What Corporate Well-being Programs Need to Succeed

corporate well-being programs burnout

The #1 HR trend for 2023 is “a focus on total well-being (AIHR).” Yet most corporate well-being programs are missing key components to help their employees prevent insomnia and burnout. These components must be introduced into corporate well-being programs if employees are to heal and flourish in the workplaces of the future.

It’s great to see more organizations adding “sleep help” to their list of benefits. Of course, I’m always happy to help support that.

But here’s a contrarian perspective from an adult sleep coach: we can help address both insomnia and burnout by shifting the focus. It’s vital for workers to be able to prioritize rest and recovery on all levels of their being: physical/body, energy/breath, mental/emotional, wisdom/intuition, connection/soul every single day.

Rest and recovery isn’t always about the bubble bath in solitude. It can be creative, active and even social, like appreciating or making music. In the workplace, rest might mean reducing interactions with difficult people until you get some help from your manager. For many people, rest and recovery alone can have a measurable side-effect of improving their sleep and overall well-being.

Culturally, organizations need to shift to a wide-spread acceptance of employees’ need for rest and recovery as part of the human experience. Rest is a prerequisite for sleep and also a necessary component of burnout prevention

Sadly, many professionals I coach still work in cultures where this is not possible. Taking a real lunch break, attending a ½ hour midday meditation, or stopping work before 9 pm still doesn’t feel realistic. And even when it truly is, employees have internalized the “work until you drop” mentality of higher management or previous professional cultures. Even when it is OK, it still doesn’t feel OK.

Resting is not a reward for success. It’s a prerequisite for performance.
– Melody Wilding, Harvard Business Review

Four Steps Organizations Can Take to Support Their Employees’ Sleep, Mental Health, & Well-being

Employment professionals are in a unique position to change the direction of how organizations approach well-being in the workplace. First, they can initiate and help support the crucial, organizational mindset shift that normalizes the natural limitations of being human, that encourages and fully supports rest and recovery. 

Changes must also happen from the top of the organization, meeting these folks halfway. This top-down/bottom-up approach needs to be at least a 50/50 split (likely with more from organizations now that we’re deep in this mess).

I believe there are at least four steps for organizations to take, which I’ve abbreviated as APSS. I’ll go through them one by one, but you can jump to any of particular interest here:

1 – Awareness

Knowledge work, coupled with technology, often disconnects people from hearing what their human bodies need most. 

An Ongoing Problem

If you’ve ever stepped away from your computer to suddenly notice you have a neckache, you understand this. The fact that you were likely rounding your upper back and dropping your head forward went by unnoticed, for minutes or even hours–as you focused intently on the screen. 

The proliferation of gadgets and trackers to monitor our health further de-humanize our bodily experiences by transforming physical sensations and feelings into more data to be mentally processed. I once had a client who woke up ready to go jogging, but when his tracker told him he didn’t sleep well and should rest, he decided it was best not to go! 

This is a simple example that illustrates the need for physical rest and recovery from sedentary work. However, awareness of one’s rest and recovery needs applies at the energy/breath, mental/emotional, wisdom/intuition, connection/soul layers too.

A Possible Way Forward

Whether employees are ignoring signals from their mind and body because they’re busy and/or relying on their gadgets to tell them how to care for themselves, many people need support in reconnecting with their own human needs. 

This is a place where private coaching and movement-based therapies like yoga can help shift people back into the habit of feeling their bodies.

Employment professionals and those in the health and well-being space inside organizations must ensure that their own level of awareness remains high. What you experience as an employee yourself is a relevant data point; it can give you clues to what others may be experiencing.

But as I stated earlier, such programs (and self-awareness) does not and cannot increase without the other three steps: Permission, Space, and Support.

I’ll describe those next. In the meantime:

  • How aware are YOU of what your human system needs right now? Physically, energetically*, mentally, and/or emotionally?
  • Is there one area in particular you find it easier to pay attention to? An area where it’s more difficult?

 

*When I say “energetically”, I’m using it in the yogic sense, which includes your way of breathing.

Comment below and let me know!

Back to Top


2 – Permission

Even when a person is highly aware of their physical, energetic, mental, and/or emotional need for rest and recovery in the workplace, a common response to low energy or “feeling fried” is to power through it. I see private coaching clients do this using caffeine, sugar, and sheer willpower.

This “power through” mentality is due to an underlying belief that feeling tired or drained is either not normal, and if it is, it’s still not allowed during work hours (which as we know, can be endless). 

An Ongoing Problem

Here, our human need for rest and recovery is viewed as something to be ashamed of and to cover up so no one else sees our weakness. A fear of being looked down upon or getting in trouble often accompanies this belief: it is not SAFE to rest and recover.

Some examples:

  • “I can’t leave the meeting to grab some water.” 
  • “I can’t spare an hour for a weekly coaching/therapy session.”
  • “I can’t turn off my camera during the online meeting.”

 

Many individuals I coach who give themselves permission to rest and recover are still “going against the grain” when it comes to their colleagues, bosses, and larger work culture. It takes a great deal of energy and courage to be the only one prioritizing rest and recovery. 

A Possible Way Forward

The workers who need rest and recovery most often don’t have energy left to fight this battle. So I’ll argue that permission has to come from the organization, from the top down.

Your organization only demonstrates that it acknowledges a person’s human need to rest and recover AND gives full permission through example. For real permission to exist, everyone up and down the organizational ladder needs to “walk the talk”.

Recruiting the help of individuals who are taking care of themselves is a great place to start. 

  • What challenges do they face? How have they overcome them? 
  • Are there any themes in what you hear? 
  • What organizational changes would make it easier for them to remain consistent in getting the rest and recovery they need?
  • How do their peers and direct managers support or undermine their efforts?
  • What do your management team and people leaders believe about rest and recovery? Where is that in alignment with your message or not? Who needs to come on board?

 

Even as the corporate culture provides permission to rest and recover, some workers may have taken on overworking as part of their identity. Over years of positive reinforcement, such behavior becomes tightly connected to their value. This way of thinking and living has existed for decades, so it won’t change overnight.

It’s a lot like a doctor telling you you need to change your diet or you’ll have a heart attack. You have the doctor’s support, permission, and encouragement and they might even give you a few directions to explore. But when you’re faced with day-to-day decisions, it’s hard to make changes. Of course, health and well-being coaches can help with this too. But our next step of “Space” is also vital.

As I close out this step, here are a few more questions for you to consider:

  • What “way” is your organization modeling through the behavior of its management team?
  • Do your “people leaders” still brag about getting by on four hours’ sleep? Do they send emails at 11 pm? What kind of message is this sending to your workforce about what is OK and what’s not?
  • Which individuals can you recruit to help you learn more of what’s needed for those who aren’t modeling the way? Or, are you someone who can help your organization because you’ve learned how to do this for yourself?

 

Comment below and let me know your thoughts.

Next I’ll talk about what it means to have Space (by first illustrating several situations that erode it).

Back to Top


3 – Space

Of course it’s important for employees to set and maintain their own healthy boundaries. But individuals also need help from their organization in protecting the breathing space they require to properly care for themselves. 

An Ongoing Problem

The breathing space I craved before quitting corporate life was most often caused by the following issues:

  • Schedule congestion––e.g. back-to-back meetings with no space or time to process complex information, be creative, do the “actual work”, or take care of one’s own needs. Causes of schedule congestion vary, but the three space issues below contribute.

  • Unrealistic expectations––I haven’t worked in a single organization where time estimates given by employees doing the work were treated as reality, and where scope creep didn’t happen on top of that. A former colleague recently commented on a post I shared about this:

One of the very nice things about being a late career engineer who has a very particular skill set is that when I get pressured to revise my estimates down unrealistically, I can just look them in the eye and say ‘if you don’t like my estimate, it’s fine by me if you go find someone else to do this.’ It took me several decades to be able to have the confidence to pull this off.

Another example is one person tasked with multiple full time jobs: being both an individual contributor and the manager.

  • “Putting out fires”––nothing is more stressful and stimulating to the nervous system than having workplace events induce a panic. Dropping what you’re currently working on so a “fire” can be extinguished requires maximum human resources.

     

    I’ve seen this mad scramble happen when someone higher up in an organization makes a request. I’ve also seen it when managers become the defacto problem solver their direct reports come to whenever a challenge arises. A need for “all hands on deck” can arise, but it shouldn’t happen nearly as often as it does.

  • Multiple “high priorities”––if you’re in a planning meeting of any kind, if there’s more than one “high priority,” you have a problem. Not everything can be (or is) important. Priorities are a way for people to focus their available energy and put it to best use.

A Possible Way Forward

A possible next step is to identify where and how often in your organization such events are occurring. If your employees are consistently overwhelmed and on high alert, it’s predictable that their sleep and well-being is also suffering.

It’s probable that there are other factors eroding your workers’ breathing space. What are these factors? It’s your job to find out, which leads us to step 4: Support.

As I close out this step, here are a few more questions for you to consider:

  • Which of the situations I describe are regularly happening in your organization? What’s the root cause and what can be done about it?
  • Who are your employees (people leaders and workers) modeling healthy boundaries? What makes that possible for them, and how can you help others learn from their success?
  • How do the situations I describe cost your organization money, and/or affect the bottom line, both in the short and long term?

 

Comment below and let me know your thoughts.

Back to Top


4 – Support

Employment professionals have a responsibility to provide health and well-being support to individuals and groups within their organization. Yet it’s clear there are significant gaps between what is being done and what is needed.

Cost may be a concern of making changes. However, support can be both strategic and customized if your workforce is at the center of it.

An Ongoing Problem

As I previously mentioned, many professionals aren’t helped by corporate well-being programs that only encourage and incentivize healthy or “self-care” behaviors.

At best, these efforts are wasteful: people don’t take advantage of the programs. Money is being spent and no one is benefitting. From the perspective of the exhausted worker, such programs are often viewed as “something else to add to an endless To Do list.” They add stress and might increase feelings of inadequacy and overwhelm for the employee who can’t keep up.

It can seem unclear and even confusing about how to offer support for employees who are struggling. Step 1 described the need for employees to reconnect with their humanity by increasing their Awareness. This is the step where many existing programs could have some positive effect, if they’re not offered in isolation. Steps 2 and 3 focused on ways to help with the Permission and Space required for rest and recovery. Let’s look at how else you, an employment professional, can help Support your workforce.

A Possible Way Forward

My former career was in user experience/human-centered design. My job involved listening to people’s challenges so I could help create systems that made their lives easier. I do this now as a sleep and well-being coach. And you know what? 

People are smart. They usually know exactly what could help them. Moreover, simply asking the right questions can help workers reconnect with their own Awareness of what they most need.

So get out and speak to people to discover the obstacles they face as human beings in your workplace. While it’s important to have this, don’t simply create a safe space for people to come to you. Don’t rely solely on surveys and questionnaires. Be proactive, and connect. 

In her book “The Burnout Epidemic,” Jennifer Moss describes a “human-centered approach to leadership.” Maybe this exploration happens under the direction of a Chief Wellness Officer (CWO), maybe it’s by hiring a health & well-being consultant, or maybe it’s up to you. 

Either way, it’s important to have someone skilled at listening between-the-lines. You need people who can hear the values and the unmet universal human needs that create suffering for your people.

The truth is, the factors contributing to insomnia and burnout are sometimes surprising. As a work friend used to say, “it’s not always about what it seems to be about.”

The good news is that when you’ve had enough conversations, you end up seeing patterns. And it’s in these patterns that strategic and customized support becomes possible.

When coaching individuals, we look for the change with the smallest effort and the largest possible impact. The same applies here. Small tweaks in a team’s daily experience at work can make a big difference. It may even have a ripple effect throughout your organization.

Of course, different populations (e.g. parents and other caregivers, BIPOC, or those managing chronic conditions, etc.) might require different support because of how their day-to-day experiences differ. But I’ll bet there are themes and patterns here too.

No one can tell you what your organization needs to help your employees avoid burnout. Only the people living in your organization can help you do that.

Back to Top


How Will You Influence the Well-being of Your Workforce?

Change happens whether we like it or not. We saw this with the pandemic, and we’re seeing the “great resignation” and “quiet quitting” in more workplaces as a backlash from years of over-productivity and overwork.

Change can be scary and difficult, but it doesn’t have to be.

When it’s unclear what to do, it’s often best to take a step back and get a different perspective. To stop throwing more of the same unhelpful solutions at the problem. What’s our vision for the future of work? If it includes reducing insomnia and burnout, then it requires a return to the source: our humanity.

The good news (from what I see on an individual scale) is that professionals who are self-aware, have real organizational (and personal) permission, space, and support in embracing their humanness can thrive at work, at home, and fully experience a purpose-driven, meaningful, and connected life.


I know this was a long post; thank you for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to comment or contact me at info@kalisleepcoach.com

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.