Caring for the wellbeing of a diverse workforce

27 November 2019 - 2 minute read

You’ve just begun clearing your emails for the day, and there’s one from HR encouraging all staff to come to a lunchtime yoga session, as part of ‘Wellbeing Week.’ While you wouldn’t dismiss the benefits of yoga, your immediate reaction is ‘yeah, nah, delete.’ For starters, you’re way too busy - so taking time off to salute the sun will just make you feel more stressed. But the bigger issue here could be if none of the exec or senior management team are there - so what signals would you be sending to them, or your colleagues, if you take time off to go?

That scenario, and variations of it, are all too familiar to Ryan Picarella, President of the Wellness Council of America (WELCOA) and global guru of workplace wellbeing. He was recently in New Zealand as a keynote speaker at the recent Southern Cross BeingWell Conference and gave an interview to Kathryn Ryan, RNZ’s Nine to Noon programme, excerpts from which we have included in this article1.

‘Fundamentally’ says Ryan, ‘successful wellbeing programmes are based on a much deeper level than special events and perks. They address core human needs and if they do that, they can more easily resonate across diverse employee groups.’

Those needs, he argues, include health - both physical and mental, a sense of meaning, safety, connection, achievement and personal growth.  In order for staff to flourish, their needs must be addressed on an individual level by their employer. Wellbeing has to be supported and driven from the top and embraced as a pervasive culture throughout the business. ‘HR can’t own this and be the only ones doing this. Health and wellbeing has to be every single department’s responsibility, from the CEO all the way to the frontline staff.’

Ryan uses the real-life example of a large business in the US that, no doubt with the best of intentions, built a brand new gym for its workforce. What better way for the bosses to demonstrate they were serious about employee health and wellbeing? But while the gym may have been full of the very latest equipment, there was one notable omission. People. It remained completely empty. Why? Because of the pervasive belief amongst staff that attending the gym sent signals to middle management that they were not busy enough. A culture of wellbeing was being suppressed by a culture of fear and expectation. It took a lot of work to address and change the underlying culture before the gym was used as intended.

Here in New Zealand, the latest Workplace Wellness Report from Southern Cross and Business New Zealand shows that the number of businesses reporting an increase in the levels of stress and anxiety amongst employees is on the rise. While the increase may be relatively minor compared to the 2016 report, it’s a trend that is echoed in the latest wellbeing data from Statistics New Zealand and part of what Ryan sees as a growing worldwide problem. But there’s plenty employers could, and need, to do to reverse that trend, by addressing their employees’ universal human needs.

Take financial health. Everyone needs to feel safe and secure, so it’s not surprising that the Workplace Wellness Report found that money worries - or financial insecurity - is one of the largest causes of stress outside of work. The fact this stressor comes from beyond the workplace makes no difference, argues Ryan.

‘You carry into work whatever you’re dealing with at home, and you carry home whatever you’re dealing with at work.’ If not addressed, the impact of that stress can be detrimental - not just to the health of the individual, but also to their workmates. We’re social animals and have been conditioned to quickly recognise if one member of our pack senses danger. The cortisol pumping through their veins, preparing them for fight or flight, can soon make others also feel stressed and anxious. ‘Stress can spread just like the flu.’

So how should employers address that human need? First, by ensuring that financial health is included as part of a comprehensive wellbeing programme. And secondly, by tailoring it to the individual needs of their diverse workforce. The money worries of someone nearing retirement age are likely to be very different to those of a Millennial. While one might be stressed that they may not be able to sell their family home to fund their retirement, the other might be anxious they may never be able to own a home once their student debt is finally repaid - yet renting is increasingly expensive and makes them feel vulnerable.

Then there are what Ryan refers to as the ‘unmentionables.’ The triggers that can cause enormous stress to an individual, that don’t get talked about at work. For employees in their late 40’s and 50’s, that can be such things as committing an aging parent to a dementia unit. For younger employees, it could be the stress of fertility treatment, or caring for a child with a chronic illness. The Workplace Wellness Report reflected this, where ‘caring for a family member or dependent due to illness or injury’ was the second most common cause of absenteeism. So, workplaces need to make it OK to talk about the ‘unmentionables’ in a safe and supportive environment.

The Workplace Wellness Report also found that providing access to Employee Assistance Programmes, or EAPs, was one the most popular ways for employers to help staff cope. That’s to be encouraged, says Ryan, as EAPs are currently ‘very under-utilised, and so valuable.’ They meet the individual needs of a diverse workforce, by matching the right specialist to the client according to the issue they’re struggling with. And, they offer flexibility in terms of how the employee wishes to engage. For some, it could be meeting in person, while others will prefer to talk to EAP via email or phone.

In terms of physical health, some businesses offer free health screening for staff as part of their approach to wellbeing. While that’s beneficial, the type of screening needs to address the health needs of the individual employee, which will vary widely, according to their age, ethnicity and socio/eco background. On the other hand, free flu vaccines will help to meet the health needs of all staff.

It’s also worthwhile to consider how statutory holidays meet the wellbeing needs of a diverse workforce. We all need holidays as a time for rest and connection with our friends and loved ones, but the timing of those holidays can vary according to our religious and cultural background. Different religious or spiritual groups celebrate different holidays throughout the year, many of which we might not even be aware of. Which is why, argues Ryan, businesses need to adopt a policy of floating holidays, so their staff have the freedom to celebrate their spiritual holidays and religious festivities - and in so doing, businesses can celebrate the diversity of their workforce.

Adopting a comprehensive culture of wellbeing isn’t just good for the health of employees. Ryan points to some very compelling figures that show just how good it is for the business. When employees believe their employer cares about health and wellbeing, they are 38% more engaged, 28% more likely to recommend their workplace, and 17% more likely to still be working there in a year.2 And from an overall productivity and profitability perspective, the performance of companies that have adopted the principles of ‘Firms of Endearment’ far outstrip those in the S&P 500, and those that have followed ‘Good to Great.’3

In summary, in order for a business to care for a diverse workforce, it needs a strong culture of wellbeing that everyone, from the CEO down, has responsibility for driving. Success relies on meeting the universal needs of employees in a way that’s personal to them; whether it’s helping them cope with financial stress or giving them time off to celebrate a religious festival. As Ryan says, ‘every employee needs to feel that their employer cares about them as a person.’ When that happens, their wellbeing and the business both thrive.

For more information on staff wellbeing, contact Southern Cross and find out about our BeingWell programme.


  2. The Impact of Leadership: Ryan Picarella – WELCOA (Wellness Council of America)
  3. Investment Performance of Firms of Endearment Companies versus S&P 500 and Good to Great Companies, 1998-2013 as quoted in The Impact of Leadership: Ryan Picarella’s presentation to NZ business leaders
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