Why workers need more than wellness benefits and initiatives

Perks and programs are great, but employees want leaders who express genuine care, compassion and appreciation for their labor.

Well-being benefits

It seems simple enough. To help workers care for their well-being, provide them with well-being benefits, right?

Not exactly. Workplace well-being benefit packages alone are not enough to help workers care for their well-being, according to a new joint study by The Wellbeing Lab and George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Wellbeing. What workers need most right now is care and compassion from their leaders.

People who feel that they could trust their leaders to make sensible decisions about issues that impact their future are three times more likely to feel positive about returning to work. This perhaps explains why leaders like Jane Fraser, president of Citi and CEO of global consumer banking, made Citi’s reentry priority abundantly clear when she wrote on LinkedIn:

“As Citi plans for the future — re-opening our offices and determining what our new workplace needs will be — one thing is very clear to us. We will continue to prioritize the safety of our employees, customers and communities. That may mean being more cautious than the guidance of a city, state or country. We have a senior and seasoned team working on our return to the office to ensure that when we do so, it is done intelligently and with the health and well-being of our people at the center of our decision making.”

Likewise it is likely why Costco decided to institute hazard pay for frontline workers and Delta CEO Ed Bastian offered to forgo his salary for six months.

Unfortunately, only 35% of workers report that they trust their leaders to make sensible decisions about issues that impact their future.

The good news is that the study found that leaders who regularly expressed care, compassion, and appreciation towards their workers are not only significantly more likely to garner trust — they are also more likely to instill higher levels of well-being, job satisfaction, productivity, performance, and commitment throughout their workforce. This is particularly true for workers who report moderate to high levels of anxiety about COVID-19; caring and compassionate leaders appear to buffer negative effects of such emotions.

Other research reinforces the importance of caring in fostering well-being. For example, a survey of more than 3,200 employees in 17 organizations spanning seven industries showed that employees who felt cared for by leaders indicated greater job satisfaction, commitment, and personal accountability for work performance.

Given the current opportunity to re-build a workplace in the “new normal,” what can HR teams do to help leaders express care and compassion for workers?

Here’s what how some our HR clients have been doing:

  • Holding leadership boot camps. A national insurance company is holding mandatory virtual boot camps for leaders on how to help themselves and others thrive in the face of ongoing uncertainty and disruption. Sessions focus on using coaching skills to express care, appreciation, responsibility, and emotional intelligence to positively impact individual performance, team cohesion, and organizational effectiveness.
  • Normalizing mental-health struggles. A national education provider is surveying its people to help normalize feelings of struggle, stress, and anxiety. Given that 90% of American workers have reported a significant increase in their struggles since the start of 2020, but less than 2 in 10 workers feel it is safe to share their struggles at work, normalizing mental health needs to be a priority in most workplaces.
  • Embracing the messy process of learning. There is no road map to help leaders navigate the changes they are facing, so a large healthcare facility has used this moment to boost its learning culture. By introducing simple tools and practices like weekly check-ins focused on recent challenges, learnings, and ways forward, the company is improving psychological safety, well-being, and performance across their teams.
  • Boosting change intelligence and capability. Traditional leadership approaches have often relied on the illusion of controlling workers’ behaviors. While this can deliver short-term compliance, it rarely achieves long-term commitment and almost always negatively impacts worker well-being. Consequently, a large state government department is using the challenge of constant disruption to train leaders based on the latest research in neuroscience, as well as psychological and systems thinking. The department is coaching leaders using deep insights to create more positive and effective changes.

Ultimately, as Professor David Cooperrider reminds us, “Cultures are formed in the crucibles of crisis.”

Louis Alloro is a senior fellow at the Center for the Advancement of Wellbeing.

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