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Two Years Later: Approaching Employee Wellness with Equity

According to the CDC, when COVID-19 entered our lives in 2020, employee wellness was already a strong corporate focus, with almost half of all US worksites offering some form of a workplace wellness program. From smoking cessation to weight loss, employers targeted health and wellness to increase productivity and decrease absenteeism.

Workers continued to report high levels of stress in early 2020, but levels hit an all-time high with the shutdown of gyms and schools. As the pandemic swept across the country, employers scrambled to offer resources where they could, juggling employee leaves of absence and trying to keep the doors open.

As the pandemic unfolded, it became apparent that it was here for the long haul. In March 2021, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that nearly half of all US adults continued to report negative mental health impacts related to worry or stress from the pandemic, leaving employees fatigued, distracted, and burned out.

As the world turns the corner to recovery in 2022, employers find themselves reeling from the effects of employee burnout in the form of the Great Resignation. Now more than ever, organizations are tasked with addressing employee wellness from the inside out. Dangling weight loss programs or free yoga classes are no longer enticing enough to attract or retain employees. Employers must build wellness with equity into the core of their organization’s culture to attract and retain the talent needed to rebuild.

Employee Wellness and Diversity

Approaching corporate wellness with an anti-bias lens is a newer concept but nevertheless important as employers begin to weave diversity and inclusion into regular conversations. The pre-2020 workplace wellness program that offered equal opportunities to all employees no longer fits if focusing on equality rather than equity. Equality means each individual or group receives the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.

According to a recent study conducted by Mental Health America, 41.8% of the US population are people of color. Of those, multi-racial people were the most likely to screen positive or at-risk for alcohol and substance abuse disorders, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and psychosis. Further research showed that over 37% of lesbian, gay, or bisexual survey participants indicated having a mental illness in the past year.

While anonymous demographic data is available, employee willingness to self-identify with a mental illness at work is just getting started. In 2019, employers were just beginning to understand the importance of addressing the stigma around mental illness in the workplace. Push came to shove in the last two years, with COVID-19 testing everyone’s capacity for stress. Offering mental health resources tailored to specific employee needs is vital as employers find themselves at the intersection of employee wellness and DEI in the workplace.

Wellness for Remote Workers

Adding to the complexity of equitable employee wellness is remote work. According to research conducted by MorningConsult, 55% of remote workers report that they would consider quitting their jobs if companies forced them to return to in-person work. However, remote employees' mental health and wellness vary from person to person. An employee’s approach is one key indicator of positive adaptability to remote work. Though there are likely many layers in between, employers can identify employees as either Segmentors or Integrators.

Segmentors can create strong boundaries between personal and work lives, which means they can shut down at the end of a workday and be more wholly present in their personal lives, reducing their overall stress levels. On the other hand, integrators blur the lines between work and home, switching back and forth between the two. This group often agrees that it can be difficult to tell where their work-life ends and home life begins.

Providing resources to support a healthy work-life balance is critical to ensure that integrators don’t spiral downward into a pool of stress. And it comes from the top down. A 2021 Harvard Business Review study revealed that C-level and executive respondents were more likely than other employees to report at least one mental health symptom. Thus, an organization’s leaders must model a healthy work-life balance to encourage employees to follow suit. That may mean less emailing after hours or on the weekends as a general rule to support overall employee health and wellness.

Building Resilience and Next Steps

“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.” ~ Dolly Parton

If there is one thing that we have learned from the pandemic, it’s that change is constant and being able to adapt to change is the actual test. What can employers do to arm employees and themselves with greater resiliency skills? The first plan of attack is to provide meaningful training intended to move the wellness needle rather than check a box. To get started, offer courses on emotional intelligence and change management to employees, and continue providing them with learning opportunities to build deeper interpersonal awareness.

Archbright University’s Change Management for Leaders is an interactive course in which managers and supervisors discuss challenges they encounter and critical strategies to move through the stages of change. Skills learned can immediately be applied to workplace scenarios making them invaluable in the wellness toolkit. Courses, Emotional Intelligence at Work and Building Interpersonal Awareness with DiSC, are also offered through Archbright University, providing a customized approach to wellness by asking employees to identify their strengths and acknowledge how they react to those around them based on their innate skills.

Another option for employers looking for outside-the-box wellness ideas is to provide tools and techniques that further promote work-life balance.

  • Provide employees with smartwatches to encourage them to move throughout the day and to allow them to track their wellness activities. This allows for employee personalization and customization.

  • Encourage employees to schedule meetings at 25- and 50-minute intervals rather than 30 and 60 minutes to allow for 5-10 minutes between meetings for wellness stretching or bio breaks. The leadership team should model this to set the standard for the rest of the organization.

  • Give employees the option of using wellness tools such as a Pomodoro Timer to manage task completion. The timer encourages employees to dedicate focused time to complete tasks, encouraging small bursts of activity. This has been shown to increase focus and leave employees with a deeper sense of accomplishment.

  • Promote mindfulness in the workplace to give employees time and space to be wholly present. One technique is to encourage employees to schedule private focus time. Studies show this reduces emotional exhaustion and allows for divergent thinking to increase innovation.

As organizations reassess what the workplace looks like, a focus on equity is imperative. Creating a culture with wellness at its core encourages deeper employee connections, no matter where employees are working. Promoting wellness with equity will be the true differentiator when recruiting the next generation.

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Amy Bachmann

Amy Bachmann, M.Ed., is the Director of Sales and Training at Archbright. She leads the Archbright University team of Senior Learning and Development Consultants responsible for designing and delivering cutting-edge course curriculum. She also leads Archbright’s team of Account Executives in serving our members with their needs in all services. Amy joined Archbright in 2019 and has more than 20 years of experience in adult education—in a variety of industries, including academia, the medical field, and non-profit organizations. She holds a Master’s in Education from the University of San Diego, with a focus in Curriculum Design.