Workplace Wellness: Taking Care of Our Most Precious Resource – Our Employees

The majority of workplace wellness programs are focused on enhancing physical wellness, such as stress management, promoting weight, and smoking cessation. While physical wellness continues to be a hot topic, there are other important issues in the workplace that are less often part of the conversation – substance abuse and mental health issues.

Very often, addiction is often a facade that individuals suffering trauma use to disguise pain and sometimes underlying mental health issues. These issues can lead to deficits in responsible behavior and reliability, absenteeism, chronic physical symptoms, low energy, anxiety and depression.

For those working in human services, workplace wellness is especially vital due to the emotionally taxing and universally stressful nature of our work, and because everything hinges on the successful relationship between employees and clients. Be mindful that human service employees are particularly susceptible to compassion fatigue, overwork and burnout. Look for signs that the employee may be taking on more than they can handle. Show gratitude and make sure to let them know how much they are appreciated.

Practice proactive observation. Pay close attention to your staff with all of your senses, and notice anything that seems out of sync with their behavior. A well-trained mental health manager will use their observation skills to detect subtle changes that may indicate the beginning of a wellness issue. Does the employee seem unusually tired, gaunt, stressed, irritable, nervous, or sad? Don’t immediately chalk it up to laziness, a bad attitude, or poor work ethic. Ask questions. Be present. Get involved.

All employees can potentially have mental health or substance issues. They all need to be heard and validated. Managers need to first understand the issue from the employee’s perspective before problem solving. Managers should focus on finding solutions, starting with informing the employee about the supports available within the organization as well as in the community. It is critical to get the employee help while following HR protocols. However, leave the diagnostics and therapeutic interventions to an objective professional, always keep those boundaries in check.

The first conversation may be uncomfortable, but change begins wherever the person is at that first touch point. There may be concerns about privacy, professional protocol, or getting too personal. The best strategy is for managers to remain calm, neutral and non-judgmental, and keep a matter of fact tone. Simply mention what you have observed without shaming, blaming scolding or accusing. This will put the employee at ease and lessen defensiveness.

Addiction and mental illness are part of the human condition. They are illnesses that need to be part of the conversation and treated like any other workplace health issue. It is important to normalize the process for asking for assistance when one is in crisis, even as a professional in the field. When managers are mindful of addiction, loss and trauma issues, and conscious of anti-stigma messages, they can begin to cultivate and maintain a workplace culture dedicated to holistic wellbeing across all elements of health. They can begin to make workplace wellness a part of the organizations mission and the way they do business.

As human service leaders, we can directly influence the health of our employees through workplace wellness initiatives. When we offer wellness improvement assistance in the workplace, the

chances are favorable that employees will make positive behavioral changes. A recent Gallup poll showed that 60% of U.S. employees are aware that their company offers a wellness program, and 40% of those who are aware of the program participate in it. Because few workplace wellness programs dedicate energy to other key elements of employee well-being beyond physical wellness, a substantial gap exists in other areas of health, such a mental health, emotional health, spiritual health, social health and financial health.

Are your employees thriving, struggling or suffering? Gallup found that in the U.S., 28% of adults aged 18 and older are not thriving in any of the well-being elements, while 7% are thriving in all five. Gallup also found that 4% of adults are thriving in physical well-being but nothing else. What happens when employees are challenged by mental health or substance abuse problems?

  1. More absenteeism
  2. More likely to file a workers’ comp claim
  3. More likely to seek out and change employers
  4. Less likely to bounce back after a setback
  5. Less likely to volunteer or give back to the community

By recognizing and embracing the importance of total well-being, managers can take action to make a positive difference in their employees’ well-being. First, they must commit to wellbeing. It should be an integral part of the organization, reflected in its mission and values. Employees must understand that it is a part of the culture and that they are a part of it. Second, they must communicate a clear and consistent message that defines what well-being is, how it is achieved, how is it evaluated, and its benefits. This helps employees understand and internalize the messaging. Third, management must set an example for employees to follow, which means paying attention to your own overall well being.

Management must authentically care about each and every employee as unique individuals with a unique set of strengths, challenges, and circumstances especially in human services where our staff is our most important asset. It is not one size fits all. Managers can’t solely focus on what the organization stands to gain from improvements in employee health and retention, or typical bottom-line outcomes. There must be balance. Employees must know that they are our most valuable resource and that their health is truly important to us. Leadership must also establish wellness policies that affect every aspect of work life, such as healthier foods, snacks and beverage served in the cafeteria, flextime schedules, and initiatives that reduce stress or fatigue during the workday. Healthier employees undoubtedly beget a more prosperous organization.

Many organizations that execute well-being interventions neglect to test whether they actually work. Measure and monitor the effectiveness of your well-being programs. Make sure it can adapt over time to best meet employee needs. Adjust the programs when necessary to increase participation. Create a wellness ad hoc committee made up of employees from a cross section of your organization.

When employees with health or mental health challenges are treated with respect and are given the appropriate supports, they often become the most dedicated employees and top performers and help to boost organizational morale. Making workplace wellness a top priority ensures the wellbeing of both the bottom line and our most precious resource…our employees.

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