Reshaping the conversation around how employers support and accommodate employees

July 3, 2023

One male and one female employee.
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The past couple of years have given rise to some significant workplace trends — a war for talent, demands for flexible work options and an increased need for mental health support. Typically, we hear about these issues from the employee perspective. In some ways, by setting boundaries regarding job-related demands, employees have put the ball back into employers’ courts — reshaping the conversation from what they have to do to support their employees to what they should be doing. Employers are listening and working to confront a consequential culture shift: that focusing on employee health and well-being develops an organization’s workforce and drives stronger performance.

Offering flexibility

There is increasing recognition among employers and employees of the need for greater work-life balance. Consequently, there is a rising demand for work flexibility. Flexible work arrangements allow employees to have some control over when, where and how they work. Providing the option to work remotely instills a feeling of employee autonomy, empowerment and a sense that they can be trusted to dictate which assignments they should complete in the office versus which tasks they can take care of from home.

This trend of hybrid/remote work won’t be disappearing any time soon — already, nearly 60% of employed respondents to a recent McKinsey American Opportunity survey said they have the option to work from home at least part of the week. About 90% said they would accept a flexible work option, if offered.

There are several creative solutions employers can put in place to offer more flexibility. Alternatives to the rigid 9-to-5 standard may include compressed scheduling options (like a four-day work week) and allowing employees to adjust their hours to accommodate life events without needing to use paid time off (PTO). For hourly or shift workers, employers can offer flexibility by adjusting shift start and stop times or implementing self-scheduling.

Instilling purpose

Connection and belonging are critical to well-being and happiness — and that goes for the workplace, too. Employees increasingly want to feel that their work contributes to a greater good. It enhances employees’ motivation and engagement, and research has demonstrated that purpose-driven work is good for both employee health and financial performance. A study published by Harvard Business Review found that employers with a clearly articulated purpose that’s widely understood by the workforce experiences better growth than organizations that hadn’t developed or leveraged their purpose, in addition to benefiting from greater global expansion and more product launches.

To that end, employers are looking to distill a company-wide understanding of their organizational mission through consistent messaging, prioritizing culture-building and creating an environment where employees feel a part of something larger than themselves. One effective way to do this is to embed diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) into workplace practices to foster connection and belonging. Emphasizing environmental, social and governance (ESG) efforts can also demonstrate an organization’s commitment to responsible corporate citizenship.

Providing mental health support

Regarding mental health, it’s no secret that many people are struggling. And in part because humans are hardwired for connection, the pandemic made circumstances significantly worse. Even pre-pandemic, there was a growing effort to support employee mental health and well-being through employee assistance programs (EAPs) and behavioral health coverage in their benefit plans. However, with work being reported as people’s No. 1 source of stress in a 2023 report from Calm, employers are now asking themselves: Is this enough?

Typically, employees used to assume responsibility for caring for their own mental health and well-being outside of work. But with so many people now working remotely, the line between work and home life is blurred, and visible clues of employee distress are harder to detect. This is causing the pendulum to swing away from the resilience model and over to employers to take care of people. In response, employers look to indicators like absenteeism and productivity to gauge stress levels, but they still may not understand how their employees are really doing.

Quarterly performance reviews are no longer enough; leaders must invest more time in connecting with their teams. Managers should schedule weekly meetings with their individual team members and make a concerted effort to focus on the employee in a holistic sense, not solely on their work stats. Normalizing mental health and wellness should start at the highest levels of organization, by leaders modeling healthy attitudes and openly sharing aspects of their lives. Some employers are partnering with behavioral health specialists to develop and implement interactive training programs that normalize mental health and cultivate empathy and vulnerability.

Adopting a healthier approach to management

How managers lead matters. The stakes of leadership have always been high, but they may be higher than ever when it comes to employee well-being, according to a recent study that included 3,400 people across 10 countries. Data suggests that for 69% of people, their managers had the greatest impact on their mental health — more than their doctor or therapist — and on par with the impact of their life partner.

Employers are encouraging managers to foster connection and collaboration among their teams. This could mean working together one day a week or hosting group volunteer outings. Setting up Slack channels for non-work banter, enforcing an on-camera work call policy and coordinating virtual coffee dates or “office hours” with managers can all help in bringing together remote and hybrid teams.

Taking a stronger stance on professional development can also enhance employee well-being, aid in attracting and retaining talent, and support organizational goals. In a recent report, 52% of employees cited lack of growth or advancement opportunities as a major cause of workplace stress. Employers are responding with program offerings such as tuition assistance or reimbursement programs, mentorship programs, corporate universities and continuing education classes to support credentialing, reskilling and upskilling.

The workplace landscape looks vastly different than it did a few years ago. To be competitive and perform at their best, employers must shift how they manage their people, focusing on the minds and hearts of their employees. Adopting a people-first mentality can enable employees to thrive in and outside the job — and position employers for overall success.

> Learn more — check out an expanded version of this article in Sedgwick’s digital magazine, edge, issue 21.

Tags: Employee engagement, employee experience, Employees, employer, employers