How organizations can strengthen wellness programs now

To help employees survive and thrive beyond our tumultuous era, take this smart guidance to heart.

By Tony Silber      
How to strengthen employee wellness

What should organizations do to enhance employee wellness programs going forward? The pandemic and related events of 2020 clearly represented a turning point. The phrase “Never let a crisis go to waste” is attributed to a lot of people, and it certainly applies now.

But with a staggering array of employee needs, and an even more overwhelming choice of options and priorities, it can be difficult to build an action plan—putting a framework around goals and then implementation and measurement. We asked three workplace wellness experts for their advice.

Pat Flynn, associate vice president of employee wellness at Northwell Health, a network of 24 hospitals in New York State, suggests locking in wellness programs created during and for the pandemic. “Employee well-being initiatives that you might have implemented quickly during the peak surge of COVID cases can be re-evaluated and perhaps continued as longer-term initiatives to support employees,” she says.  

Tracey Ferstler, assistant vice president and head of Return to Health at MetLife, advises employers review their benefits plans with an eye to addressing every area of holistic health. Organizational support tools might include employee-assistance programs that offer access to counseling for stress-management, for work-life balance, and for substance-abuse. They might offer childcare and legal support. The payoff is significant. Employees with EAP access show 17% more resilience than employees without EAPs, Ferstler says.

In addition, employers can look to offer financial-wellness tools and programs, as well as insurance programs covering a wide spectrum—life, disability, hospital indemnity, critical illness—this also can help employees boost financial security.

Mental health also should a priority and that starts with an open culture that does several things: build awareness about available resources, educate employees about the warning signs, and remove the stigma of asking for help. “Financial, mental, physical and social health are interrelated,” Ferstler says.

Michelle Artibee, director of workforce wellbeing at Cornell University, also emphasizes mental health offerings, saying employers should revisit such programs within the context of employee assistance programs and insurance coverage. Even if an organization thinks coverage is comprehensive, there still may be gaps, particularly in rural areas, she says. But employers can improve access to mental-health offerings without the limitations of geography thanks to the growth of virtual options, she adds.

Then there’s the culture, Artibee says. Managers can be trained to foster psychologically healthy work environments, notice concerning behaviors, and develop confidence in responding to them. “The relationship an employee has with their manager—and their immediate colleagues—has a significant impact on their wellbeing,” she says. “During a crisis the things that foster this kind of environment, such as frequent communication, transparency, and active listening, become even more important.”

Skilled leaders and managers make these things a priority even in chaotic times, because they know it impacts both individual wellbeing and the performance of the organization. Artibee says employers should use data to steer their efforts. Everything from employee-experience surveys to health-insurance enrollment and usage can be used to glean insights. “Translating that information into a strategy and action is challenging, but it is what makes transformation and progress feasible,” Artibee says.