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February 5, 2023

How to design workplace programs for mental health, according to one chief medical officer

How to design workplace programs for mental health, according to one chief medical officer

The pandemic and the Great Resignation that followed have the business world rethinking how to do more to support employee well-being. The root of the solution is to reform toward a people-first workplace culture. Part of that new strategy is to drive change at the decision-making level. Many organizations are now adding C-suite roles to effect cultural change such as chief well-being officers, chief diversity officers, or chief medical officers like myself. These roles are to implement and oversee new policies and procedures—and provide insight on new designs—that make all employees feel welcomed, more confident about returning to the office in these (hopefully) post-pandemic times, and stay engaged at work.

As a chief medical officer, I spend a good amount of time explaining to leaders how investing for employee health and well-being is actionable in the daily decisions we make about everything an organization does in workplaces, from the way we design and operate our spaces to what kind of management policies we deploy for our people.

Organizations that have installed C-level leadership to champion physical and emotional well-being for employees deeply understand the correlation between employee satisfaction, productivity, and the business bottom line. But the first line of work for well-being executives is often to institute cultural changes within their organizations.

Shifting culture toward employee engagement and productivity often integrates well-being strategies systematically across work, workplace, and workforce. The WELL Building Standard, for example, provides organizations with a library of actionable evidence-based strategies to transform their workplaces to focus on employee well-being from a holistic approach.

Employers now know that happier and healthier workplaces are no longer a nice-to-have, but a must-have. From experience-enhancing amenities to health and safety measures, supportive programs, and best practices on diversity, equity and inclusion, employees look to their workplaces to deliver on promises that not only are their physical health and safety prioritized, but also their emotional well-being.

So how can leaders support their employees’ emotional well-being? There are actionable measures leaders can take right away and drive for deeper engagement over time.

1. Provide health services and support programs to address everyone’s needs. It’s important to create a sense of well-being throughout your organization. You can do this by implementing communication and education strategies—with oversight from a chief medical officer or chief well-being officer in your C-suite—that promote available well-being policies and programs. Those can be paid sick leave, family care, stress management tools, fitness classes and other healthcare benefits. As a complement, think about workplace wellness programs and other ways to educate your employees on healthy behaviors, including mindfulness, healthy nourishment, restorative breaks and community engagement.

2. Start taking actions toward company goals for diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility for all employees. Healthy workplace cultures make everyone feel welcome, seen and heard including those historically marginalized and underrepresented. A diverse, inclusive and equitable culture creates an environment where everyone thrives. It’s a business imperative as employers today vie for talent and a productive workforce.

Taking actions can start from conducting DEI assessments, taking inventory of your underrepresented groups, and implementing inclusive workplace programs that engage all employees including people of color, individuals who are LGBTQIA+, and/or neurodivergent. Why not begin building up a sense of community by allocating space for employees to interact, engage, and collaborate with each other? How about starting to provide a sense of belonging by integrating nature design in your space; celebrating culture and places to inspire human delight. If your particular place has a historical story, encourage those historical acknowledgements such as colonization, displacement, and the significant contributions by Indigenous, enslaved and migrant people. For a checklist of historically marginalized, underrepresented populations at workplaces and actionable strategies corporate leadership can take, our WELL Equity Rating offers additional resources.

3. Use employee feedback to elevate user experience at the workplace. In every workplace there exists a unique community of people with diverse characteristics who are linked by social ties, have common perspectives, engage in joint action, and share experiences. Employee surveys on their perceived health, well-being and satisfaction with their environment, stakeholder interviews and observations help organizations understand the needs of their stakeholders and create plans to support action and accountability.

4. Allocate executive-level resources to employee well-being. Be it chief medical officer, chief well-being officer, and/or chief DEI officer, companies that are thinking of long-term competitive edge are establishing similar roles across their organizations. It’s time to install your own C-level position and start driving actions. And make sure these roles are equipped with tools and resources to effect change.  

Globally, more than 30% of adults will experience a mental health condition during their lifetime. And the impact of mental health in the workplace is profound. The built environment serves as a powerful tool to help mitigate these adverse mental health outcomes through policies, programs and design. Implementing mental health strategies at workplaces has proven to support business resilience.

Dr. Matthew Trowbridge, MD, MPH, is the chief medical officer for the International WELL Building Institute, where he advocates for investing in employee health and well-being, along with workplace strategies. 

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