insight magazine

Evolving Accountant | Summer 2021

How Organizations Can Embrace Workplace Wellness

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of mental health, physical health, and healthy boundaries—here’s what organizations can do to promote wellness in the workplace.
Andrea Wright, CPA Partner, Johnson Lambert LLP

At the beginning of the pandemic, we all had high hopes: We would work out more, start meditating, or spend more time with our families. But as it became clear that the pandemic was more of a marathon than a sprint, we began to face obstacles: unhealthy work boundaries, anxiety and depression, feelings of burnout, and some of us may have even worked out less.

This makes the pending return to normal the perfect time for organizations to take a long look at workplace wellness and see what changes they can make to foster health in body, mind, and workplace culture. Here are four things I learned over this past year that have enhanced my personal wellness and allowed me to make my workplace a healthier place for everyone.

Embrace Work-Life Integration

In a recent class, the facilitator made a provocative statement: “Your staff does not show up as their authentic selves.” The problem is that organizations go out of their way to promote and encourage work-life balance—a largely outdated concept that may no longer exist in a post-pandemic world. When we tell our employees about our commitment to work-life balance, we are inadvertently telling them they must separate their work from their “real” lives and try to balance both in a way that is essentially no longer possible. Because of this, my organization is making the switch from work-life balance to work-life integration.

What’s the difference? Work-life integration means realizing the defined workday is outdated. It means that leaders recognize that there will be times during the workday that employees will need to take personal calls, meet the plumber, or run errands. It also means there will be times when employees may have to work longer hours to meet important deadlines. One way in which organizations can embrace this shift is emphasizing project or task completion rather than hours logged. The payoff for this shift is meaningful: Employees will be better able to integrate their real lives into the workplace. And 2020 research by the University of Arkansas shows that employees are more productive when they can be their whole, authentic selves.

Promote Mental Wellness

There is no question that the pandemic exposed issues that, as a society, we had gotten pretty good at ignoring. Mental illness is one of those issues that was forced into the spotlight in a new way as both hard numbers and anecdotal evidence showed us that mental challenges like anxiety and depression have risen precipitously since the lockdowns began. Organizations have begun to walk the talk when it comes to prioritizing mental wellness as part of broader workplace wellness efforts. The most important place to start is by removing the stigma of mental illness in the workplace. A first step would be to invest in training to help organizational leaders recognize the signs of distress and to equip them with tools to support employees. Again, this has real payoffs for both the organization and the employees themselves: A 2009 Australian study found that employees are more productive when mental health challenges are treated.

Reject Burnout Culture

The workplace burnout phenomenon was on the rise pre-pandemic, with the World Health Organization recognizing it as a syndrome in 2019. The pandemic has only exacerbated the issue, with an August 2020 survey by FlexJobs finding that 75 percent of respondents have experienced burnout at work—and 40 percent have experienced burnout specifically during the pandemic. Michael Leiter and Christina Maslach’s 1999 research identified six causes of workplace burnout: workload, perceived lack of control, insufficient rewards, lack of community support, lack of fairness, and mismatched values. Because each of these six root causes is intertwined with the others, I believe making modifications in just one or two of these areas can yield benefits to an organization and their employees.

If, for example, we tackled workload and perceived lack of control together, how could we move the needle? There will be times when the workload is heavy and there’s not much an organization or employee can do to change that. However, organizations should consider taking steps to ensure workloads are manageable and equitable. Even if workloads can’t be immediately reduced, organizations can put workload control into their employees’ hands. This past year my organization implemented what we call “firm focus time”: dedicated hours each week in which no internal meetings are scheduled, and no internal emails are sent. In these few hours each week, employees have complete agency over their workloads and workflows. This is just one example of how organizations can push back against burnout and foster workplace wellness.

Encourage Personal Connections

Workplace connectedness is essential to wellness. A 2017 Totaljobs survey found that 60 percent of employees enjoy their work more because of their workplace friendships, while 90 percent of employers believe that strong working relationships between coworkers improve productivity in their organization. However, this is yet another aspect of workplace wellness the pandemic has made more challenging. One way that organizations can continue to foster workplace connectedness when everyone is working from their homes is by creating virtual workplace communities, like Slack channels for shared hobbies, Zoom office happy hours, or online social networks like Yammer. Leaders should recognize workplace chatter and friendships are not a waste of working hours but actually make employees more satisfied and more efficient.

An average of 30 percent of the human life is spent at work. When our careers take up such a significant portion of our lives, it makes sense that we can’t compartmentalize them away from the other equally important aspects: our sleep, our mental and physical health, or our social connections and family relationships. All these facets of our lives make us who we are and are inextricably tied together. The more that organizations and their employees can find ways to healthily integrate these spheres, the more successful and happier we will be. As leaders, we have a responsibility to make that possible for our employees. As individuals, we have a responsibility to set boundaries and goals to pursue our passions and purpose—and for that, we all need workplace wellness.

This column was co-authored with Jillian Mulcahy, CPA, manager with Johnson Lambert LLP.

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