A Total Well-Being Approach: Why It’s Essential in Turbulent Times

Written by Neelie Verlinden
13 minutes read

Our AIHR experts predicted that organizations would pay closer attention to total well-being in the near future. As macroeconomic factors continue to put pressure on businesses and employees alike, this prediction is quickly becoming actualized, and with it, an increasing need for organizations to not only prioritize well-being but also build resilience across the business. 

As a follow-up to the HR trends predictions, we will further unpack why total well-being remains a priority for organizations and what HR should consider when creating a total well-being offering. 

Why total well-being is important
Developing an impactful total well-being approach
1. Mental well-being
2. Resilience
3. Social well-being
4. Financial well-being 
5. Physical well-being 
6. Career well-being

Why total well-being is important – now more than ever 

It’s undisputed that the world has experienced a barrage of crises over the last few years. From the pandemic, and its (ongoing) aftermath three years on, to rapidly rising energy prices, inflation, and a looming recession that has sparked anticipatory mass layoffs. 

Unsurprisingly, this has taken its toll. 87% of Americans feel anxious about inflation, 7 in 10 employees worry that their compensation hasn’t kept up with the changes in purchasing power, and a shocking 98% of HR professionals say that they felt burned out at some point last year.   

Which leads to the potential for a new crisis – an employee burnout crisis. If ignored, this potential new risk could have a serious knock-on impact on the continuity of the business.

Companies that don’t provide adequate (mental health and) well-being support to their employees risk (among other things): 

  • An increase in absenteeism and presenteeism
  • An increase in workplace accidents and injuries
  • A drop in engagement and productivity 
  • A decline in retention and talent attraction.

Within this context, it’s clear why organizations have begun to prioritize total well-being and building resilience, and HR departments, in particular, can take matters into their own hands and assume greater responsibility for the total well-being of their people. 

There is still work to be done, however. 

In a Workplace Wellness survey conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute and Greenwald Research, 31% of employees indicated that they felt their employer’s efforts to help manage their overall well-being had increased in the past year. However, almost 60% of respondents felt that their company’s efforts had remained the same.

HR needs to move the dial on sustainable employee well-being
Dr. Dieter Veldsman, Chief Scientist HR and OD, AIHR 

“As HR, we need to break the paradigm that a “good worker” is someone that stays late, is there first, works over weekends, and never says no to any demand from the organization. 
Instead, a good worker manages a healthy boundary between demands and resources that aligns with the organization’s expectations and how to deliver within this relationship in a sustainable manner.Practically, this might call for a re-evaluation of what we celebrate and reward in organizations. We need to take a critical view on whether we are not rewarding behaviors based on effort and not based on impact.”

Developing an impactful total well-being approach

Before we unpack how HR can build a total well-being solution, we must address something often glossed over—HR’s own burnout crisis. 

Failing to acknowledge and address this crisis will have negative consequences not only for HR professionals within the organization but also for the business itself. HR can only build an impactful total well-being approach for others by putting on their own oxygen mask. 

We’ve provided tips for HR on what to do to manage your mental well-being and encourage you to consider those while building the total well-being solution. 

The following section will discuss the components to include within a total well-being strategy. Although each element is essential, there are 3 in particular that are often overlooked but can significantly improve employee well-being, namely building resilience, career well-being, and social well-being.   

Total Well-Being Approach Key Pillars

1. Mental well-being

Work plays a significant role in employees’ mental health and well-being. 

According to surveys, 76% of U.S. workers reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition, while 84% of respondents indicated that their workplace conditions had contributed to at least one mental health challenge.

Additionally, 81% of workers reported that they would be looking for workplaces that support mental health in the future.

And employees are not only impacted by work stressors alone. Situational stressors, like debt, unexpected events, or family/household dynamics, can also negatively impact mental health and well-being. Current inflation concerns, for example, continue to be felt by employees, with 54% of employees indicating that they feel tense or stressed at work due to inflation worries.    

The consequences of decreasing mental well-being

  • The physical effects of mental stress: According to the latest US Surgeon General’s report, chronic stress has several adverse effects on various organ systems in the body. Elevated stress hormones can disrupt sleep, increase muscle tension, and impair metabolic function. It can also increase the risk of infection, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions.
  • Mental health challenges: Chronic stress also contributes to mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety. 
  • The impact on the organization: It’s a well-known fact that employee well-being also affects productivity and organizational performance. When employees feel overwhelmed, the quality of work and performance will decline. Additionally, chronic diseases and injuries in the U.S. workforce cost companies more than half a trillion dollars in lost productivity each year.

Companies are starting to focus on improving mental well-being

Eventbrite introduced Burnout Brite camps and Bite Breaks during the pandemic to give people time to take care of themselves, recharge, and relieve stress. 

Recently, AIHR has introduced mental health days. These are days that employees can take off work to pause, regroup, alleviate stress, and head off burnout before it’s too late.  

-Gemma Baldock, Scaleup CHRO and Leadership Development Coach at AIHR on mental well-being

How HR can support mental well-being 

People Teams (should) play a significant role in supporting the mental well-being of the employees in the organization. Here are some ways to do this: 

  1. Get senior executives on board. And also get them to open up. A study showed that 62% of employees would feel more comfortable speaking about mental health if someone in a leadership role openly talked about it.  
  2. Destigmatize mental health and well-being. While getting senior executives on board is a step in the right direction, providing managers with training on understanding and providing mental well-being for employees can help with destigmatization. 
  3. Provide tools and support for employees. Examples include platforms such as OpenUp and Panda, but there are several (digital) tools and platforms to choose from.
    What’s crucial for any of these to be successful is that your employees are informed about them. Communicate with employees around:
    • What tools and support are available
    • How to access these and; 
    • Who to approach with additional questions (starting with their manager).

HR pro-tip 

Kristen Roby Dimlow’s advice:

“Well-being really is a holistic thing. If your finances are in trouble, chances are you’re feeling physical symptoms from that and mental symptoms, such as anxiety.

If you are experiencing a physical condition, it may translate into mental health issues. So at Microsoft, we’re trying to think about encouraging employees to think about the whole package, trying to ensure that they’re finding balance in all three aspects.” 

2. Resilience

It’s clear that companies must focus on improving the working environment. However, not everything is within the control of an organization. As discussed, employees do not only experience workplace stressors, but additional external situational stressors have an impact on employees as well. 

And external and internal crises will continue to arise and persist throughout an individual’s life and career. 

HR needs to look beyond mental well-being initiatives and also prioritize helping and supporting employees to develop resilience in the face of adversity and challenges. 

But building resilience cannot be achieved unidirectionally. Employees are equally responsible for building resilience, managing stressors outside the workplace, and utilizing the support provided. 

How the AIHR People Team supports employees in building resilience

How HR can support resilience-building 

When it comes to building resilience, HR can take various steps to support employees:

  1. Gather data. Data will enable HR to better understand the stressors impacting their employees. Are they related to the organization or their work? Or related to other areas in their personal lives?  
  2. Organizational transparency. Create transparency around topics such as inflation. Be clear about what the organization can and cannot offer, such as how the business is managing rising inflation, or broader issues happening within the company, etc.   
  3. Organize resilience training. Offer training on an organizational and individual level. We advise prioritizing resilience training within HR before establishing company-wide training initiatives. 
  4. Equip managers to support resilience in their teams. Think of:
    • Building psychological safety in the workplace
    • Encouraging managers to practice adaptability and problem-solving with their teams 

At AIHR, building resilience goes beyond the organization and the individual. “We also believe that to build resilience in the individual, we need to think more broadly. We therefore also fund OpenUp for the families and partners of our employees to ensure that the larger social support structure can benefit too,” Gemma Baldock explains. 

HR pro tip

Naomi Stanford’s HR pro tip on building resilience for HR professionals through scenario planning: 

“Running scenarios can be very helpful because it means that you’ll be more resilient when something vaguely similar happens in reality. 

Because then you can look at your data going back to the data point and, if it’s current, reliable, and valid, you can start to see if x happened.

Have we got the workforce? You can deal with it in terms of skills and capabilities, in terms of numbers, in terms of location, in terms of competency levels, etc.” 

3. Social well-being

Human beings need connectedness, social support, and belonging. The pandemic magnified this need when countries limited physical interactions. The resultant effects illustrated the alarming implications of limited social connections.

A US study examining people’s experiences from January 2020 to June 2020 saw one of the most significant declines in: 

  • happiness and life satisfaction
  • mental and physical health
  • meaning in life and overall flourishing. 

Interestingly, post-pandemic, the workplace now faces social connectedness challenges. As more companies embrace remote working, or a hybrid working environment, to meet people’s growing demand for greater flexibility and autonomy, the ability (or lack thereof) to build meaningful social relationships has come under the spotlight. 

One study, for instance, found that full-time remote work can increase loneliness by 67 percentage points compared to in-office work. While a report from Workhuman and Gallup found that employees who lack meaningful connections at work are also up to 9 times more likely to be disengaged and 3 times more likely to look for a new job.  

How HR can support social well-being

Strong social ties between employees play an important role in their overall total well-being and, by extension, are also good for the organization. Here are a few things for HR to consider when it comes to fostering social well-being: 

Redefine remote and hybrid work strategies. This is also one of the HR trends we identified for 2023. We expect that HR practitioners will set clear principles for how, when, and where work is done. As a part of this, they should think about:

  • How to foster collaboration and teamwork (and social well-being)
  • How to overcome proximity bias
  • How to create a culture of inclusion  
  1. Be intentional about social connections. Create moments for people to connect. If your organization is fully remote, this might include organizing an in-person offsite event for the entire company twice a year. 
  2. Rethink the role of the office. In a hybrid or remote set-up, what role does the office play? How can the office support the social well-being of employees? Some companies choose, for example, to only use the office as a place for teams to connect, have in-person meetings, brainstorm sessions, and meet clients. 
  3. Encourage recognition. A simple ‘thank you for your great work’ goes a long way. Make employee recognition a part of your company’s DNA, for instance, with a simple employee recognition program

4. Financial well-being 

Over the past two years, living costs have drastically risen globally. In the UK, the annual rate of inflation reached 10,5% in December 2022, while The Netherlands’ inflation rate increased to 11,6%. The US ended the year with an annual inflation rate of 6,5%.

Unsurprisingly, inflation has become a source of great concern for many employees. A 2022 survey by YouGov and YuLife found that 80% of employees worry about their financial well-being, with that figure rising to 88% for parents. In the US, Forbes reports that 56% of more than 3000 full-time employees surveyed by PwC indicated that they experience stress related to their finances.   

Financial stress has serious implications for employees and the business: 

  • It leads to a 34% increase in absenteeism and tardiness.
  • Employees who worry about money miss almost twice as many days per year compared to their unstressed colleagues. 
  • Financial worry can lead to health issues such as burnout, anxiety, ulcers and even heart problems.
  • All of this results in a (significant) loss of productivity. 

How HR can support financial well-being

There are various ways that People Teams can help employees to manage their finances better and reduce financial worry: 

  1. Assess employees’ needs. Start by asking your employees what they need most. Do they want a company pension plan, compensation for their rising cost of living, free lunches or something else the company may not have even considered? 
  2. Understand what the organization can and cannot offer. To support employees’ financial well-being, HR departments first need to understand what their organization can and cannot offer before creating a financial wellness strategy. 
  3. Develop a financial wellness program. A financial wellness program is primarily aimed at educating employees and can take various forms:
    • Workshops – A simple and relatively low-cost way to educate employees about their personal finances. Think of inviting guest speakers to run a workshop on topics such as budget planning, reducing (student) debt, or savings tactics. 
    • Dedicated partnerships – Establish a partnership with a company that specializes in, for instance, employee financial planning.  
    • Financial wellness tools – Consider offering financial wellness tools (if there is an employee need for this) that provide, for example, personalized coaching and on-demand financial advising or custom training and e-learning to improve your employees’ financial knowledge.  

HR pro tip

Virgile Raingeard’s advice:

“The best advice is always to communicate and be transparent with your employees. 

I’ve seen companies not doing anything specifically about inflation. But they communicated very well about their compensation policy, what inflation is, what impact it has, what the company’s financial status is, etc. And this transparency creates accountability and trust between the company and its employees.

And employees do understand. Perhaps some of them were disappointed, but they understood; they appreciated the transparency.” 

5. Physical well-being 

A decline in mental and financial well-being can negatively impact health behaviors and overall physical well-being.  

Research has shown that stress from work and personal demands can result in unhealthy behaviors like smoking, poor diet, disruptions in relationships, and increased alcohol or substance use. Additionally, chronic stress has been linked to a higher risk of diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and obesity.

Findings from a report indicated that employees with an unhealthy diet were 66% more likely to report a loss in productivity, and 50% of employees who exercised only occasionally were more likely to report lower productivity levels.  

How HR can support physical well-being 

  1. Promote physical well-being and healthy habits. Consider the ergonomics of people’s work environment, providing healthy snack options and lunches, or organizing office ‘step challenges’. 
  2. Encourage work-life balance. Involve or train managers on how to promote a work-life balance and set healthy work boundaries for their team. This could include setting team rules around after-hour messages or offering greater flexibility for running errands.

HR pro tip

Terri Bailey, Chartered FCIPD, and CPO/HRD on how HR can boost physical well-being in the workplace:

“Put yourself first – lead by example and take care of your own physical well-being.

We need to be healthy and well, both physically and mentally, to enable us to deal with the demands of the role.” 

6. Career well-being

A holistic employee well-being approach should not be limited to resilience, mental, social, physical, and financial interventions. Total well-being should also consider employees’ career well-being, which is often overlooked in well-being strategies. 

Ideally, career well-being evolves around bringing people closer to their Ikigai – their raison d’être, based at the intersection of:

  • what they love
  • what they’re good at
  • what the world needs, and 
  • what they can get paid for    

In an organization, this can translate into, among other things, creating career paths for your employees and empowering them to use their strengths in their day-to-day work and develop new skills. 

Not supporting your employee’s career well-being comes at a risk, even in uncertain economic times. A Gallup analysis shows that people who use their strengths daily are:

  • 3 times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life (and, as a result, increased overall well-being)
  • 6 times more likely to be engaged at work 
  • 8% more productive
  • 15% less likely to quit their jobs.
Dr. Dieter Veldsman on career-wellbeing

How HR can support career well-being

HR is in an ideal position to support the career-wellbeing of the organization’s employees. People Teams can, for example: 

  1. Assist managers and employees – With creating an employee development plan
  2. Offer tools – That help employees get insights into possible career paths. At AIHR, we’ve developed our HR Career Map tool for HR professionals. 
  3. Cultivate a learning culture – That focuses on people development methods such as job rotation, job shadowing, coaching, and mentoring. 

Key takeaway

Employee well-being requires a holistic approach. Organizations and HR departments are increasingly realizing this and moving towards a proactive approach to building resilience and well-being.

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Neelie Verlinden

Neelie Verlinden is a digital content creator at AIHR. She’s an expert on all things digital in HR and has written hundreds of articles on innovative HR practices. In addition to her writing, Neelie is also a speaker and an instructor on several popular HR certificate programs.

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