Looking at the bigger picture of employee wellbeing

Feb 25, 2022
Road with Wellness written across

Lately, I've thought a lot about the concept of age-friendly workplaces. For context, I've spent much of the past decade working on projects to help cities become more age-friendly by using a framework developed by the World Health Organization (WHO). The framework includes eight interrelated domain areas that can identify and address barriers to well-being and social participation as people age. The age-friendly city concept was first designed to help encourage active aging, but quickly extended to other elements that support good health.

As some organizations are larger and have more layers of complexity than many small communities, it doesn't seem too farfetched to think of applying some of the same age-friendly dimensions to the workplace.

Traditional efforts to keep employees healthy tend to focus on what we would refer to as individual determinants of health. To be clear, we want to help team members do things like eat better, quit smoking, and get more physically active. But what if we started to reimagine workplace well-being programs in a bigger social and environmental context? Hear me out here.

Those WHO domains that I mentioned are designed to look beyond just your individual behaviours to understand how where you live, work, and play can impact your health. We call these social determinants of health, and believe it or not, they can have a more significant influence on your well-being than you would think.

Think of using this type of framework as a 360 review of employee health. For example, a team member who has a two-hour commute (because that's where they can find affordable housing) may be too tired and stressed to take part in that great online yoga class that you're offering. Or someone who feels excluded socially might decide not to participate in a lunch and learn about better nutrition.

The age-friendly dimensions can be understood as structural (spaces and buildings, transportation, housing, healthcare) and social (respect, social inclusion, recreation, communication) influences. Applied to work, the structural factors that might pose a barrier to health include things like limited walkability to or around the workplace, long commutes, poor workstation design and more.

Social structures at work are also highly influential on our health. Our social supports can conversely be influenced by physical structures. For example, as many people can attest, working from home can be socially isolating. Recent changes to many workplaces that limit in-person interactions have exacerbated the sense of loneliness for many. Social isolation has been especially profound for midlife women; some of the sharpest rates of self-reported loneliness during the pandemic lockdowns were among 41-57-year-old (GenX) women.  

Social inclusion is a complex and nuanced issue intersected by gender, race, sexual orientation and more. Still, at the most fundamental level, social exclusion and isolation have some of the most significant impacts on our disease and mortality rates in aging.

Good quality social relationships impact our mental health, physical health, health behaviours, and overall mortality risk. Researchers have connected low levels of social ties with the development of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, some cancers, slower healing from injury and impaired immune function.[1] Simply put, supportive social relationships can help prevent diseases from developing and allow us to recover faster when we're sick.

Looking at both structural and social constructs of workplace health allows for a more effective and targeted understanding of what really impacts employee well-being. Starting with these overarching concepts and then moving towards individual behaviour provides a better understanding of what employees see as "wellness" and acknowledges that better health is not solely about personal risks. The first step? Ask your team members what they think influences their health the most.

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