Four Health Program Rules For Returning To The Workplace

This is a post by Newtopia CEO Jeff Ruby, originally posted on Forbes.  

As organizations across the country gear up to bring their employees back to the office after more than a year of working remotely, managers and human resources teams are busily coordinating logistics and trying to figure out what the new normal might look like — especially in light of the many surveys indicating a majority of employees are burnt out and want to continue working from home at least part of the time.

Keeping an eye on new virus variants and mapping out how to handle individuals with differing vaccination statuses are certainly important components of the back-to-the-office preparations, but health considerations beyond Covid-19 must be part of the discussion as well.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that some employees — after months of decreased physical activity, unhealthier eating patterns, increased alcohol consumption and enormous stress — could be returning to the office unhealthier than when they left. From my perspective, these are habits that won’t magically disappear when everyone goes back to the office. And the return to the workplace could bring changes and additional stresses that will put further pressure on workers who are already dealing with burnout issues. The current unprecedented high rate of resignations is evidence that many employees aren’t willing or able to go back to the status quo.

As employers, if we really believe that our people are our most important resource and that their health and well-being are our top priority, we need to move beyond platitudes and take action.

But what does that look like? How do we work to actively improve our employees’ health and well-being? Benefit programs are the obvious place to start, but we need to acknowledge that our pre-pandemic programs might not be adequate to address our employees’ growing physical and mental health challenges.

As the founder and CEO of a habit-change provider that aims to prevent the progression of chronic diseases, I’ve found there are four ways to make health and prevention programs more effective.

1. Focus on the whole person.

A well-being and prevention program needs to address the whole person in two ways: by providing a high level of personalization (taking into account every participant’s own unique goals, personality, medical history and social determinants of health, for example) and by holistically addressing physical, mental and emotional well-being. I believe the rise of telehealth and people’s increasing openness about their anxiety and depression during the pandemic has begun to break down both the stigma around mental health issues and the wall between physical and mental health care, but we still have far to go. Physical and mental health are inextricably linked, and trying to manage them separately doesn’t yield sustainable outcomes.

2. Support healthy habits and behavior change.

Through my company’s work, I’ve seen that some of the costliest and most debilitating chronic diseases are largely preventable, so personalized health, well-being and prevention programs that help employees develop the healthy lifestyle habits that keep these diseases at bay can have a major impact. But building the healthy habits that lead to long-term health improvements is a methodical, one-step-at-a-time process of changing daily, hourly and minute-by-minute choices and confidence. Most of us can’t do it alone and need support, guidance and accountability — from a real human coach. Offering this option in your program can help employees who want to recalibrate their behavior make more mindful choices that lead to changes they can maintain.

3. Measure engagement and effectiveness.

In the end, two things matter above all: First, do your people like the program? No matter how fabulous it looks on paper, if your employees aren’t engaged and don’t stick with it, it won’t generate lasting benefits. And second, does it work? There’s a lot of hype around various apps, artificial intelligence and tech-based solutions, but, as in every other area of life, what’s hot isn’t always what’s best. Lose the fear of missing out and insist on evidence- and performance-based outcomes and metrics.

4. Be active in the solution — not a spectator.

Offering a benefit acknowledges that there’s a problem, but outsourcing the problem and offering hunting licenses to others isn’t owning the problem. It’s ultimately the abdication of the responsibility to take care of employees. Giving staff access to an app or a 12-week program, whether for time management or weight loss or mindfulness, is a bandage that’s unlikely to have a long-term impact. As a leader, ask yourself: Would you or could you change your own physical and mental health with the programs you’re buying for your employees, or are you just managing the symptoms and checking a box? Are your health programs alienating those who are dealing with real mental or physical health issues? Real change requires not only company buy-in and support but also active involvement, cobranding and endorsement to address the systemic issues employees are dealing with.

An unhealthy workforce is extremely costly — in terms of both direct medical care costs and lost productivity — so we have an economic incentive to invest in solutions that make a measurable difference in people’s health. But as employers, we also have a moral obligation to put our money where our mouth is if we’re seriously concerned about employee health and well-being.

The Covid-19 pandemic gave us an opportunity to reassess our priorities and decide what we really value. For most of us, health is high on that list. Let’s act accordingly and make meaningful health experiences and proven health outcomes a real priority as we prepare to head back to the office.

Learn more about Newtopia’s solutions here.

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