The overlooked game-changer of the COVID-era workplace

Employees are saying they won't play by the old rules anymore. Here are some ways employers can meet workers' wellness needs.
By: | August 30, 2021

As business experts spin through endless conversations about on-site, remote and hybrid work model options, we are collectively overlooking one glaring and game-changing matter: wellness. Not the surface wellness of whether someone has been vaccinated or not, and whether the Delta variant poses risks for returning to work on-site, but rather, the deeper consideration of what it takes to cultivate robust health—the kind that can withstand the threat of disease altogether.

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Unrelated to COVID, a whopping 60% of Americans have been living with at least one chronic health condition—diabetes, chronic pain, heart disease, cancer—the kind of health condition that has cost American businesses over $1 trillion annually, pre-pandemic, as a result of absenteeism and presenteeism, and the kind that additionally has been the leading cause of disability and death in America. Meanwhile, notes Dr. Michael Finkelstein—corporate wellness specialist and author of Slow Medicine: Hope and Healing for Chronic Illness—the critical variable determining how severely people experience COVID is the matter of whether they are living with those pre-existing, underlying chronic health conditions.

Related: Here’s how much poor health costs employers every year

Author Loolwa Khazzoom

When approached with the right mindset and toolbox, that key variable transforms the worker crisis into a corporate opportunity: By offering employees cutting-edge wellness education and resources, companies can help prevent or reverse chronic health conditions, with a chain reaction of benefits:

  • improving quality of life for employees, thereby cultivating employee loyalty and attracting leading talent;
  • optimizing worker productivity by reducing incidents of absenteeism and presenteeism, thereby boosting revenue;
  • attracting workers back to the office with wellness benefits that are otherwise costly and time-consuming;
  • and minimizing the impact of COVID, thereby protecting employees while helping reverse the tide of the pandemic.

In his groundbreaking book, Change Your Genes, Change Your Life, Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier, Ph.D.—director of Corporate Health Improvement Program, which works with Fortune 500 corporations—reveals that, according to epigenetic research, our environment and lifestyle practices are 95% responsible for preventing or reversing chronic health conditions, whereas our genetics are only 5% responsible. A complex set of switches surround every gene, determining which properties will or will not be expressed, and these switches are directly impacted by our daily choices: Are we eating junk food or a nutrient-dense diet? Are we going-going-going all day long or taking breaks to exercise and meditate? Are we bottling up our emotions or expressing them in creative and healthy ways?

Related: 3 strategies to help you build a post-pandemic wellness program

While there is ample scientific evidence that lifestyle modifications have the power not only to minimize but even to eliminate chronic health issues, the necessary changes can be time-consuming and costly, and—unlike in the case of pharmaceuticals and surgery—are neither covered by health insurance nor given tax breaks by the government. Even the most motivated individuals therefore can find themselves daunted by the prospect of implementing the necessary changes.

I should know. Over the past two decades, I have spent tens of thousands of hours on self-care and well over a million dollars in out-of-pocket wellness expenses. As evidenced by both lab work and the vast improvement in my quality of life, my devotion paid off: I cold-stopped the growth of cancer and eliminated debilitating chronic pain, without pharmaceuticals or surgery. In order to cultivate this prime level of wellness, mind you, I had to launch my own company, so that I could work from home—enabling me to revolve my environment and workflow around my self-care regimen—and I had to put in 10-to-16-hour workdays to cover all those out-of-pocket expenses. Working at a corporation, with its classic rigid schedule and sterile office environment, was simply not an option, given my body’s needs.

Related: Here’s the full story of my healing.

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In the many articles I have read about why employees don’t want to return to work on-site, it seems that wellness is a factor. A number of employees appear to have discovered that they feel better at home, and in some cases I have read about, chronic health issues seem to have vanished entirely, from that change alone. So clearly, remote work options are important. They are not, however, the only viable option for meeting employee wellness needs.

Corporations additionally can rethink workflow, office environment and company offerings to make it a healthy choice for employees to work on-site. It’s what I call a “Nourish/Flourish” model, in which corporations provide incentives for, instead of impediments to, the healing process—investing in employee wellbeing and, as a byproduct, company wellbeing. Corporations can go so far as to become a one-stop shop for wellness needs, and in doing so, motivate employees to come back to the office, of their own volition.

Here are some possibilities to consider offering on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, either subsidized or for free:

  • Education: group workshops on-site with cutting-edge wellness leaders—teaching self-care practices for optimal health on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels.
  • Treatment: individual and group wellness programs on-site, emphasizing services typically not covered by health insurance—integrative medicine consultations, massage therapy sessions, yoga classes, etc.
  • Meals: catered whole foods, plant-based lunch with fresh-pressed juice, served on-site.
  • Rewards: bonus pay for employees who participate in a given amount of on-site wellness programs, or who meet pre-determined health markers that utilize tech tools for wellness.
  • Adaptation: wherever possible, incorporate on-site some of the remote work attributes that are compelling for wellness—flexible hours, frequent breaks, comfortable furnishings, soft lighting, a room for napping, etc.—getting employee input into what’s most important to them

Ultimately, says Kevin Hoult, certified business advisor and manager of strategic initiatives for WWU Small Business Development Center, sailing through the choppy waters of the COVID-era workplace will require the willingness to take risks and try new things. A lot of corporate executives, he says, are currently driven by hesitation and fear because they “haven’t questioned anything about how to do business, for decades.” But employees “are saying they won’t play by the old rules anymore,” Hoult adds, concluding that executives need to stop trying to go back to the way things were, and instead, look for a new path forward—rethinking and redesigning their business model accordingly.

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To learn more, hear Jarik Conrad, VP Human Insights and HCM Advisory at UKG, discuss “The Big Shift: Moving from Employee Wellness to Holistic Health” later this month during the HR Technology Conference. For more information and to register, click here.

Loolwa Khazzoom is a Seattle-based multimedia wellness educator, writer and performer who supports executives in cultivating a work environment and corporate culture that optimize employee wellness and company productivity.

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