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How to Reverse a Culture of Stress and Invest In Employee Wellbeing

Topics: Growth
In anticipation of Independence Day, a national day of rest, we wanted to share some perspective on how HR leaders can foster a culture of health and wellbeing at their organization.

Relentless deadlines, conflicts with coworkers, demanding managers, having to work while caring for sick family members, the pressure to respond to emails at all times. These are common stressors for many workers today.  

Recently, Tom Davenport, writer and subject matter expert on human capital strategy, came out with a new book titled “The Stress-Reduction Pyramid: A Guide to Managing the Greatest Threat to Employee Health and Productivity”. In the book, he characterized the way many workers feel about coming to work to standing at the edge of a dangerous, alligator-ridden swamp:  

It’s Monday morning, and you’re standing a the edge of a swamp. Looking out, you see many hazards: dark, dangerous waters; patches of earth that look like quicksand; and trees with hanging clumps of moss hiding what, you’d rather not know. Is that an alligator gliding just below the surface, or is that your boss, coming to check on the overdue report? You know you can’t hide in the coffee room forever…Instead of alligators and snakes, the workplace is full of stress that comes from work pressure, ambiguity, conflict and uncertainty. It can be an unsafe and unhealthy place. 

The High Price of Workplace Stress


Traditionally, most U.S. companies haven’t taken employee health and well-being all that seriously. Many employers’ “wellness programs” began and ended with medical insurance, a few paid sick days, or maybe discounts on gym memberships. But more and more business leaders have come around to see workplace stress as a severe risk to employee health and productivity.

Researchers at Harvard and Stanford estimate that workplace stress contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year and accounts for as much as 8 percent of annual health care costs in the U.S. Data shows that 36 percent of workers suffer from work-related stress that costs U.S. businesses $30 million a year in lost workdays. Without downtime, it’s impossible to get the best results from any employee.

So, how do you invest in employee wellbeing effectively? How can you create a “culture of wellbeing” where employees feel empowered to pursue living healthy lives, without having to spend more money?

To get some answers, I sat down for a conversation with Stacey Klimek, PayScale’s VP of People and Crystal Rose, a Sr. HR business partner. They’ve both been at PayScale for nearly a decade and have been instrumental to the company as it expanded from a startup of 30 people to a company of 450. They’re experts in designing programs and policies that influence workplace behavior, and from my perspective, they’ve had an impressive track record.

As an employee, I think PayScale is a unique place to work because I get to do interesting work and I don’t feel that I have to make sacrifices in other parts of my life. Having both sides balanced was much more difficult in the previous companies I worked for. At PayScale, my manager and teammates trust me to get my work done and take time off when I want to or need to. The leaders here believe that rest and a full life outside of the office makes for a happier, healthier team.This culture is the reason that PayScale has been selected as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work for In Washington for the last four years.    

Below, I’ve distilled my conversations with Stacey and Crystal into four areas HR leaders need to consider in order to foster a culture of health and wellbeing.

1. Wellness isn’t about programs. Wellness has to be a philosophy.


HR professionals can design wellness programs, but you need a management philosophy that says “we believe that employee health – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – is critically important the success of our business and this is a core value.”  

Business leaders should recognize that most of what shapes health happens outside of encouraging healthy behaviors. Leaders need to improve the conditions so that employees are able to make healthy choices.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Business leaders should recognize that most of what shapes health happens outside of encouraging healthy behaviors. Leaders need to improve the conditions so that employees are able to make healthy choices.” quote=”Business leaders should recognize that most of what shapes health happens outside of encouraging healthy behaviors. Leaders need to improve the conditions so that employees are able to make healthy choices.”]

You have to have a culture where you leaders and managers support employees taking the time to do things for themselves. Your leaders and managers have to be onboard and communicate the message that it’s okay for employees to go on a run at lunchtime, or attend an on-site yoga class at 3 pm. Hopefully, your leaders are leading by example.

Trust is a key ingredient here. Managers have to trust employees to get their work done and acknowledge that it’s okay for employees to “take a break” and utilize the wellness programs we’ve designed.

2. Employee Wellness Is Everyone’s Business.


Here at PayScale, the entire People Team thinks about employee happiness all the time. Our employees are our customers (the People Team’s). We also have a dedicated Employee Experience team that leads efforts related to our environments; they make sure our offices are welcoming, positive, clean and inspiring.Our employees see the People team’s efforts and they appreciate that we’re thinking about them.

However, we don’t think that employee wellness is “just an HR thing”. We view it as everyone’s business. It’s something that every leader and every employee is responsible for. We take an approach where we listen to our employees, figure out what they value and implement the things they find meaningful.  

We’ve always had a benefits program that was influenced by how employees feel. We provide a rich benefit package so that people can go visit doctors, chiropractors, physical therapy specialists, etc. as needed. We want people to have access to health services to be able to take care of themselves.

In the last couple of years, we’ve introduced more: healthy snacks, yoga classes, and, most recently, a new gym in our Seattle office. We’ve invested in sit-stand desks for all of our employees.

But it’s not all about things or programs; we also influence employees’ choices through environmental touches. For example, when we set up our new Seattle office three years ago, we made sure that not every resource (drinks, office supplies, etc.) is available on every floor, so that employees would walk a bit to get what they need. We have showers, locker rooms at the office so that people are encouraged to exercise before or during work hours. At the end of the day, we provide these things because our employees want them and use them.  

3. Demonstrate That You Truly Value Rest  

When employees work for long periods of time without breaks, it drains their energy and creativity. Taking time off is one of the best ways to re-ignite their creativity and productivity. But if your leaders and managers are working at all times, employees will see that as the norm and they’ll be worried about how others will perceive them for taking time off. To ensure that employees feel comfortable taking time off, you need to demonstrate that they won’t be penalized for doing so.  

One concrete way PayScale sends this message is through our unlimited paid time off policy. This sends the message that we trust our employees to be responsible adults and get their work done and we value their well-being.  

To take this further, this year, PayScale decided to give full week of vacation to all 450 employees. Taking place the week of July Fourth, Independence Week is an intentional vacation that allows employees to fully unplug from their work and enjoy a week of paid rest. This move was inspired by the book  Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, which – in line with recent research – concludes that taking time to rest results in improved performance upon return.

Henry Abrecht, CEO of Limeade, an employee engagement company based in Bellevue, Washington, echoed the same idea:

I believe that routines are made to be questioned — they can inhibit creativity, productivity, spontaneity, innovation and team empowerment. I admire that PayScale supports employees in shaking up their routines, gaining perspective and spending quality time with those who matter to them. After all, you don’t have a work life and a home life – it’s all one life. Organizations that get this and support employees in taking time for their well-being will reap the benefits of a more engaged workforce.

Some companies have gone even further than PayScale to guarantee that employees take vacations – by paying them to do so. For example, BambooHR covers vacation and only-vacation expenses (e.g. plane tickets, hotel rooms and other items that are clearly related to vacation). They believe that doing so builds employee loyalty, improves productivity, employee-wellbeing and makes them more attractive when recruiting candidates. 

4. Have a pulse on your employee population


One of the most common mistakes HR teams make is to develop a wellness program without validating that it’s what employees want. The key to a successful outcome is to have a pulse on your employee population, partner with them to create meaningful programs. Talk to your employees, listen to their feedback to figure out what they want. You can also use weekly employee engagement surveys to understand sentiments around different issues and collect quantitative data to test your hypotheses.

When you have hundreds of employees, it’s impossible to create one thing that’s valued by everyone. Instead, think about how HR can support different groups of employees to do what they enjoy.  

At PayScale, employees have lots of different ideas on how to improve life at the office, and the people team’s role is to listen and support. For example, one employee in Sales wanted a quiet space at work to clear his head. He wanted to set up a meditation room in our Seattle office. He presented a business case to the People Team, which we supported, and provided budget to buy the necessary items to set up the room.

Another group of employees wanted to be able to recognize their colleagues for a job well done at our monthly company gatherings. The People team now hosts “First Thursday.” We celebrate new hires, work anniversaries and teams throughout the organization. We also created an Appreciation Station at these gatherings. We purchased beautiful stationary and pens so that our employees can create handwritten thank you notes for one another. These notes are distributed to employees following the monthly “First Thursday” gatherings.

Tell us what you think

What do you think are the keys to improve employee wellness? Share your thoughts with us below or on Twitter.

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