The Social Side of Workplace Wellness

The Social Side of Workplace Wellness

Wellness initiatives are on the rise in the American workplace: according to the Global Wellness Institute (GWI), 72 percent of U.S. employers from 2010 to 2015 purchased services to address employees’ health risks and promote healthy lifestyle choices. It’s more and more common for companies to offer gym membership reimbursements or standing work desks – anything to keep employees healthy, well and ready to work.

And yet the many programs that encourage employees to quit smoking, to lose weight or to get their flu shot all share a pretty glaring blind spot: they focus almost primarily on physical wellness and neglect mental and emotional health. Seventy-one percent of employees say they have a “somewhat or very high” level of stress on the job.

Conscious Company Magazine’s January issue featured Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environments Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE) to “measure and accelerate” the ways in which corporations think about wellness at work. What they’ve found is an increasing tendency for employees to equate their quality of life with their work – the meaning behind it, the culture it promotes and the relationships they build there.

The workplace, in other words, is an environment that can quickly become toxic when workers do not feel culturally nourished or socially connected.

Edward Hopper's Office in a Small City 2

Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City, 1953 via

“Physical wellbeing is really important,” says SHINE’s co-director Eileen McNeely, “but there’s a whole other piece that has to do with the emotional and spiritual aspects of wellbeing.” Physically healthy behaviors encourage clear minds and lead to fewer sick days. But stress, strained colleague relationships and lack of engagement are issues of mental wellbeing that can be far more poisonous to workplace culture and efficiency than poor physical health.

Think about it. Have you ever taken the day off not because you had the flu, but because you needed some time to mentally and emotionally recharge – a “mental health day” of sorts?

We all bring baggage to work. The reality of being human is that we manage complex inner lives day-to-day and hour-to-hour. We all worry about family, friends, money and doctor’s visits. Add that to the stress of the average work day or an argument with a colleague, and it’s a big burden to bear.

Although Employee Assistance Programs encourage mental and emotional wellbeing, providing short-term counseling options and therapy referrals for employees, GWI research reveals that only 5 percent of employees use them. While they offer resources for workers dealing with personal problems, they don’t necessarily address issues that bubble under the surface between colleagues. Employees must seek EAP services on an individual basis, and the counseling sessions offered are often temporary.

But what if companies invested in emotional and mental wellness on a long term basis? What if companies created a safe space for colleagues to interact socially and address issues before they reach their crisis point?

Any healthy behavior requires practice. No one can exercise or eat well without establishing a routine. For companies to foster mental and emotional wellbeing, they need to implement sustainable, regular wellness initiatives that address employees’ stress levels and the lives they live at home. And most importantly, these wellness programs should be social in nature. The mental health of a team of employees suffers when relationships between team members are strained or shallow. When we’re offered the opportunity to bring our whole selves to work and connect human-to-human, our work gains a new level of meaning.

Eileen McNeely at SHINE acknowledges this:

“A new question employers are asking is ‘How does your work and workplace enhance your overall quality of life?’ This is not just at an individual level, but involves understanding what organizations can do to support a more meaningful, humane, respectful world.”

A meaningful quality of life stems directly from mental and emotional wellbeing and deep social connections. When employees feel nurtured and respected and are allotted regular time to recharge and reconnect with each other, the whole organization benefits. And when a company invests in its employees’ quality of life, it creates an environment in which employees feel valued. Who needs a mental health day when you work at a place like that?

Image: Paul Cézanne, Still Life, Pitcher and Fruit, 1894, Private Collection, [Public Domain] via

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Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan is a Development Communications Associate at the Cleveland Orchestra and a part-time member of the Books@Work team. She continues to write posts for our blog.