different today. First, it has become more central. Whereas wellbeing might have been something owned by HR previously, now it is top-of-mind for senior leaders across the business. Says Barnes, “Wellbeing was probably seen as a part of the HR strategy, in some cases maybe even part of the benefits strategy versus an organizational strategy, and that’s really changed over the past 12 months. It’s not just the HR group who is driving this. It’s coming from the top of the organization.”
The conversation must be broad, and employees must hear senior leaders and many different leaders talking about wellbeing. Aussem says, “Looking forward…it’s continuing to be responsive to [wellbeing] as an organization. Our wellbeing initiative we call, Be Well, Work Well. Our CEO is talking about it, our partners are talking about it, our teams are talking about it…the future of work needs to have this conversation normalized as part of the strategic agenda that leaders talk about all the time.”
Shift 2: Wellbeing Is Strategic
The reason is perhaps not such a surprise: When people have greater levels of wellness, they can bring their best to work. When they experience more fulfillment and happiness, they are in turn more engaged and productive, and the business benefits. Alarcon sees wellbeing is linked to organizational outcomes. She says, “Wellbeing ties very directly into organizational performance. One of the goals we’ve always had is to have employees bring their best selves to work. How can we be sure employees are feeling supported and ready to work so that they can give their best selves to the work we’re asking them to do.”
Wellbeing also helps people bring their authentic selves to work. Barnes sees its tie to diversity. She says, “The strategic importance of wellbeing goes back to how diversity increases productivity at work increases revenue, but wellbeing for me is important because it allows employees to bring their full and true selves to work. The lines between work and personal lives have blurred and we have to be able to support our employees to be able to be themselves. If employees bring the best of themselves to work, we know that impacts the bottom line and the top line. It’s central to everything we do.” Aussem adds, “If there’s one thing the pandemic has really—especially with our work from home—forced us all to think more about is what people need to be able to navigate both work and life when those boundaries become very blurred.”
Wellness is also important for attraction and retention which is key to growing the business successfully. Keele articulates, “We have to be able to attract and retain the very best talent and we want to be able to delight our clients every day and that helps us grow our business.” Wellbeing is an important way to do this.
Shift 3: Wellbeing Is Holistic
Wellbeing is also shifting toward a more holistic viewpoint. In the past, it may have been more limited—all about physical health or ergonomics, for example. But today, forward-thinking companies are defining wellbeing much more broadly to include physical, cognitive and emotional health as well as inclusivity and career growth. McMahan shares an example of this holistic approach. She says, “For us now, it’s thinking much more holistically [about wellbeing]…We started thinking much more comprehensively about how we pull [it] all together.”
Definitions are changing and becoming broader to encompass all kinds of wellbeing. Barnes says they’re taking a more expansive view. She says, “The definition [includes] the physical and mental health side…but also…diversity and inclusion because ensuring you have an inclusive workforce is also incredibly important, as is ensuring you’re giving back to your communities, you’re giving back to the environment. All of those things are captured within the wellbeing umbrella.” Wellbeing must also extend to all employee groups in multiple situations. Barnes explains, “We’ve been basically trying to make sure that what we were doing was offering not just one set of initiatives that supported just one employee group, but a broad range of initiatives which supported all aspects of wellbeing…”
Previously, wellbeing may have been more limited, but today’s challenges in terms of the pandemic necessitate a broader way of thinking. Alarcon offers, “In the past when you said ‘wellbeing,’ they would probably be more focused on work-life balance or talking about how long is the commute…When you think about wellbeing, we’re now thinking more around the mental, and stress and the anxiety components of it, [rather] than just physical wellbeing which is where we would have put the emphasis a year or two ago.” Likewise, PwC has an expansive view of wellbeing and Aussem says, “We talk about physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy here at the firm.”
This expansion creates the opportunity to rethink. Says Keele, “This whole experience has made us completely rethink wellbeing and recognize the importance of focusing on the whole person, not just the KPMG professional—and to start to take deeper consideration of things like mental health. We need to think about this much more holistically.” Aussem has considered how wellbeing can be supported across areas of people’s lives. Specifically, PwC has implemented a sabbatical program in which employees may take time off and retain a percentage of salary and full benefits. She says, “[It affords] protected time to focus on self, family or community enabled by your career domain through your employer. It is a special benefit.”
Consideration for wellness is broader, deeper and more important than before the pandemic. Barnes underscores its importance. Specifically she says, ”The pandemic has really sharpened our focus on what we need to do and how broad wellbeing actually is. It’s not just about physical health benefits. It’s about so much more than that.”
Shift 4: Wellbeing Is Systemic and Integrated
In a related way, the best companies are ensuring wellbeing approaches are systemic, and they are recognizing wellbeing must be part of the cultural fabric of the organization, rather than a program Scotch-taped onto an HR plan. Basic benefits to support wellbeing are table stakes, and companies must go farther now. McMahan describes their approach, “The concept of wellness has expanded beyond the traditional programs or benefit offerings that companies would have had in the past. It’s much more integrated into everything we that we do today.”
In thinking holistically, frameworks and conceptual models can help ensure nothing is left out. These can also help prioritize the most important issues. Keele took this approach with their 4C’s model. Says Keele, “Our starting point was to think about a framework to define wellbeing in a very holistic way to drive resiliency…to help people thrive in the face of pressures. The framework includes 4Cs of connect, celebrate, cultivate and care. The framework helps us ensure we’re thinking systematically about all the things that can impact wellbeing, so when don’t have any gaps.”
Says McMahan, “Wellbeing has gone from being very program-oriented…to being much more integrated in our overall future of work and employee value proposition. So as we think about how we create a comprehensive colleague engagement strategy, wellness is at the core…how do we integrate wellness into everything that we’re driving.”
Pwc has also embedded wellbeing. They’ve done this through tools and through the leadership structure. Says Aussem, “Another tool we’ve introduced…[is] our “Wellbeing Team Plans’. We ask every individual and every team to create a Wellbeing Team Plan…[including] structure and accountability [for their wellbeing habits].” She adds, “We look at wellbeing as a leadership skill…we have embedded it into our leadership development structure in how we develop our folks to be great leaders.”
Shift 5: Wellbeing Is Data-Driven
Wellbeing must also be data-driven. The ability to administer surveys, especially on a frequent basis using a pulse approach has paved the way for companies to check-in, react, respond and adjust as necessary. McMahan sees the importance of data and says Wiley uses data to listen, respond and continuously improve. Aussem shares, “Companies need to pay attention to what people say they need more of. [As an] example, [we are] listening to our people…we have citizen-led conversation series…asking very specific questions like ‘What do you need more of?’ ‘How can we evolve our thinking to best serve you?’. The voice of our people is critically important and then what we hear, we need to listen to and act on.”
Frequency of data collection is the new norm for companies. Says Barnes, “Prior to the pandemic, we surveyed employees on a quarterly basis. But at the start of the pandemic, we had a survey going out to our employees every two weeks, just to check in and see how our employees were feeling and how we could help. We use the data to look at what could we be doing more of for our employees.” KPMG takes a similar approach. Keele shares, “We have a continuous listening approach and we check in with our folks on a regular basis through things like surveys and focus groups to do a pulse check to see how they’re feeling, and what’s working and what we can learn.”
The opportunity to stay tuned in to employees will also become a more real-time approach, facilitated by technology and AI. Alarcon explains, “Where I think we have a huge opportunity is to capture feedback in the moment when the employee is likely to give a very real level of feedback [for example when they are in the middle of using a digital tool or platform].”
Shift 6: Wellbeing Demands Action
The other shift in wellbeing is toward action. It’s an unusual company which didn’t tout wellbeing previously, but many more are taking action today—demonstrating their values through their programs. Says Keele, “[People] expect and should demand an authenticity from their organization. Not just sending out a care package [for example], but [experiencing] those feelings of care and concern are genuine and coming from their direct leaders. We are leaning into behavioral changes.” Aussem adds, “[It’s important to] open a safe space to discuss the needs of the individual and the team and put in place those supporting tools that enable the conversation to be actioned [through] team plans, space on agendas of team meetings, friendly competitions, gamifying and incentivizing folks to participate.”
The Future of Wellbeing
So where do we go from here? Is the focus on wellbeing a flash in the pan or an ongoing reality? All the experts agree, wellbeing is important and here to stay. There are key reasons this is true, and the nature of wellbeing has shifted going forward.
Reciprocal. One of our human instincts is for reciprocity. When people do things for us, we want to do things for them. Wellbeing is like this as well. When we start with people and do the right thing for them, employees and the business benefits. McMahan explains, “Our colleagues give us as much flexibility as we give them.”
Important. Another reason wellbeing is here to stay is because it’s important. When people feel valued and when we attend to them as whole people, they can bring their best to work. Fulfillment leads to greater productivity and performance. Barnes expresses, “I think it’s always going to be of strategic importance to businesses. More than ever in the future, companies are going to need to be able to offer that opportunity [bringing your best self to work] to employees. Wellbeing will also ways be at the center moving on because we’ve realized the impact it has not only on employee morale and doing the right thing by employees, but business results.”
Personalized. Interestingly, wellbeing may become increasingly individualized, serving each employee in a unique way. Says Aussem, “Wellbeing is so personalized. It is not a one size fits all approach to benefits…what we’ve really realized and come to appreciate even more at the firm is just how important that customized and personalized approach to flexibility really is.” Technology, including AI, will pave the way for this future. Every employee is unique in terms of their work styles, work preferences and their situations. So wellbeing will include meeting employees where they are. Alarcon predicts, “We will see more of a trend toward personalized definitions of what employees need. What does wellbeing mean for this individual?”
Evolving. Like all things that relate to the human experience, we won’t reach the end of our efforts toward wellbeing. The best companies will continue to listen to employees, respond, readjust and improve. Aussem agrees, “While we have had a lot of focus on the various dimensions of wellbeing through the pandemic…this is not something that is new to PwC, nor is it something that will go away. It really is part of our culture.” McMahan emphasizes this point, “I think we will continue on this journey.” Keele believes this as well, “Things are forever changed and I don’t think we’ll go back to the old ways of working.”
The pandemic has been hard—really hard. But there are benefits as well. One of the primary positives is the extent to which companies are realizing how employee expectations are shifting and making wellbeing a part of their long-term strategies and solutions—because it’s good for people and good for business—and important for success in the future of work. And this is a bright future indeed.
NOTE: For details on how Wiley, ServiceNow, Monster and KPMG have implemented new solutions for wellbeing, see Wellness and the Future of Work: Some of the Best Companies Share their New Solutions, Forbes.com, March 14, 2021.