Wellness Check: What Can HR Really Do About Burnout?
In the wake of COVID and the Great Resignation, HR is burning out because their people are burning out. So, naturally, wellness has been on everyone’s mind lately. In fact, it’s become such an issue that SHRM launched a Workplace Mental Health Ally Certificate program just last year. Clearly, HR needs to take wellness seriously. But the path forward is not so clear.
Here’s what HR needs to know about workplace wellness programs, including limitations you need to consider before implementing strategies.
What is Workplace Wellness?
Before addressing what’s wrong with workplace wellness, it’s important to define it. And that’s actually part of the problem. What, exactly, does “wellness” mean in the office?
For some time, employers have implemented workplace initiatives designed to improve and promote health and fitness. But for the most part, traditional wellness programs only addressed physical health—especially since a healthier workforce could save the insurer and the employer significant costs over time.
The last two years, however, have highlighted how important mental health is to productivity, retention, and even physical health. So, increasingly, the definition of “wellness” has come to include mental health as well.
How you define wellness matters because it determines what solutions you should consider and what you can reasonably expect those solutions to accomplish.
After all, wellness programs are quite common.
According to a 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation survey of organizations that offer health benefits, 58% of employers with fewer than 200 workers and 83% with 200 or more offer at least one type of wellness program, such as smoking cessation, weight loss programs, and behavioral or lifestyle coaching. In addition, the study found that 38% of smaller organizations and 58% of larger ones expanded online telehealth services for mental health concerns, such as “emotional or financial distress, relationship issues, or other stressful situations.”
Similarly, in January 2022, SHRM found that 78% of organizations either currently offer mental health resources or plan to offer them in the next year.
In other words, the vast majority of employers are aware of a wellness problem and appear to be doing something about it.
What's Wrong with Wellness?
However, research has not found wellness programs to be particularly effective in changing behavior or cutting costs—at least, on the scale employers would expect.
Last year, for example, The Washington Post released the findings of its rigorous, randomized study of the long-term effects of physical wellness programs in the workplace. Ultimately, the conclusion was underwhelming:
After nearly three years, we didn’t see any substantial effects on employment outcomes (such as fewer sick days), health-care spending or objective health measures. We did find some improvements in self-reported health behaviors…. But we saw no effects on blood pressure, diabetes or obesity.
A 2020 study by the University of Illinois found a similar lack of measurable outcomes. One of the study’s authors concluded,
Many employers use workplace wellness programs in an attempt to improve employee health and reduce medical costs, but randomized evaluations of their efficacy are rare. Our randomized evaluation found no significant effect of the program on employee health measures or medical use.
The problem of measurability is even more pronounced with mental health wellness initiatives. That’s not to say mental health benefits aren’t working, but too few organizations are measuring the particular outcomes well enough to tell with statistical certainty.
For example, SHRM notes that 48% of employers are using employee engagement surveys to measure the efficacy of their mental health offerings—along with 47% measuring employees’ utilization of mental health resources and 43% measuring productivity and attendance.
But these are proxies at best and cannot reliably measure the outcomes of participating in particular programs. Increases in engagement and productivity could be attributed to many factors, and accessing mental health resources only indicates the need for them, not necessarily their effectiveness in improving mental wellness.
The Washington Post researchers sum up what’s wrong with wellness this way:
Partly because there’s such a huge array of wellness programs in use across a wide range of workplace settings, no one study can speak definitively to whether such programs ‘work’.... Does this mean that wellness programs are a waste of money? It depends on what you want to get out of them. Employees seemed to value the benefit, had heightened awareness of the importance of healthy behaviors and were trying to implement them. If employers are seeking to add benefits that workers value (or attract workers who value those benefits), the programs may be worth it.
In other words, wellness programs can still be valuable as a recruitment and retention strategy—even if the intended effects of such programs are hard to measure.
Types of Wellness Programs and Incentives
We’ve discussed workplace wellness more broadly, but now we’ll cover wellness programs and incentives more specifically.
Since so many diseases and other health-risks are exacerbated by unhealthy behaviors, most physical wellness programs take the form of educating and encouraging employees to build and maintain healthy life-long habits—such as smoking cessation, weight-loss, and nutrition programs. Still, other programs may take a more targeted approach with immediate health benefits—such as getting an annual physical or flu shot.
Wellness incentives are the specific ways employers encourage employees to meet wellness program goals. Most incentives take the form of wellness credits, or rewards for achieving health-related milestones. For example, wellness credits could include:
- Reimbursement for gym memberships
- Discounted health insurance premiums for receiving a flu shot
- Gift cards or cash for getting an annual physical
- Prizes for winning a step-count challenge
A healthier workforce is a happier one. So, physical health programs can indirectly influence outcomes in mental health as well.
To address employees’ mental health, most employers (73%, according to SHRM) offer mental health coverage as part of their group health plan. Additionally, most employers (again, 73%) offer employee assistance programs (EAPs), which provide employees with access to free and confidential mental health assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services for employees. Fewer employers (26%) offer employees workshops on mental health and resilience as part of a wellness program.
Employers can also get creative by offering unlimited PTO and work-from-home flexibility to support employees during a mental health crisis.
Employers have a variety of wellness tools available to them. But it still begs the question: Are these initiatives actual solutions or just bandages for covering up deeper personal and cultural problems?
What Can HR Really Do About Wellness?
Even with so many benefits options, the extent to which employers can “solve” wellness problems may depend on how comfortable they are getting involved in the lives of their employees. In other words, how far are you willing to go?
For example, more and more, research is bringing to light the negative effects of social media on mental health—with some even going so far as to call it a “public health crisis.” A concerned and zealous employer could try limiting social media use in the workplace in the interest of wellness, but many employers would be uncomfortable proposing such a policy even if they’re convinced of the negative effects.
Similarly, many employers have recognized the benefits of COVID vaccination, but far fewer have attempted to implement a vaccine mandate—even though the federal government has provided clear guidelines on how to do so legally.
So, it’s less a matter of whether they can than whether they will.
After all, a generation or so ago, many offices were filled with smokers whose employers likely understood the negative effects of tobacco use but didn’t think it was their responsibility to regulate their employees’ personal habits. They simply didn’t want to move faster than society.
While there’s no cure-all to solve the wellness crisis in the workplace, it’s not at all clear that the office is the place to cure personal and societal ills.
Employers should care about and support their employees' physical and mental well-being—especially when it’s within their power to prevent burnout. But they should also offer wellness benefits with more realistic expectations about what those initiatives can accomplish.
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