Wellbeing Champions – A New Role for Company Leaders in the Post-Pandemic Workplace

From relying on external providers with one-size-fits-all solutions, companies must now grow leaders who can provide proactive support

Wellbeing Champions – A New Role for Company Leaders in the Post-Pandemic Workplace

The   COVID-19 pandemic left a lasting impression on Canadian employers. Whether through changes to services and coverage provided by benefits plans or new company practices aimed at improving the employee experience at home or in the office, the workplace looks different than it did in early 2020.

One of the biggest changes is the increased focus on employee wellbeing. In the past two years, most organizations across Canada have made a concerted effort to better support the health and wellness needs of their staff. Many are offering wellbeing strategies that acknowledge the whole person, recognizing physical health, mental health, financial health, social wellbeing, and more. Benefits plans are growing more multifaceted, too. As a result, in 2023 it’s estimated that Canadian employers can expect costs related to health benefits to increase by 6.3 per cent from the previous year.

With the significant progress made, the spotlight is also on organizational leaders and the changing role they play in keeping this momentum going, while continuing to evolve how they lead and support their teams.

Executives, directors, managers, and anyone who has people directly reporting to them have a chance to become ‘wellbeing champions’ serving on the frontlines of this continued move towards optimal employee health and wellness outcomes. This evolution of leaders will be vital as we continue to improve benefits plan offerings and bring the idea of total employee wellbeing support to life in workplaces across Canada.

This is needed now more than ever. A 2022 survey from TELUS Health (formerly LifeWorks) found that nearly half of Canadian employees who reported a decline in mental health cited a change in workplace culture as the top reason (46 per cent), followed by perceived changes in the handling of employee wellbeing support by leaders (43 per cent) and communication in the workplace (30 per cent). So, what can an organization and its leaders do to better support their teams’ wellbeing right now? It starts with an improved focus on creating an environment that supports the humanity of a workplace and prepares leaders to evolve the culture on their teams.

Growing Leaders

For a long time, workplaces were one- size-fits-all when it came to managing employees. Leaders focused largely on achieving organizational/business goals and employees had to adapt to the style of their leader. Support for the wellbeing of employees was left to the services provided through their benefits plans and some sporadic wellness programming. But this is changing. Leaders need to manage with a more personalized approach that adjusts to the unique qualities, personalities, and needs of their employees, making a more concerted effort to support them in many ways that are unrelated to work deliverables.

But these aren’t skills that come naturally to everyone. It’s becoming paramount that leaders receive progressive training to better enable them in supporting their team and proactively identifying if their employees may be experiencing a health concern – like a mental health issue – as these can often go unnoticed in a virtual workplace. When leaders are confident in engaging their employees on these types of issues, they provide a safe and comfortable space for their teams to share how they are feeling. Leaders can also encourage the individual to get the help they need and direct them to meaningful supports inside and outside of the organization.

Understanding Colleagues

Leaders who regularly support the wellbeing of their team must work to truly understand the needs of their colleagues and this can be done by giving them a voice. There are many worthwhile exercises like employee engagement surveys, office listening tours, and 1:1 conversations that can help them gather both quantitative and qualitative data to inform their style of leadership. Leaders who excel as wellness champions recognize that every employee is different and has personal needs, wants, and expectations when it comes to health and wellness. Employees know what they need, but leaders need to create a safe space for them to share. These insights will allow leaders to support each member of their team in the most impactful and meaningful way, while also allowing employers to reassess and invest in the most relevant benefits plan features and tailored wellbeing programs.

Confidential team member data – such as benefits usage, vacation time, turnover, disability, and time away from work – can also provide insights as to what is happening with colleagues and how it may best be addressed. Spending time understanding specific employee demographics and health and wellbeing risks and patterns can equip leaders with even more insights to tailor their approach to leadership.

This type of personalized support for the individual wellbeing of employees has the ability to reduce stigma, create a psychologically safe work environment, and positively shift the culture at the organization beyond traditional wellbeing and mental health initiatives.

Using Technology to Support Wellbeing

Technology, particularly new digital health technologies that have emerged across Canada in recent years, can play an essential role in helping leaders support the wellbeing of their teams. It’s important for leaders to routinely and consistently talk about what support is available to employees and understand the barriers to care. Communication is key and leaders play a significant role in directing their team to effective services which they can access, or have covered, through their benefits plan or via their wellbeing offerings. Having virtual health supports available through an organization’s benefits plan makes it easier for team members to get the help they need, when they need it. For example, if a team member is going through a challenging time, a leader who regularly meets with them will come to recognize signs of struggle or concern. Should this happen, listening with empathy and support increases trust and psychological safety. A leader is never expected to be a mental health professional, but can be a supportive bridge to care by understanding and outlining the range of health benefits available, such as customizable and guided digital health and wellbeing support technologies.

A Culture of Compassion

Shifting an organization’s culture to one that truly supports wellbeing is not an easy task. It requires constant measurement, action, and an ongoing commitment to change the fibre of the organization at the deepest level. Employers cannot speak about the importance of good mental health while having policies and practices that create a psychologically unsafe environment for employees. Things like job design, change management, operational processes, and training practices all need to reflect an organization’s messaging and cultural values around support and wellbeing. Shifting a culture towards one where wellbeing is at the core is truly a team effort, it requires all leaders across all functions to be onboard.

Leaders need to consider wellbeing as a key part of the organization’s business and risk management strategy. No longer a nice-to-have, a focus on total employee wellbeing will positively impact an organization’s bottom line and needs to be strategically planned for, and renewed, annually. The success of leaders should be tied to their ability to connect with the members of their team and support their wellbeing, as well as their ability to positively impact the culture of the organization.

Janet Young is Director, Well-being and Health Services, People and Culture at TELUS Health.