It’s time for an expanded view of employee wellness

9 Jun

Sometimes while on the treadmill at the gym I imagine what the equivalent exercise for mental health would look like. I come up with lots of ideas and I get really excited imagining people doing emotional calisthenics or working out at a mind gym with the same vim and vigor they display at the regular gym. I fantasize about what the world would be like if people put as much time and effort into their emotional health and wellbeing as they put into their physical health and wellbeing.

So why don’t we? Why aren’t there mind gyms on every corner? Why don’t companies invest in employee’s mental and emotional development? Why do Corporate Wellness programs focus primarily, if not exclusively, on physical health? I can’t answer these questions with certainty, but I have a couple of ideas.

1. There’s no mental equivalent for chiseled abs

When you work out physically, you have something tangible and visual to show for it. You can literally see and even touch the results. When you improve mentally, the fruits of your labor aren’t as visible. Unlike pounds or inches, mental and emotional growth is subtle and not easily measured. When results aren’t visible and you can’t see that you’re making progress, it’s difficult to be and stay motivated.

My friend Steve has been a Luminosity participant for several years now. He updates me regularly on his percentile progress. “I’m in the top 16% of my age group” he proudly proclaims, up from 44%.” I’m not a Luminosity participant but I find myself curious about how I measure up. The percentile accounting helps keep people motivated. It shows you how you’re improving and how you rank amongst other people your age who like brain games. It’s not as visible as six-pack abs, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Technology support for cognitive development continues to improve. I suspect it’s only a matter of time until we have wearables that help us improve emotionally and socially. Imagine an EQ Fitbit that monitored your tone, facial expression and language (including self-talk) and dinged you every time you rolled your eyes, spoke demeaningly or starting awfulizing.

2. Lack of social and cultural validation

An appreciation for and attraction to those who are physically healthy is part of our DNA. It’s almost a primal instinct. Even though we no longer live in prehistoric times, our subconscious still acts like we do and seeks out healthy mates who can weather the elements and be good hunters and child bearers.

Though what constitutes healthy has changed over time, the appreciation for the physical is alive and well. We live in a culture that promotes, almost idolizes, a healthy and fit body, so the incentive is there for people to do the work. Corporate Wellness programs are able to piggyback on society’s feelings about fitness and use the media and public opinion to help drive employee participation.

In order to get people motivated toward greater mental and emotional health, we need to demonstrate that we value all aspects of health, not just the physical.

We’ve made some progress in this direction, thanks in part to work by Daniel Goleman and others who’ve demonstrated the importance of emotional and social intelligence. Resiliency is another area currently getting some traction.

More and more companies are paying attention to what used to be called soft skills or interpersonal skills. We have a better understanding of how attitude effects performance and we assess not only technical competency but enabling competencies as well.  We know that an organization’s culture and the behaviors of managers and teammates directly impacts employee engagement and retention.

Although we’ve made progress, what seems to be missing are ways for individuals to measure and improve their cognitive and emotional health and to have these types of activities recognized as an important part of one’s growth and development.

3. Not comfortable talking about it 

When it comes to mental and emotional health, most people are uncomfortable talking about their own issues and equally uncomfortable listening to other people talk about theirs. This is especially true in the workplace. It’s as though we’re supposed to leave that part of our lives at the door when we walk in each morning.

I’m not suggesting we use the conference room for group therapy sessions, or that your boss or office mate is the right person to counsel you when you have a problem. What I am suggesting is that we remove the stigma and actually learn to talk about mental health openly and non-judgmentally. This would include educating employees on how to recognize mental health issues and providing access to different types of resources and mental health professionals.

Second, I think employers are best served by making mental and emotional health and well-being part of their overall health and wellness focus and culture. Don’t separate it from the physical. Integrate it!

What might a Mental and Emotional Health and Wellness Program look like?

Rather than re-invent the wheel, I’d first look at how you might expand existing Wellness program elements to include mental and emotional aspects. Weight loss is a good example. Might there be mental and emotional aspects that contribute to an employee’s struggle with their weight? Are there tools and strategies you can add to a current diet and exercise approach that would make it more effective?

Second,  I’d look for areas and solutions where the physical and mental overlap. Stress management for example. Exercise, eating right and getting enough sleep all help us better manage stress. So does deep breathing, mindfulness, yoga and awareness of emotional triggers. There are a variety of stress monitors available that beep you when you’re tense or when you’re breathing is shallow. Some are wearable and allow you to easily see patterns throughout your day. I’ve been able to use these tools to help people become more aware of their emotions, learn to pause and breath before responding, and quiet inner chatter.

Although I promised not to turn the conference room into a group therapy hub, I believe there is a big opportunity to teach people how to help each other deal with stressful work situations. Group discussions are a great way to do this. Get people talking about and sharing strategies and techniques for dealing with difficult and stressful situations, things like dealing with difficult customers and colleagues without loosing your cool, avoiding job burnout, bouncing back from adversity and dealing with an erratic and physically taxing work schedule.

The positive ROI from a well-executed corporate wellness program is undeniable. In HBR’s What’s the Hard Return on Employee Wellness Programs? we learn that not only is there a direct reduction in health care costs (in one example ROI of 6 to 1), but Wellness programs can also reduce attrition and improve overall employee engagement, thereby increasing the ROI even more.

The value proposition is in place with programs that focus primarily on physical health.  If those programs were also to address mental and emotional well-being, the payoff could be even greater. This is especially true when it comes to employee engagement and retention.

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