Why 2022 will demand deeper HR action on wellbeing

If HR leaders had to choose one word to define their focus over the last year, “wellbeing” likely would rank near the top. And, according to several experts, that trend is poised to continue well into 2022.

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As news of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant threatens to upend back-to-the-office plans and prolong a pandemic many had hoped would have been behind us by now, employees will continue to need support, says Christine Deputy, chief people officer at Pinterest.

“We thought, coming into 2021, that we’d be in a year of recovery and recuperation and getting past what happened in 2020–but we’re seeing now this will be at least a two-year COVID experience, not one,” she says. “So, we have to think about the expectations of employees coming into this new world and how we can support their wellbeing because everyone is still trying to heal from the trauma of 2020, and now 2021.”

Christine Deputy, Pinterest

At the start of the pandemic, the social media platform beefed up its approach to wellness: home-office stipends, new mental health programming, virtual wellness offerings, “wellbeing PTO” and enhanced parental leave, among other benefits. Those initiatives mirror the enhanced investment organizations across industries have made to address employee wellbeing; despite such efforts, however, research found this summer that just 40% of surveyed employees feel positively about their wellbeing.

To tackle that stat in 2022, employers should work to embed wellbeing across all of their people practices, says Michelle O’Hara, executive vice president and CHRO of IT company SAIC.

For instance, her organization makes a concerted effort, she says, to foster a “linkage between wellbeing, flexibility and inclusion. When you can give employees the flexibility to manage what happens both inside and outside work, it creates a more inclusive environment, with more employees able to engage in a healthy way.”

Leadership development is another area through which to promote wellbeing. SAIC is focusing on upskilling leaders with particular attention to their coaching abilities and appreciation for empathetic leadership–which can go a long way toward supporting the overall wellness of the workforce, O’Hara says.

See also: How Workday is investing in its workers’ skills to boost retention

Michelle O’Hara, SAIC

Connecting wellbeing with diversity, equity and inclusion efforts should also be an imperative for 2022, adds Dr. Marlette Jackson, global director of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) at Virgin Pulse.

“If JEDI and wellness are not intertwined, people will leave,” Jackson says, citing a 2019 report from nonprofit Mind Share Partners that found half of millennials and three-quarters of Gen Z workers had reported leaving a job because of mental health reasons, with Black and Latinx respondents 50% more likely than white employees to have quit–and this was all before the pandemic.

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Since COVID, the interplay between wellbeing and diversity has become even clearer. For instance, there have been many reports that BIPOC employees have been more hesitant than others to return to in-office work.

“[Working at home,] they didn’t have to be in a corporate environment where they had to navigate racism or where women had to navigate sexism and misogyny, folks who were disabled didn’t have to navigate jokes about their disability and LGBTQ folks didn’t have to navigate homophobia,” she says. “They’re nervous, and it’s creating anxiety about coming back into an environment that doesn’t treat them well.”

Related: So, you hired a chief diversity officer. Now what?

Looking to next year, Jackson says, HR leaders need to not only enhance wellbeing efforts across the organization, but also ensure they’re tailored to the most at-risk populations. “Because of our societal ills,” she says, “toxic corporate environments can have a disproportionate effort on our most minoritized.”

Given the work HR leaders have done over the last almost two years, they have never been better positioned to understand the need for deeper organizational connections to wellbeing–and to execute on those plans, says Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and HR officer at Accenture. In the coming year, HR will be tasked with defining a new–and better–way of working, she says, “through the lens of equality, whole health, deep compassion and human compassion–aided by technology.”

“I’m optimistic about the impact we can make to shape a more positive societal narrative,” says Shook, HRE’s 2020 HR Executive of the Year. “We can create value while leading with values–in ways that benefit our people, our businesses and communities. But we need to act with urgency–because the time for change is now.”

Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.