By Emily Stiehl, PhD
As we begin the new year, I have had some time to reflect on the 2023 HERO Fall Think Tank, “Power Shift: How Employers are Responding to the Changing Needs and Preferences of Their Workforce,” and the excellent points that were raised during the presentations. It was inspiring to hear about the initiatives to protect and promote employee health that are happening around the world, across industries and business sectors. Employers are promoting employee health, not just as the “right thing to do” but as a business strategy that emphasizes the value that people bring to organizations.
As my colleagues and I mentioned during the Think Tank opening session, “Assessing Needs and Values of Today’s Workforce,” systems and environments are important for building and sustaining employee health. We have noticed a need to shift perspectives away from the potential silos that can emerge around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) or even employee well-being, towards systems that integrate these domains. Instead of viewing aspects of employee support as ancillary or passing fads, innovative employers have started including them as core strategic business functions that are essential for organizational effectiveness. Equity and employee well-being must be integrated into larger strategic discussions. Melanie Cumbee, MS, CWP, noted that many organizations did a great job during the pandemic of communicating and building trust, but when they started pulling back incentives after the pandemic, employees started questioning their trust of and relationships with their employers. Employers need to figure out how to build systems that support their employees and integrate topics like DEI and well-being into everything they do. Sometimes it involves creating systems where the healthy choice is the easiest choice. It also involves making sure that the needs and values of the workforce are prioritized as important and included in conversations about business metrics, as we heard from the panelists working for and shaping organizational priorities.
As Bonita Austin, MBA, said, employees are also looking for organizations that align with their values and share their concerns. Employees want to feel valued and appreciated in their roles, and what is motivating for one may not be for another. Since there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to employee well-being, and given the variety of factors impacting employee health, including broad social determinants of health, employers will have to be mindful of the implications of the programs they offer. For instance, when offering childcare, they should ask, is it affordable for employees at every salary level? Which programs do front-line employees need to better protect their health: Onsite clinics to make it easier to obtain preventive care, or rainy-day funds to protect against sudden events that cause stress and may deplete an employee’s resources? Employers may need to develop new methods of building equity into their programs, including thorough targeted feedback from employees whose voices are not usually heard. This feedback could inform well-being offerings, highlight domains of unmet needs, or identify gaps in messaging. In some cases, beneficial programs exist, but employees cannot or do not understand how to access them, in which case this feedback could inform better ways of delivering the messages to make it easier to engage.
Another way to understand the impact of well-being offerings is by leveraging existing datasets to link initiatives with impacts. My colleagues, Preethi Pratap, PhD, and Bruce Sherman, MD, and I have been working with healthcare organizations to understand how to leverage data to inform well-being initiatives. Quantitative data from existing datasets can be used to assess employees’ unmet health needs and health risks. It can also be used to gauge participation in well-being programs and to see what is working and what is not. Many organizations collect data on their employees’ health and well-being, but few have a systematic approach to integrate and/or evaluate the data. Merging multiple datasets into enterprise data warehouses and leveraging a data analyst to track and report on activity can improve the organization’s ability to understand its employees’ health needs and the impact of its well-being programs. Organizations could also work with their vendors to provide feedback on how employees are participating and using the vendors’ products. Leveraging multiple sources of data allows organizations to also connect employee well-being with business outcomes, as the C. Everett Koop National Health Award recipients demonstrate. Using existing datasets minimizes the burden on employers of collecting new metrics, but could also enhance the employers’ ability to assess whether or not their health and well-being initiatives are working for them (or which ones work best). This data could also serve to improve the equity of program offerings.
One key concern that emerged during the Think Tank was about whether employers could continue these efforts (or would continue these efforts) in light of employee pushback to “traditional work,” economic cycles, and changing social norms. Indeed, a recent article in Forbes magazine (Asare, 2023) boldly asks “Is DEI Officially Dead?”, echoing some of the concerns about the sustainability of well-being initiatives. Luckily, the author concluded that these initiatives are not dead, but instead that they are likely to change in their scope and focus. Think Tank speakers agreed and offered hope for the future of workplace health and well-being initiatives. Organizations are continuing to make employee well-being a strategic priority. As they do so, expanding the focus on equity to include all employees and integrating data systems to track well-being needs will enhance the impact of health and well-being programs.
2023 Fall Think Tank Speakers
Karen Moseley, HERO President and CEO
Emily Stiehl, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor, Health Policy & Administration, University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health
Roshi Fisher, MPH, CPH, Senior Vice President, Director of Employee Experience Consulting & Business Operations, Blue Communications
Melanie Cumbee, MS, CWP, Vice President, Organizational Transformations, Blue Zones LLC
Wes Carter, President, Atlantic Packaging Corp
Lisa Mrozinski, Director Total Rewards, Baird
Mary Freire de Carvalho, PhD, Epidemiologist, Shell
Bonita Austin, MBA, Professor, Department of Entrepreneurship & Strategy, University of Utah
Martha Shepherd, DO, MPH, FAAFP, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine and Pediatrics, Vanderbilt University Medical Center & Medical Director, Vanderbilt Health at MNPS
Joni Troester, MBA, SPHR, CEBS, Senior Assistant Vice President and Deputy CHRO, The University of Iowa; Chair, HERO Board of Directors
Program Directors: Paul Terry, PhD, HERO Sr. Fellow & Ariane Mistral, HERO Director of Education & Events
Asare, Janice Gassam, “Is DEI Officially Dead?” Forbes, July 16, 2023. https://www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2023/07/16/is-diversity-equity-and-inclusion-officially-dead/