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Benefits Beat

Giving Employees Permission to be Well

Encouraging employees to take care of themselves needs to come with permission to do so during the workday.

As you likely remember, last fall there was a huge data breach at Equifax, the nation’s largest credit bureau.

We were heads down, working though our busiest time of year: open enrollment. Amid all the chaos and advice about what people should do to protect themselves, my business partner, Isabelle, was concerned about our team taking steps to protect their credit. She knew that with our busy work schedule, they probably wouldn’t.

So in January, after things had settled down, Isabelle reminded our team about the breach. She encouraged them to take time during the workday to review their credit score and set up credit freezes and monitoring. She explained the urgency of the situation and how to access each of the three major credit bureaus. And most notably, she specifically asked our team members to carve out time to do this during the workday and block it on their calendars. That time “on the clock” was key.

It’s a simple but often-overlooked aspect of encouraging well-being. Focusing on our own well-being — whether it’s going for a walk outside, signing up for a class on stress management or understanding our credit — takes time. And that time has to be juggled along with everything else in life.

Encouraging employees to take care of themselves needs to come with permission to do so during the workday. Whether it’s taking steps to improve their physical health, their mental state or their financial life, finding the time to do what they know they should do is one of the biggest barriers to engagement. 

That’s why we loved a recent financial wellness campaign called #SaveABillion from Movement Mortgage, a South Carolina-based company with more than 4,000 employees. As part of its campaign to get its employees to save more, the company’s CEO assigned them a very specific task: take a financial wellness assessment and retirement checkup. He also gave them the time to do it by creating a 20-minute companywide “blackout” on a Friday. During the blackout, no one could access their email or other systems. This empowered employees to schedule the task on their calendars and eliminated a huge barrier to engagement: time.

Not every company can literally block out time for employees like Movement Mortgage did. But all employers can do more to encourage employees to balance their work and personal lives in ways that make sense and help them be productive.

Increasingly, benefits programs are asking employees to make thoughtful decisions about complicated topics — and to engage in programs throughout the year. As part of your strategy, think about how and when employees will take the time to use these programs. And help them prioritize the time they need to take action.

It helps tremendously to use a goal-setting technique from behavioral science called “implementation intention.” Simply explained, it involves writing down your intention to do something, including when and under what conditions.

You’re more likely to complete the task because by writing it down and specifying a time, you’ve made the act of getting started that much easier. And as we all know, the first step is often the hardest to take.

We frequently use this method in campaigns — asking people to write down when they will do something, sending calendar invites or including a simple “commitment” form on a print piece — because it increases engagement.

Still, if you want to succeed at creating a culture of well-being, you also have to continuously look at removing obstacles.

In focus groups for our clients, we have heard employees call out the hypocrisy of asking people to take care of their health while, at the same time, asking them to meet business needs such as working 70 hours a week to meet a target.

We hear about bad managers who want employees to stay at their desks all day, despite company encouragement to take walks during lunch or use the on-site fitness center. Employees are quick to notice the inconsistencies between messages that come from the company and what their manager is requiring of them day in and day out. This is one of the reasons why senior leadership support, while valuable, doesn’t automatically change everyone’s behavior.

As you review your well-being and benefits initiatives, ask your team: Have you been realistic about how much time employees need to engage? And have you simply and truly given employees permission to take advantage of all of these programs at work?

Jennifer Benz is CEO and Founder of Benz Communications, a San Francisco-based employee benefits communications agency. She was honored as one of Workforce’s Game Changers in 2013. Contact her at jen@benzcommunications.com or follow her on Twitter at @jenbenz.