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10 wellness initiatives for the workplace — and ways to get started
Ping-pong tables and gym memberships are cool, but they mean nothing if you only provide them to check a box — or in lieu of investments in wellbeing.
Let’s play a “choose your workplace game:”
You’re a mom who’s gotten two offers to work as a creative team lead. Workplace A has a ping-pong table, free lunch, and all the cakes you can eat. Unfortunately, there’s no provision for child care. Workplace B doesn’t have those things. But every month, you get child-care allowance and a caregiver mental health day off. Which would you choose?
To boost work performance, workplace wellness initiatives should give employees a sense of belonging and purpose at work. Focus on company culture, and listening — meeting people where they need you — than on things. It’s about making your people feel “whole” so they can bring their best selves to work.
Read on to learn why you should invest in workplace wellness and 15 ways to do just that.
The importance of mental health in the workplace
Depression and anxiety cost companies a collective $1 trillion per year in lost productivity.
Employees in good mental health cope excellently with everyday stressors, whether at work or at home. As a result, they:
- Are excited to come to work — reducing loss in revenue from absenteeism.
- Think clearly, make better decisions and turn in higher-quality work.
- Pay attention to safety instructions, avoiding preventable workplace injuries that increase healthcare costs.
- Communicate better with coworkers to ensure smooth workplace collaboration.
- Are happier, show up as their best selves, and positively affect the morale of coworkers.
- Are generally better engaged at work and likely to stay longer with their employer.
When employee health is great, there is improved engagement, communication, safety, and performance.
Our research shows that productivity and wellness are on the decline. As such, it makes sense for employers to offer wellness support and perks to preserve employee well-being.
How do you promote wellness in the workplace?
To promote employee wellness at work, create a culture of respect, psychological safety, and caring. A culture that cares enough about your employees' feelings, goals, development, and overall mental state. …because your employees need to know that you value them.
Create an environment that supports employees’ personal growth
Employees who feel like they are growing and learning in their job are more likely to be engaged and motivated.
The first step is to listen to them and try to understand their professional goals. Then, you can work with them to create customized growth plans that cater to both the business and each employee’s goals.
Other significant investments you can make include:
- Give back time and money so employees can attend seminars, conferences, and coaching.
- Allow employees to choose at least some of the projects they’ll work on.
- Allow employees some autonomy with how they approach solving problems at work. Increased autonomy at work improves job satisfaction.
Show employees the impact of their work
Did your company nail a big win for a customer? Let your employees know. Let them know the results of their work as well as the impact of each team member’s work.
Share feedback so people feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.
Remove ambiguity around job expectations
Ever been in a place where you weren’t sure what you needed to do to contribute in your role? It’s not a good feeling.
Lack of clarity leads to anxiety. Employees don’t know if they’re doing the right thing or if their performance is on par with expectations. That anxiety is a threat to mental health and to the employee’s long terms success in their role.
Recognize and reward good work
When you recognize someone’s effort, you trigger a release of dopamine in their brain. That dopamine creates feelings of pride and pleasure — and that’s great for mental health.
Raises, bonuses, or simply praising someone for a job well done is good incentive to keep them motivated. Encourage team members to appreciate their co-workers as well. If you use Slack, you could name a channel #praise and have people tag team members with positive feedback on Fridays. You could also get creative. Didi and Farouk, co-founders at Famasi use a game where each team member has 10 points they can gift to co-workers to say thank you.
Set boundaries around language, communication, and time outside of work
Use inclusive language that allows underrepresented groups to feel comfortable. People shouldn’t want to hide who they are around you.
Restrict calls, emails, and pings to within work hours. If your team is distributed around different time zones, teach people to consider co-workers’ local time when they call or ping.
Encourage employees to speak up about issues
People need to feel safe enough to talk about their challenges at work. Do they feel like they can’t handle the new project you’ve assigned them? Is a co-worker harassing or bullying them? It’s bound to affect their mental health if they can’t share.
And it isn’t restricted to work matters alone. Did a loved one get a life-changing diagnosis? Is their pet sick? Are they drowning in debt? While you may not be able to fix their personal problems, they should feel safe enough to talk about them. Otherwise, it might affect their health at work.
How to measure workplace wellness
The biggest indicator of workplace wellness is often employee engagement. Do your employees seem committed to companies goals or are they just going through the motions?
“... it’s the feeling at the company, Everyone appears happy, more settled, and also focused on the job and excelling.”
Richard Barker, Marketing Executive at Clarion Security Systems
Here are more tactical ways to measure workplace wellness:
- Run employee engagement surveys. The folks at remote.com use bi-annual Employee Engagement Surveys to measure engagement and wellness. They look at employee satisfaction score (ESAT), employee net promoter score (eNPS), and Belonging score.
- Allow anonymous employee feedback channels for employees to share negative feedback without fear of repercussions. Are a good number of employees giving negative feedback? That’s a spot-on indicator of bad workplace health.
- Ask employees about their wellness and mental health in monthly 1:1s. Both Remote and Famasi use monthly 1:1s between employees and managers to help measure work-life balance.
Other indicators of workplace wellness include health metrics like absenteeism rates and the number of health insurance claims.
10 wellness initiatives for the workplace
We looked into 20+ companies known for being employee-friendly (and profitable). Here are the wellness initiatives they’ve used at work — beyond physical activity and healthy snacks.
10 wellness initiatives for the workplace
- Mental health and wellness support, e.g therapy or coaching
- 4-day work weeks to allow employees to recharge
- Reduced or async meetings to respect people’s time and boost productivity
- Dedicated quiet spaces for breaks
- Paid self-care and mental health days off
- Fertility journey help for people struggling with infertility
- Set paid time off to pursue personal projects
- Generous co-working space allowance
- Paid bereavement leave
- Childcare and caregiver allowances
Those wellness benefits positively affect employees’ mental health, as well as their commitment to the things and people they love.
Here’s why it works and what to do:
1. Mental health and wellness support
6.8 million US adults suffer excessive anxiety about their performance at work and other aspects of their lives. Unfortunately, only 43% of those people receive help for their anxiety.
Coaches and therapists are invaluable tools for a happier, healthier workplace.
Keah Nguyen, Senior People Operations Specialist at Remote.com says the company pays for sessions “where employees can talk 1:1 with a counselor, coach, or therapist on any topic.” When you give employees access to therapy or coaching sessions, you allow them to manage anxiety before it affects their work.
2. 4-day work weeks to allow employees to recharge
Buffer moved to a 4-day work week in May 2020 to combat anxiety and stress. Since then, employees have worked on only four out of five workdays per week. The particular day off is up to each team to choose.
After implementing 4-day work weeks for a month, Buffer saw:
- Higher autonomy: 4.3 → 4.5
- Lower stress levels: 3.3 → 2.7
- Higher work happiness: 3.9 → 4.2
3. Reduced or async meetings to respect people’s time and boost productivity
Atlassian reports that employees spend 31 hours in unproductive meetings per month. Subtract 31 from 160 — the regular monthly working hours — and employees have 20% less time to do their work.
And that’s even before you consider how draining meetings can be. Even for remote and hybrid teams, Zoom fatigue is a real thing.
To combat this, Float organizes async standup meetings and flexible work schedules.
4. Dedicated quiet spaces for breaks
What do you do when you’re angry, hurt, or tired? Chances are high you want to be alone — and away from your stressors. A dedicated break room where employees can take time to unwind, de-stress, or blow off steam help with this onsite. These spaces are also ideal for other wellness activities, like meditation, yoga, or company-sponsored health screenings.
5. Paid self-care and mental health days off
There are days when an employee has so much going on that they wouldn’t want to come to work. And if they did come, they wouldn’t be productive either.
Policies that support mental health days off help employees cope on days like that. Self-care days also help employees look after themselves so they're bringing their best selves to work. This dedicated time goes a long way toward preventing workplace burnout.
Keah says “Remote sponsors 1 day per quarter for everyone to take a day off just for themselves — for self-care, to do things they love, do something just for them.”
Encourage your employees to garden, journal, or do something relaxing on their mental health days. At BetterUp, employees are given four company-wide Inner Work Days a year. We encourage them to use this time to nurture themselves, their creativity, and their well-being. Employees often share how they used this time, encouraging and normalizing a people-first culture.
6. Fertility journey support
Mental health stressors don’t come from the workplace alone. Unfortunately, the effects aren’t restricted to the place where stress originates. 60% of people struggling with infertility say it’s affected their mental health.
That’s why Zapier includes fertility support as one of their employee benefits.
7. Set paid time off to pursue personal projects
Almost everyone I know has interests outside of work. When work doesn’t allow people to pursue their interests, it triggers mental health concerns.
Doist gives all employees one month per year “to spend on a work-related project they’re passionate about.” And Webflow gives 10% of time (4 hours per week) to focus on building skills, and working on projects outside of the daily to-do’s.
Both companies have employee retention rates well above average, with most people staying at least 4 years.
8. Generous co-working space allowance
Research links social isolation to depression, impaired executive function and other mental issues. And remote work can be isolating. If your team is remote, co-working space allowances help team members get out of their homes and meet people. It’s a great investment in team building, since it gives employees a chance to connect with other team members nearby.
Float gives every employee a generous $250 per month so they have their pick of co-working spaces.
9. Paid bereavement leave
When people face loss, getting to work should be the last thing on their mind. Paid leave to mourn is a great way to show up for your employees at times like this.
Convertkit offers employees six weeks of ‘supportive leave’ to employees.
10. Childcare and caregiver allowances
Caregiving is one of the most stressful commitments and many people have children and sick or older parents they care for.
A good way to relieve that stress is to offer childcare or caregiving support. That way, people can hire nannies or nurses for their loved ones and relieve some of the mental stress that comes with caregiving.
How to implement workplace wellness programs
Start with a survey to learn what employees would like. Once you have the results, do this:
- Make sure the initiatives are accessible to everyone.
- Communicate the choices and the reasons behind them to existing employees.
- Don’t stop listening.
- Introduce the initiatives in your onboarding experience.
- Measure the effectiveness of your wellness programs.
1. Make sure the initiatives are accessible to everyone
This means accommodating different needs and abilities, as well as offering a variety of options so that everyone can find something that works for them.
2. Communicate the choices and the reasons behind them to existing employees
This will help ensure that everyone is on board with the changes. It also increases the chances of adoption. Ideally, employees will be excited about the resources and creating a healthy lifestyle.
3. Don’t stop listening
Observe for reception and changing preferences to keep improving your workplace wellness challenge or program.
4. Introduce the initiatives in your onboarding experience
Onboarding sets the tone for your employer/employee relationship. Introduce the importance of employee wellness right away. Tell them about programs, subscriptions, or fitness classes that they have access to through work.
5. Measure the effectiveness of your wellness programs
Human resources can use engagement surveys, monthly 1:1s, and anonymous feedback for this. Some tools, like wellness apps or BetterUp’s People Analytics Dashboard, have built-in means to measure effectiveness. These metrics will help you understand which initiatives make the biggest difference to your team.
Companies seeing the ROI in corporate wellness programs
We have lots of case studies about the impact of focusing on employee wellness. Coaching, for example, builds the kind of resilience that improves performance, mental health, and productivity. That’s ultimately great for business profits.
Here are two we’d like to highlight:
Employees learn to set boundaries and ask for help at Delivery Hero
Delivery Hero provides employees with growth opportunities, manager support, and coaching to help build resilience.
The results were an increase in self-compassion, emotional regulation, stress management, and more.
Director of Leadership, Micah Lasseter said “When leaders use BetterUp (Coaching), they invest in themselves. A dedicated call with an external coach gives them the space to talk about topics, skills, and themes that are relevant to them at that moment.”
Having that outlet means they can focus on work when they come to work.
Twilio boosts retention by over 500%
When Twilio needed to inspire focus and commitment, they turned to coaching.
Chevron witnesses a better-connected workforce
Higher levels of social connection lead to 18% higher job satisfaction, and 17% more feelings of meaning and purpose in work.
Chevron was able to boost social connections for its workforce using group coaching. They witnessed a remarkable increase in employee psychological safety and resilience too.
The best wellness initiatives will come from listening
There’s no cut-and-paste recipe for wellness. Every company is unique, every employee will have different needs.
The best initiatives will come from listening to your employees. Everyone wants to be heard.
Create a work environment that doesn’t punish speaking up. Teach people that their voices matter. Invest in therapy and coaching so they can safely share with third parties what they may not feel comfortable sharing with you.
BetterUp Staff Writer