Work Is Under Intense Review and the Old Superficial “Workplace Wellness” Is History

With a profound questioning of the script that your work is your life, the pandemic making remote work permanent, and a worsening burnout crisis, all the shallow, shiny workplace wellness tokensthe nap pods and free yoga classesnow feel like cynical band-aids. Workplace wellness has been forced to get real, from a profound rethinking of flexibility and time off, to finally supporting women’s health needs, to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives becoming non-negotiable  

Let’s face it, a company’s version of “wellness” has always been at odds with that of its workers. We’ve had four decades of workplace wellness programs—the office playgrounds and company weight loss challenges—and precious little to show for it. A new survey from Deloitte and Workplace Intelligence reveals that roughly 40% of people say a toxic work environment is harming their mental, physical and social wellbeing. So much so that 60% of employees and 75% of the C-suite say they’re seriously considering quitting their jobs for ones that would better support their wellbeing. Another global study found that 38% of workers hate their jobs so much they wouldn’t wish it on their worst enemy.  

In the last three years, we’ve lived through the “great resignation,” and we have seen “quiet quitting” (where workers put in minimal effort) morphing into “loud quitting” (almost 1 in 5 global employees is now actively disengaged). Just in the last week, The Guardian explored the new anti-work, anti-ambition feeling among Gen Z who seek “lazy girl jobs” that let them check out of hustle culture, take home a decent wage, and enjoy life. Similarly, The Washington Post chronicled how a sizable number of 2023 Chinese college grads posted photos of themselves sprawled on the ground, zombie-like, as part of the ongoing “lying flat” movement there, a response to high unemployment rates and an expression of young people’s ongoing rejection of China’s brutal “996” work paradigm (9am-9pm work days, six days a week). Since the pandemic, there have been a storm of slogans and memes trying to capture the “new work” and how people’s attitudes have changed. The media loves covering the “war” between employers and employees, and also delights in pitting generations against each other at work (Gen Z is lazy, Boomers are hopelessly out of touch, etc.).  

But beyond all the “war over work” clickbait, something profound is happening. The pandemic was a world-shattering event and it upended work and how we feel about it—as historic a moment as women flocking to work after World War II. As a recent New York Times piece argues, “workers in every corner of the economy are examining the conditions of their jobs and demanding better wages, flexible hours and expansive benefits…Over the past three years…most of us have been rethinking our time, and how to spend it.” A recent Wall Street Journal piece, that interviewed 400 American workers (from CEOs to factory workers), found a powerful shift underway: Workers are increasingly rejecting the narrative that has long defined the American Dream (follow a linear career, always climb higher, never stop until you reach the top) and that their lives can be summarized by a résumé.  

With new demands for work-life balance, hybrid/remote work, and a call for more purpose and inclusivity at work, our 2023 trend (“Workplace Wellness Finally Starts to Mean Something”) explores the many ways that employee wellness is getting a much-needed rethink, moving from false promise to meaningful plan of action. So much is going on, from providing true mental health resources (rather than a free meditation app), to hyper-personalized wellness benefits that would help workers the most.  

Here are three workplace wellness trends with new momentum 

  1. Replacing work-life blur with firm boundaries: Survey after survey shows that when it comes to workplace wellbeing, what matters to employees now is a flexible work schedule and paid time off. The most meaningful initiatives are restructuring work as a whole to create a healthier balance. Employers are rethinking paid time off policies so people can actually recharge, which can’t happen if the pings and dings don’t stop when you’re away or if you just come back to a mountain of tasks to catch up on. So, more companies are offering company-wide time off in addition to other paid time away, where the entire workforce is off. For instance, Deloitte gives employees these “Collective Disconnect” days and PwC has given its 60,000 US employees two annual week-long breaks in addition to their vacation time. An even more novel experiment is being run by Indian tech company Dream 11, which forces employees to pay a fee of $1,200 if they disturb co-workers on leave. More companies are giving employees work-abroad stints and long sabbaticals. And dozens of countries have experimented with the four-day work week, with overwhelmingly positive results. If the old workplace wellness was about bringing ever more leisure into work (work grueling hours, but here is your free yoga class), the new models restore you to your life and leisure.  
  2. Women’s health finally gets attention–with menopause benefits rising: There has been a recent revolution around women’s health, and topics that were once so heavily stigmatized–whether infertility or menopause–are now being addressed by more employers. The costs of menopause (for women, for companies) has been so high: for example, a new Mayo Clinic study reveals that it costs American women $1.8 billion in lost working time each year. More companies, from the US to the UK, are offering menopause benefits, such as time off, having insurance cover hormone replacement therapy, and access to menopause health professionals. In the UK, The House of Commons undertook a study to determine what needed to be done and now one survey estimates that one in four British businesses has a menopause policy. 
  3. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) becomes a pillar of wellness: Companies can be surprised by just how much DEI initiatives and working for an inclusive, purpose-driven organization matter to employees. A new International Well Building Institute/Harris poll shows that for 83% of US workers, DEI initiatives are seen as key to what it means for a company to invest in employee wellbeing. It is a key driver of job satisfaction, particularly for Black (81%), LGBTQ (61%) and Hispanic (59%) employees–but also for 45% of white workers. Inclusivity is becoming a true pillar of workplace wellness, from more benefits specific to race, gender and religion to office design for the neurodiverse. Younger generations are holding companies accountable.  

Employers are being forced to up their game as the bar for workplace wellness rises. It’s goodbye to superficial wellness “solutions.” The future is asking harder, get-real questions about what it really means to support health and wellness in the workplace.  

This is inspired by our 2023 trend, “Workplace Wellness Finally Starts to Mean Something.” Buy the full report here.  

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