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How to craft a meaningful wellness program in the era of COVID-19

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As the current public health crisis continues to wreak havoc across the globe, a new epidemic is brewing inside our home offices — one that requires employers’ immediate attention.

The transformations caused by COVID-19 are quickly piling on new pressures and hurdles to everyone’s daily routines. When I founded my company a few years ago, I never imagined juggling my responsibilities as CEO with my duties as a father of four on a near hourly basis. Yet today, I’ve come to accept my kids’ muffled voices and interruptions on important Zoom calls as an inevitability of the times. This pandemic is forcing everyone to adapt in order to accomplish their goals and keep their families safe. However, these impressive moments of fortitude are not without a cost to wellness and mental health, especially for working parents.

A recent study by parenting benefits company Cleo shows that working parents are struggling to keep up with their dual roles as employees and teachers/caregivers — 1 in 3 surveyed households have a parent that has left the workforce or scaled down to part-time to care for their children because of COVID-19 related circumstances. This is causing a significant toll on their wellbeing. But working parents are not alone in feeling added stress during this time. Young professionals, isolated from their families and friends, must navigate pivotal moments in their careers in uncharted virtual territory. Ultimately, not a single professional is immune to the work/life challenges presented by the pandemic.

As the lines between work life and home life become increasingly blurred, instances of overworking, loss of productivity, and burnout are inevitable. Unfortunately, this is costing employers: according to Healthpayer Intelligence, employers are losing out on $225.5 billion a year due to lost productivity related to mental wellness alone. With new stressors compounding on employees each day, it’s not enough just to offer emotional support. Employers must proactively invest in equitable wellness programs that consider individuals’ unique needs and struggles. Here are some considerations to keep in mind to help frame health and wellbeing offerings throughout COVID-19.

Rethink wellness
As wellness has become an increasingly “hot” trend, it has attracted its fair share of critics, who question its value in both the workplace and the marketplace. Several parodies instantly come to mind that paint wellness to be a cartoonish Goop-inspired fad. While I view wellness as a modern necessity, these criticisms are not without some validity.

The way we understand wellness today is far too narrowly defined. When thinking about wellness, we should be thinking about people’s overall wellbeing — not a generalized prescriptive category. Face masks and exercise programs only go so far for many people, especially in a pandemic. Maintaining one’s well being is different for everyone and expanding our definition of wellness is the first step toward a more inclusive and equitable workplace. The sooner employers stop the paternalistic habit of defining what exactly wellness needs to mean, the sooner they can begin to make a difference in their employees’ well being during this time of crisis.

Give your employees choice
When creating an employee wellness program, giving your employees choice is key. Prescriptive one-size-fits-all programs oftentimes fail to meet employees’ actual needs. What may help one employee, may not necessarily work for another. An exercise and meditation program could end up being a superfluous gesture for a busy working mother already struggling to manage her time. In the same way, a creative childcare offering could be very useful to that mom, but may mean nothing to a stressed out single millennial.

Wellness looks different for everyone, especially in times of crisis. By having a diverse array of offerings and allowing employees to choose what will have the largest impact on their own wellbeing, these programs will have a greater chance at uplifting your organization’s overall wellness. Employers should be enabling their employees towards a better wellness, not making their choices for them.

Care extends beyond the workday
Effective wellness programs do not come to a grinding halt at close of business, especially in today’s climate. If employers really want to improve the wellbeing of their teams, they need to consider their people as whole human beings — not just as colleagues that operate eight to nine hours a day. Offices have moved into our living or bedrooms, and it’s increasingly difficult to separate personal from professional time. As we navigate this reality of disappearing lines, it’s important for employers to offer wellness resources and programs that too extend beyond the 9-5 work day. Employers can demonstrate empathy by crafting services meant to aid their workforce in all facets of their lives — from support with childcare, to spousal therapy, to virtual yoga classes.

Cash isn’t king
Paying your employees is simply not enough to cultivate a supportive environment anymore. As a leader in a time of crisis, you must find innovative ways to spark joy and meaning among your team. With employees working tirelessly toward your company’s goals despite the current circumstances, showing your appreciation through creative gestures can go a long way. This can be as simple as a monthly flower delivery to brighten someone’s day or week, or as complex as a virtual guided meditation. Signaling to your employees that you see their hard work is more important than ever. Wellness programs give employers the opportunity to give back with services that can truly uplift their teams for the better. Use them.

People are suffering through this crisis in more ways than one and employers must come up with creative solutions to lend support, and show people they matter. Those that fail to do so, could lose critical talent, not to mention billions of dollars in lost productivity. Ultimately, what matters most for an impactful and equitable wellness program is offering employees choice — as we grapple with COVID-19 in our own unique ways, we can’t dictate what peoples’ well being benefits should be. They should be given the freedom — and ability — to make those choices on their own. Not only do employees need support, they need it now. Rolling new initiatives into next year’s budgeting cycle may prove fatal. Employees are going to remember how they were treated in the midst of COVID, and their opinion of your support will resonate with future hires for the next decade.

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