After nearly three years mired in the coronavirus pandemic, employers are beginning to put the pieces of their respective workplaces back together, using wellness as the cornerstone.

They’re shaping their respective new ways of working — whether remote, in-office or hybrid — and expanding their thinking around wellness to achieve a successful return to a working normal. Indeed, Dave McCagherty, vice-president of group sales and distribution at RBC Insurance, is seeing a heightened awareness from employers around the need for emotional, physical and mental wellness, particularly as the pandemic moves into an endemic period.

Employees and their families have struggled throughout the public health crisis, so if well-being isn’t at the very top of employers’ lists of priorities right now, it’s a close second, says Kim Siddall, vice-president of enterprise consulting in the west at People Corporation.

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Almost every area of focus for organizations touches on employee wellness in some way, whether it’s attraction and retention, employee engagement or burnout, she says, adding employers must have the right mechanisms in place to support the mental health of workers and their families in order to build a sustainable and resilient workplace.

Define the objective

When people experience an environment filled with upheaval, such as the pandemic, their capacities to adjust and change are diminished, says McCagherty, noting it will be critical for employers to weave wellness into their broader organizational goals as they map out their future workplaces.

Employers that don’t take this step run the risk of missing out on employees of the future — and of today — who require their organizations to support their mental health so they can deal with day-to-day challenges both at work and at home. He recommends that employers put a clear plan in place to cut through the volume of programs out there.

Tracy Fogale, Kraft Heinz Canada’s senior benefits manager, agrees, suggesting employers tie the messaging behind their well-being programs to their overall business purposes. From there, they can determine the factors that will impact their objectives, she adds, whether that’s attraction, retention or the overall well-being of their workforces. The cost of drugs, disability claims and employee turnover can help build a comprehensive story, she adds, which is a good way to broach the conversation with key stakeholders at different levels of the company.

“As an organization, well-being is a fundamental concept . . . that should be built into your overall strategy . . . . It’s not just about doing the right thing, there’s a strategic business need for it as well.”

Finding balance through flexibility

In navigating the future workplace, it will also be key to balance what employees are demanding and what’s required by organizations.

Read: Employee well-being critical to return to work after pandemic

By the numbers

According to Benefits Canada’s 2022 Future of Work Survey, employers’ top priorities in supporting employee well-being are:

57% — Flexible/hybrid work

47% — Work-life balance

38% — Employee engagement

35% — Workplace culture

32% — Financial benefits (i.e. health or savings plans)

27% — Non-financial benefits (i.e. paid leave/ vacation/sabbaticals)

20% — More general employee well-being programs

18% — Employee health initiatives

5% — Other

While some employers are requiring employees to return to the office full time or for a specified number of days each week, others are crafting a hybrid experience or going completely remote. But one thing is certain, the flexibility afforded to white-collar workers during the pandemic has allowed them to reach a better work-life balance and it will be a challenge for them to give up such an invaluable benefit.

Some employees will make choices based on their employers’ decisions, says McCagherty. “That’s what happens in any environment, whether it’s due to compensation, vacation [or] opportunity issues. I think the future of work just becomes another factor for employees to decide where they want to invest one-third of their day.”

Kraft Heinz is focusing on maintaining a balance between remote and in-office working as the organization recognizes its employees are adjusting to continuous change. “We’re focused on setting expectations and helping employees determine the moments that matter when going into the office,” says Fogale. “We get that it makes sense to work from home or the cottage, but we need employees to understand when it makes sense to come together for collaboration and to build relationships.”

While flexibility is valued by employers’ current workforces, it’s also a key offering for attracting top talent. Indeed, 81 per cent of white-collar employees cited hybrid work as a top factor when looking for a new job, according to a 2022 survey by IWG.

Read: Flexible workplaces a win-win for workers, employers: report

Hopefully, employers that are asking staff to return to the workplace full or part time are doing it with great consideration, says Siddall. “Putting support programs or help in place for things like work-life balance is helpful, especially as people try to figure out a new schedule after a long period where they worked from home and had added flexibility.”

Personalization is key

Well-being means something different to everyone, so the potential for employers’ wellness strategies to be successful dramatically increases if these programs and initiatives are personalized to some degree, says McCagherty.

“When I think of employee wellness, I think of a person’s family [and] their social network. So how can employers’ programs/initiatives help them be more connected to their family and friends while maintaining balance at work?”

When looking at program design, generational diversity must be a key consideration, says Fogale. With five generations in the workforce, each benefit means something different to each employee, so it’s important for employers to ensure they’re offering a variety of programs to support employees and their unique family needs.

“Kraft Heinz is a family brand, so it’s part of our purpose to support our employees and their families. While we understand that we’re not necessarily going to meet the needs of every single employee, we aim to do so by offering many different programs and offerings to help get us there.”

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Siddall suggests employers check in regularly with staff for feedback on the value they’re getting from their benefits plans, whether barriers to access exist or if the coverage is meeting their needs in the evolving workplace and health-care environment. “Dive into your data and look for any obstacles and consider what the out of pocket is [for employees]. Are people [using up] annual maximums? That means they have needs that exceed the benefits coverage you’re providing.”

In an inflationary environment and looming recession, every dollar has to go further, she adds, so tracking use can help employers find ways to provide the support tools and services required while still taking care of their bottom lines.

Leading by example

In addition, employers are taking steps to mitigate employee burnout by training managers on how to implement these support systems, says Nita Chhinzer, associate professor of leadership and organizational management at the University of Guelph’s Gordon S. Lang School of Business.

Unfortunately, these systems often don’t filter through the front line as seamlessly as employers had intended, she adds, likening this to broken telephone — if a person isn’t passing on the message correctly, that’s a problem. “Managers’ jobs are leading . . . people, but they also have to influence, negotiate and communicate while facing their own burnout. This is causing a bottleneck in the system where, despite having good well-being policies/initiatives in place, they are underutilized because the message isn’t getting out to frontline workers.”

Read: Telus training managers to recognize signs of employees experiencing mental-health struggles

Kraft Heinz trains managers to help them set good examples for expectations around collaboration, meeting etiquette and taking time to pause and disconnect. But this training has to be continuous, says Fogale. “It’s really just reminding employees of the foundational aspects of leadership, management and etiquette to . . . guide employees through this change and hybrid environment.”

Lauren Bailey is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.