What Does Workplace Wellness Mean?

I remember reading about The Huffington Post’s napping pods, and thinking it sounded like the height of “workplace wellness.” I remember thinking the same thing when I read about Virgin’s unlimited paid time-off policy. As long as Virgin employees can meet their work obligations, and have approval from their manager, they can take as much time off as they like.

The chance to close your eyes at the office for an hour when you feel run down, and the ability to live your life taking advantage of as many travel opportunities and opportunities to spend time with your family and friends sounds like the height of “wellness.”

It seems like workplace wellness is struggling against a workaholic strain. Led by mostly Baby Boomer managers, many employees are expected to be on call at all times, with the possibility of a text or e-mail from the boss rolling in at any time. Evenings and weekends are up for grabs by the company as much as those times are available to friends and family. My company, where I work as the editor of a health trade publication, has Gmail for work. You are able to enable notifications on your phone for Gmail. I ran into difficulty because I wanted to continue to enable notifications for my personal account, while suppressing notifications for my work account. 

The thought of waking up on the weekend and seeing a string of alerts about work e-mails on my phone was horrifying. Despite the fact that it’s technologically possible, neither I, nor our tech support team, has been able to successfully enable the alerts for personal e-mails while suppressing the alerts for work e-mails. So I suppressed both. Better to get no e-mail notifications at all than to see work e-mails at night and on the weekend.

I saw an article last week about the meaning of workplace wellness and meditation. I’ve always savored the clutter and noise of my mind. I found it more stressful to try to force my mind to be blank than to embrace my thoughts and imagination. For that reason, meditation at work doesn’t resonate with me. However, I do believe companies should be aware of their employees’ need for relaxation and time for their minds to wander away from work obligations. Giving employees the ability to be truly off when they’re not in the office is essential. My mother, who worked as a health-care administrative executive, used to share on-call duties with co-workers, so that no one was always on call. The same was true of my father, a physician. He was only on call some of the time. 

The sharing of on-call duties has been standard practice in the health-care world for many decades. But you don’t hear an acknowledgement that those who work in industries that don’t have life-and-death stakes also often are expected to be available after hours. Maybe companies with that expectation could acknowledge it openly, and plan accordingly, having employees take turns for when they are on call, and then giving them the chance at all other times to be entirely free of work obligations when out of the office. Employees who have their turn being on call over the weekend can be given comp time during the week if they end up needing to do work at night or on the weekend.

When the demands for constant contact with employees isn’t acknowledged as a reality, it becomes impossible to plan for, so that employees have a chance to experience the part of their life that most of them are earning to enjoy. It’s a great irony or stupidity to work constantly to earn a strived-for level of pay, and then to not have enough freedom to enjoy that money.

Prioritizing e-mails and other messages rather than feeling compelled to answer all of them the same day they were received should be taught to employees. I sometimes don’t answer an e-mail for days. If I know there is nothing requiring immediate action, I save the task of responding for a time when I have a break in my work. 

It’s liberating to remember that what most of us do for a living isn’t that important. For most of us, no one is going to live or die depending on how much work we do. With managers who can suffer from an abundance of self-importance, it’s helpful to teach employees the ability to step back, fully enjoy time away from the office—and gladly put off until tomorrow as much work as they need to put off to take care of themselves. 

How do you train employees to balance obligations to your company with the need for nourishing leisure time?


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