Up until the late 1980s, when Occupational Health & Safety practitioners started emphasizing mental health, employers generally did not think beyond their employee’s physical wellbeing within the workplace. The employer-employee relationship involved a simple trade of monthly remuneration in exchange for employees’ time and expertise. Over time, through the rise of The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and then more recently, with the advent of COVID-19, business leaders began to realise that their employees’ whole person-health and wellbeing, inside and outside of work, had a significant impact on employee job performance and productivity.  Today, it is understood that employers have a duty of care – a responsibility to support employees’ wellbeing both inside and outside of work. In this way, employers positively impact the lives of their employees, which in turn has a positive impact on the health of their organisation and its bottom line.

What is holistic health?

Holistic health is about caring for the whole person. It simultaneously addresses the physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual components of health and wellbeing. Each of these facets can impact the other. For example, physical activity can bring mental health benefits that include elevated mood and reduced stress. And depression can cause headaches and fatigue.

The erosion of employee health and wellbeing

Across the world, organisations are recording increasing levels of stress and mental health issues among employees. Work can precipitate significant stress which, left unchecked, can cause adverse effects on mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report1 finds that employee stress rose in 2020, likely due to the pandemic – but that employee stress has been rising for over a decade. Interestingly, Gallup finds that managers play a significant role in the stress workers feel on the job, which influences their daily stress overall.

Here are just five examples of the many detractors to employees’ good mental health:

  1. Excessive workload: If the work volume or tight deadlines are beyond an employee’s capability to handle and result in poor work or missed deadlines, this is likely to become a major source of anxiety.
  2. A feeling of lack of control: Work-related stress is made worse when employees feel that they have little control. Common elements beyond their control include setting work processes, contributing to decision-making or having input on performance targets.
  3. Lack of support: Work-related stress is made worse if employees are not receiving sufficient support of the right kind from colleagues, team leaders or managers. On the other hand, peer support at work can increase resilience in employees and enhance job satisfaction.
  4. Bad management: Managers play a vital role in the mental health of their employees. Managers who provide too little support or who are critical or overly-demanding – or who micro-manage – will inevitably be an enormous source of stress to employees.
  5. Being trapped in an “always on” work culture: Today, work and life are not mutually exclusive. Employees who feel that they have no choice but to be available 24/7 experience blurring of work-life boundaries are at risk of poor sleep and neglecting relaxation and physical activity as well as eating healthily. All of these can impact mental health.

Employee Health & Wellness programmes – supporting the whole person

Employee wellness programmes commonly refer to a diverse collection of initiatives within an organisation that serve to promote healthy lifestyles and wellbeing among employees. There are numerous types of employee initiatives that qualify toward building employee wellness programme. These initiatives are holistic in addressing the different areas of wellbeing. For example:

  • Smoking prevention drives
  • Fitness drives and providing on-site fitness initiatives
  • Health screening
  • Healthy lifestyle education and incentives
  • Financial education
  • Stress reduction workshops
  • Soft-skills training
  • Mentoring programmes
  • Coaching programmes
  • Official policies and procedures that foster work-life balance and prevent an “always on” culture
  • Employee recognition and reward programmes
  • Employee Assistance Programmes that offer short-term confidential counselling

The benefits of improving employee wellbeing through establishing a health and wellness programme has been proven to have tremendous implications for business. For example, employees who believe their employer cares about their wellbeing enjoy more job satisfaction and higher levels of engagement. They produce better quality work, are more productive and stay longer.

Here are four key steps to building a successful employee wellness programme:

  1. Management buy-in
    As an employer, it is essential to walk the talk. In other words, employees may view health and wellness programs as just a “tick-box exercise” for the organisation if there is no overt commitment and participation from management.
  2. Strategic planning
    It is important to provide programmes that employees want and need. Start by understanding the real needs of your employees so you can create a programme that is appropriate and seen as valuable. The next step is to consider your company’s budget and tailor elements of the programme accordingly. There are many initiatives that require time and effort but do not cost a lot.
  3. Recruiting employee champions
    Planning a successful wellness programme should have input and champions from across all levels of the company, especially from upper-level management. It is helpful to set up a wellness coordinator as a point person – or a wellness committee – to assist in driving, tracking and continually improving the programme.
  4. Employee participation
    Companies should not only put time and effort into creating the programme, but also into promoting it in such a way that employees see the benefit and want to participate. Ensure that employees have a clear understanding of what the programme entails, why it is there and how it can benefit them and their families. Otherwise, you run the risk of them viewing it as an optional or irrelevant side activity.

Employees are the most valuable asset an organisation has. It makes sense that taking a holistic approach toward employee wellbeing should be at the very foundation of organisational culture. For job seekers, the importance of wellbeing and work-life balance has become particularly important. And for employers who care for employee health and wellbeing there are numerous measurable benefits to be had, from attracting and retaining a high calibre of employees to higher productivity and profitability, and fewer safety incidents.


Over to you for sharing your comments and experiences.

About the Author: Kerstin Jatho

Kerstin is the senior transformational coach and team development facilitator for 4Seeds Consulting. She is also the author of Growing Butterfly Wings, a book on applying positive psychology principles during a lengthy recovery. Her passion is to develop people-centred organisations where people thrive and achieve their potential in the workplace. You can find Kerstin on LinkedIn, Soundcloud, YouTube and Facebook.

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