Staff wellness in a post-COVID world

Originally written for LawTalk, published 2 July 2020

Never before have we been so preoccupied with health and wellness as we have in the last few years.

Wellness is defined by the Global Institute of Wellness as “the active pursuit of activities, choices and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health”. It recognises that wellness is an ongoing process and a multi-faceted concept involving physical, mental, emotional, social, environmental, and spiritual dimensions.

We’ve come to appreciate that wellness at the individual level is not just about taking personal responsibility and intentional, proactive actions. The COVID-19 experience has highlighted how wellness is also influenced by our environment. Friends and family, communities, workplaces and government all influence our ability to access wellness and we’re waking up to the fact that without our health, we don’t have anything.

It’s recognised that workplaces have a responsibility to protect and promote employee wellness and that this benefits not only the individual at the personal level but also the organisation in terms of performance and efficiency. Keeping the workforce healthy keeps the company healthy and the COVID-19 experience brings this to the forefront. As we explore different ways of working in the long term, it allows us a chance to re-examine and redefine the role of the workplace in personal health.

Up to now, workplace value systems have generally promoted stress, anxiety and burnout – to the point that in 2019 the World Health Organisation recognised ‘burnout’ as an occupational hazard that affects workplace performance. While employee wellness programmes are widely implemented to address stress and promote wellness, their existence supports the underlying belief that work stress is an intrinsic by-product of being good at what you do and working hard in the profit-focused society we’ve created. If you’re not stressed, you’re not doing it properly, it’s just “part of the job”. It’s clear that this needs to change as people place more value on wellbeing following recent experiences.

The 2019 New Zealand Workplace Wellness Survey sponsored by Southern Cross and Business NZ reports that the vast majority of workplaces provide a range of benefits to support and improve the wellbeing of staff and that these programmes cover all aspects of wellness.  Examples of such initiatives include:

  • Employee Assistance Programmes in 90%+ of large organisations (defined as those with over 50 employees) and 30%+ of small organisations
  • education and training opportunities in 75%+ of large organisations and 60%+ of small organisations,
  • processes for staff input in 60%+ of large organisations and 40% of small organisations,
  • health checks in 40%+ of large organisations and 15%+ of small organisations,
  • inhouse exercise sessions or exercise groups in 40%+ of large organisations and 10%+ of small organisations,
  • free healthy food and/or kitchen facilities in 50%+ of large organisations and 30%+ of small organisations,
  • mindfulness initiatives in 40%+ of large organisations and 5% of small organisations

The question needs to be raised as to whether these benefits have really been effective in helping staff to feel healthy, well and supported at work because in a post-COVID-19 environment they become more important for safeguarding our health in the broad sense. How can these programmes be more attractive, engaging, and effective to a wider proportion of the workforce?

Corporate wellness programmes typically have high uptake from those that are more health-conscious to start with and can fail to attract, or can intimidate, those dealing with health issues, whether they are mental or physical. Organisations need to consider how to increase uptake of available benefits or whether there are more effective options to implement to promote staff wellness.

Some considerations are:

Mental health

While it has become more acceptable to talk about mental health at work and Employee Assistance Programmes have been implemented in many workplaces, as mentioned above, there is still a gap between employers and management talking about mental health and staff feeling safe enough to take advantage of the systems designed to provide support or to talk about the things they are struggling with.

This gap could be the result of several factors:

  • staff perceiving stigma or judgement by management for using such services
  • staff not recognising that mental health issues are relevant or that workplace programmes can help to address matters
  • lack of education about who to contact, how to ask for help or what resources are available

Training for staff at all levels to build the skills needed to ask for and offer support as well as developing a culture of openness and compassion in the workplace to build trust and connection would show an organisational willingness to support employee needs, making it easier for those that need it to ask for support.

It’s been reported that more empathetic workplaces attract higher quality employees and allows them to be more innovative and adaptable, producing higher quality and consistent work.

Over the last few years of uncertainty, we’ve all experienced a range of emotions and some may have been surprised to have had a more intense reaction than they would expect or feel effects on an ongoing basis. Developing the skills to be able to communicate and process these feelings will help on both the individual and the organisational level.

Flexible options

Discounted gym memberships and inhouse exercise classes are relatively common, especially in larger organisations and they are a great way to encourage more movement into the day for employees which in turn helps improve energy levels, focus and productivity.

However, issues with uptake of these programmes may be two-fold:

  • the staff that get the most use from these tend to be the ones that would be going the gym or to classes anyway
  • if the culture of the organisation doesn’t encourage flexible work practices it makes it difficult for busy staff to take advantage of these benefits during the work week

It’s important to remember that not everyone is a gym person or wants to participate in yoga in the boardroom with their workmates.  Making a variety of options available is important to appeal to wider a range of people – consider if there other active options close to the office where discounted membership or classes could be arranged and whether options are inclusive and cater for all levels of ability.

Even with these initiatives in place, staff willing to take part and ostensible flexible work hours, if the workplace doesn’t adequately value individual and collective wellness the pressure to be seen to be working at all times can provide a disincentive to taking entitled ‘time out’ to go to the gym. Finding time to fit in exercise in between work and home commitments is a constant struggle for many and encouraging staff to take advantage of flexibility through the workday can alleviate this.

Actively encouraging staff to find suitable opportunities to get regular movement in their day that they enjoy, making it easy to access and building a culture where self-care is a valued priority will improve the health and wellbeing of staff and lift their productivity.

Effective follow up

Health checks provide a great snapshot of our state of health at a given time, but this information is worthless if there is no follow up to educate and implement sustainable lifestyle changes. If you’re in good health it can give you a signal you’re on the right track and inspire you to carry on but for many that know they could be in better health it can be disheartening rather than motivating to see the statistics and the thought of overhauling their life can be overwhelming.

If your organisation provides annual health checks but is poor on the follow up, its time to think about how to use this information effectively.  A health check is not a wellness benefit if there is no provision to address any issues that are flagged.

Behavioural change is complicated and while opportunities may be available to address health concerns, it may not be a simple as laying out the options. Coaching or guidance may be needed to make a plan, help ease the way and inspire a willingness to embrace change.


The past few years have given many of us an opportunity to reflect on what parts of our life we missed, what we didn’t miss and what we would like to change. It’s helped us to understand what’s important to us and to clarify our values going forward.  As we once again restart in a post-COVID-19 environment we’ve been handed an opportunity to reimagine our way of working. With wellness and quality of life being a priority for many, we have a chance to change how we do things at an organisational level to recommit to supporting our wellness values.