Corporate wellness initiatives, which strive to promote psychologically healthy workplaces, are increasingly popular across organizations of all sizes. The American Psychological Association has an entire Center devoted to “organizational excellence,” and for good reason. Depression alone is estimated to result in 200 million days of lost labor annually, costing employers up to $44 billion.1 This lost productivity has inspired many employers to embrace workplace wellness initiatives. Not only do such initiatives help employees achieve greater job satisfaction, physical and mental health, distress tolerance, and higher morale, but organizations themselves profit from this investment in their workforce. They derive enhanced performance, better employee retention, reduced absenteeism, lower healthcare costs, improved customer satisfaction, and fewer workplace accidents. By fostering a culture that values employee wellness, employers can reap the benefits of not just a healthier and happier workforce, but a more productive and efficient one, too.
An array of tools for promoting employee engagement and wellness are available to organizations interested in pursuing this mission. A multimodal approach, drawing on many of these methods, and sensitive to the unique strengths and challenges within an organization is optimal. Creating a psychologically healthy workplace starts with recognizing employees’ values and incorporating them into the corporate culture. An organization can demonstrate, for example, a commitment to work-life balance by offering a flexible schedule, childcare assistance, and paid leave. It can demonstrate a commitment to professional growth and development by providing continuing education courses, tuition reimbursement, and career coaching. Each organization, and even different divisions within an organization, must identify and flexibly adapt to the specific needs and values of its workforce to optimize employee wellness.
Regardless of other priorities within an organization’s corporate wellness plan, an explicit emphasis on psychological wellbeing is key. Healthy lifestyle programs are a popular approach to holistically addressing employee well-being. These may include on-site or free stress management and yoga classes; discounts on gym memberships or exercise equipment; and weight loss and smoking cessation programs. Some organizations offer free physical health screenings and financial incentives for healthy behaviors (e.g., biking to work, not smoking). Particularly ambitious corporate wellness plans include free on-site healthcare clinics and recreational facilities. A common thread among these programs is their typical emphasis on physical health. Although physical activity improves mental health, and the distinction between physical and mental health is a false dichotomy in many respects, an overt focus on mental and emotional well-being is imperative within organizations that truly wish to foster employee wellness.
Employers offering health insurance plans should confirm their plans include adequate mental health coverage. Contracting with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is another way to facilitate easy and affordable (or free) access to mental health professionals who can help individual employees navigate problems such as work-related stress, grief, chemical dependency, and depression. EAP’s typically offer brief assessments, short-term counseling, and assistance with external referrals when more intensive services are appropriate. Some EAP’s function in additional capacities, facilitating mental health trainings, providing support around workplace violence incidents, or consulting with leaders to address various employee and organizational issues.
While mental health insurance parity and EAP counseling services are valuable components of workplace wellness programs, they are vastly underutilized by the working population2. Several factors contribute to this problem, including stigma associated with accessing mental healthcare, even outside the work environment. Concerns about privacy, particularly with respect to EAP services, present another barrier, as many employees worry that their personal problems may leak to colleagues or supervisors. When EAP’s work closely with corporate leadership to address other organizational goals, these concerns are heightened, as the potential for conflicts of interest and privacy breeches increase. Further contributing to underutilization of mental health-oriented workplace wellness initiatives is a lack of awareness about the existence of these services; confusion about their offerings; and inadequate training of managers to recognize and refer employees to such programs when indicated.
These barriers highlight important growth areas for corporate wellness programs. Whereas addressing the stigma around mental health and chemical dependency is an important long-term goal, opportunities exist to promote a more psychologically healthy workforce in the immediate future. First, organizations must ensure that the programs they develop are comprehensive and entirely confidential at all levels. Privacy and anonymity must be top priorities for any form of mental health assessment and treatment employees receive, and this must be clearly and consistently conveyed to employees. Including language about the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act when referencing workplace mental health initiatives may enhance employees’ trust and confidence in the privacy of their healthcare information. Protecting employees’ privacy also requires utilization of anonymous mental health screening tools and access to affordable psychotherapy services by licensed mental health professionals without potentially conflicting roles within the organization. Mental health screening should be administered in much the same way as biometric screening. That is, it should be strongly encouraged for all employees, incentivized, administered through third parties, and comprehensive. Rather than narrowly inquiring about symptoms of depression or burnout, as many wellness programs emphasize, a genuine effort to advance the psychological well-being of the workforce requires screening for other common conditions such as anxiety, bipolar, and substance use disorders. Screening is a crucial step in this process, but to be meaningful, it also requires that employees be alerted to their results and informed of specific actionable steps they can take to address their problems.
Once an organization has developed a comprehensive and confidential mental health initiative, it ought to actively promote the existence of this, and other, wellness programs. Even the best programs are worthless if employees do not know they exist. This goal can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Routine screening, as highlighted above, can go a long way toward connecting the people who need mental health services with the right available support. Additional examples of increasing broader awareness of various wellness initiatives include providing regular communications about corporate wellness programs through different modalities (e.g., emails, flyers, meetings, social media); ensuring variable and easy access to wellness services (e.g., in-person, on-site, 24/7 telephone, video-based); and training managers to more effectively encourage utilization of corporate wellness programs. Finally, organizations should work to actively “walk the walk” when it comes to health and wellness, for example regularly spotlighting leaders engaging in wellness activities, and sharing articles about self-care and work-life balance.
1Stewart, W. F., Ricci, J. A., Chee, E., Hahn, S. R., & Morganstein, D. (2003). Cost of lost productive work time among US workers with depression. JAMA, 289(23), 3135. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.289.23.3135 (link no longer valid)
2Agovino, T. (2019, November 21). Companies seek to boost low usage of employee assistance programs. SHRM. https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/winter2019/pages/companies-seek-to-boost-low-usage-of-employee-assistance-programs.aspx