Improving employee wellness with an annual challenge

Community Health Charities took its annual health challenge online in hopes of creating community and driving wellness for workers during the pandemic.

Employee wellness challenge

Wellness has become a top priority for many organizations, as workplaces continue to deal with lockdowns, unrest, anxiety over public health and economic insecurity.

One tool employers might have leaned on to talk about employee health and wellness—the annual health challenge—has been adapted by some for the realities of the post-pandemic workplace. The shift has been highly effective for Community Health Charities, a nonprofit based in Virginia.

The organization ran an “ultimate health Olympics” for staff where they competed on teams throughout the month of May on challenges like drinking water, getting in steps and other fitness goals.

“It’s been great to see almost every team member posting pictures, inspirational quotes, videos and GIFs on Microsoft Teams,” says Amanda Ponzar, chief communications and strategy officer. “We see water pitchers, unique healthy recipes, personal fitness and well-being, art projects and more.”

Staffers agree that the virtual health challenge has been great:

“The virtual interaction with colleagues is the best part of our health challenge this year,” says Amanda Williams, human resources manager and leader of the employee engagement committee. “It allows team members to stay connected through our virtual tools and channels so that they feel closer than ever. Especially during times like now, it’s important to understand the personal impact they may be experiencing physically and emotionally, and through our health challenge we encourage them with the opportunity to practice ways that may help, while also having fun.”

The challenge was especially appreciated by employees who are struggling to protect their mental health during a precarious time.

“I have battled depression in the past and it really kept me mindful and motivated to continue to take care of myself during quarantine,” shared Shelly Douglas, a development manager with the organization.  “I am in better shape now than I was before the pandemic, and I attribute most of that on being accountable to my team #Gladiators!”

Message of the moment

What are the important messages to get in front of your stakeholders? Ponzar says the organization is focusing on self-care so employees can work together to get through the crisis.

“We’ve been offering as many health resources as we can, featuring mental, physical and COVID-specific health resources from our 2,000 nonprofit partners,” she says, “Plus external and internal leadership and board advice, plus employee engagement, giving and virtual volunteer tools to give companies and their employees ways to give back and get involved.”

The organization also used every channel at its disposal to deliver messages about well-being and self-care.

“We’re using all our channels, reaching all audiences, and of course measuring the usual metrics like open rates, click-throughs, engagement, etc.,” Ponzar says. “For nonprofit and corporate partners, our email open rates have been above industry averages.”

Where possible, team members have been trying to add a personal touch. “Many teams and individual staff at all levels have been doing one-on-one personal outreach calls and emails,” says Ponzar. “That personal outreach is of course the most effective, and has garnered a lot of appreciation from partners who are grateful for the resources and check-ins, plus in some cases has provided new grants and opportunities for our organization, helping us in turn accomplish our mission, building stronger healthier communities.”

Empowering employees to take PTO

It’s important for leaders to be involved in messages to employees about taking time off.  For Ponzar’s team, that means having leaders stress the point in all-hands meetings.

“Having senior leadership host regular all-staff and other calls has helped reinforce this flexibility, plus our COO and CEO have repeatedly encouraged people to use the time and do what they need to do, even inviting our board chairs to join all-staff calls and encourage the team,” she says. “That’s translated to every manager and every team member, and we’re seeing great creativity and flexibility in how employees meet their goals while also taking care of themselves personally.”

The organization even took extraordinary measures to allow workers to take time off, allowing employees to take their PTO balance negative and use PTO to take off mornings to create a more flexible schedule. Do such drastic changes affect performance? Not according to the employees.

“I don’t think the performance suffered,” says LeeAnn Yang, the organization’s controller. “It is actually having the opposite effect. First, employees still have to finish the tasks they have to do for the day. They just shift the work to afternoon and evening. So flexible working schedule is the key here. Secondly, when employees don’t feel good, they want to take some time off. Knowing that they can do it as needed is a good relief to them mentally. So, it helps reduce the stress level.”

The flexibility is a key way for the organization to show empathy for employees struggling to manage complex work-from-home situations.

“This flexibility is allowing employees to manage their family situation and health needs and that means their loyalty, positivity and energy are increased for the reduced hours they are working now and in the future,” Ponzar says. “People aren’t going to be effective and efficient if they are anxious and stressed—whether that’s based on the pandemic, lockdown, news or their personal family or health situation. Employees will flex for you if you flex for them, so it’s a two-way street.”

Lessons learned

What is Community Health Charities taking from its inhouse campaign? The work has reaffirmed belief in the importance and power of internal comms.

“I believe employee engagement is more critical now than ever before,” says Williams. “Many people may be experiencing drastic changes to their work life and personal life, so having their colleagues and supervisors create the space and flexibility to support this new ‘normal’ means a lot to their overall health as well as their productivity at work.“

For Ponzar, the takeaway is how important it is to have robust engagement systems in place that can meet the challenges posed by a profound, complex crisis.

“For a few years now, our organization has had a year-round employee engagement calendar, health and wellness guide, online and virtual volunteer resources, and other workplace giving and employee engagement resources for our partners and staff,” she says. “It was easy to adapt them during lockdown and wasn’t a difficult shift as we’d already been doing it.”

Engagement will remain an important part of employee care—even as wellness becomes a bigger concern for organizations of all sizes.

“It’s always been important to engage employees, helping them build relationships at work and feel more vested,” Ponzar says. “That’s important now more than ever when people feel more isolated, anxious or undergo significant changes.”

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