Mari Ryan, MBA, MHP, CWP

Chief Executive Officer/Founder of AdvancingWellness

Founder of Worksite Wellness Council of Massachusetts

Award-winning Author, Speaker

What are the top challenges you are seeing your clients face right now in the workplace? How are you addressing those challenges from an employee well-being standpoint?
Businesses have both internal and external factors that are pressing issues for them and today the economy, and inflation in particular, as well as the geopolitical situation in the world are those big external pressing issues.
From an internal perspective, there is always the ongoing challenge of attracting and retaining top talent. Labor shortages have certainly had a big impact on recruitment, especially so in the last couple of years.
Businesses are also challenged to develop the next generation of leaders as well as convincing employees to come back to work onsite. People just don’t want to come back to onsite work and employers want them in the office. That’s a growing tension and in all of this I think employee mental well-being has become a very big issue. The way we are supporting employers to address some of these issues is helping them to think strategically about the role that well-being plays in the workplace and how it’s foundational to being able to both attract and retain the talent that they need.
How has the increase in remote and hybrid work impacted workplace wellness efforts?
I think we need to level-set that the world of work has changed as a result of the pandemic, in many ways for the good I believe. We have a new work model in essence that we are functioning under that requires different skills. It requires leaders to have skills and a mindset that allows them to be agile, resilient and empathetic. Everyone has to be digitally fluent and we have to be thinking much more inclusively about people in the workplace and what interpersonal skills and communication are now required to enable us to achieve all of the goals we are setting out.
We have a whole new landscape that is bringing so many of these things into focus. When we think about well-being in that context, well-being is the foundation of being able to build those things in an organization that are going to help an organization achieve their business goals. Without well-being as that foundation we really can’t get to the culture, employee engagement or the employee experience that we need in order to achieve those business objectives.

The traditional thinking around well-being has been to think of it as a program we are going to offer. It's not about programs. It’s about creating the conditions in the workplace where people will thrive. That’s how we need to be thinking about well-being. It has to be from a strategic perspective, and not a tactical perspective.

When you think about the many companies you’ve worked with over the years, what would you say are the common traits of the organizations that are the most successful when it comes to addressing employee wellness?
I think the most important one is leadership commitment because without it you are not going to be able to succeed in any element of driving well-being in an organization.
It really needs to be the extent to which you have the support from the leadership team and you have a strong sponsor at the senior leadership table. There needs to be somebody at that level advocating for and reminding people of the impact the policies and decisions are going to have on people. Often that is a Chief Human Resources Officer or Chief People Officer, but ideally you want to have multiple members of the senior leadership team who are going to be on board with the commitment.
They have to be role models. They have to be okay with showing they can sometimes struggle as well but are willing to say, “Hey this isn’t easy for me either, I am a human being just like you.” This is the key to really making it work because those leaders are then going to be thinking from the level of creating the conditions where employees will thrive.
That’s going to permeate decisions across the organization. It can’t be about checking a box because employees see right through that. Even during the recruitment process they will see whether this is real or not. It’s really important to people right now, especially the younger generation of workers who are prioritizing their well-being.
We need to be thinking about what it is going to take to create that type of environment. It’s not just the benefits but also the policies, the physical environment, the culture, and experience. All of these factors contribute to the conditions where people will thrive, but it starts with senior leadership.
What themes and trending topics are you seeing become prevalent within the realm of workplace well-being?
Being inclusive is a big part of any well-being initiative. We need to be looking through that inclusivity lens when designing any kind of a well-being strategy or program.
The key is to be thinking from a broad perspective, that it’s more than a program. It’s all of those things happening in the workplace that contribute to the employee experience, that can either support or diminish people’s well-being. If it’s diminishing their well-being, then that’s going to be something they feel in that experience.
It shows up when employees don’t feel they have autonomy in their job, or their schedule isn’t communicated far enough ahead of time for them to be able to plan their life, or when they are not earning a living wage. Those are things that happen at a policy level in an organization and in a job design level, not a program level, and that’s where we have to be thinking about this.
When I work with clients, one of the things we do is develop the model for what is going to be covered under the domain of well-being. That model needs to include not just physical health, but also financial well-being, purpose, career aspiration, community and connection. All of these need to be part of it because they support an individual’s well-being. Many clients are now looking for spiritual elements to be included as well.
Some of my clients have had a model in place for a number of years and cover a few dimensions of well-being with it, but I am challenging them to think about what other dimensions need to be added in that model that will really meet the needs of your people today.
Another area I have seen emphasized in the last two years is within the whole domain of mental well-being. Employers have had to make a lot of fundamental changes because some of the benefits just did not meet the needs of people. There are systemic issues; there are not enough practitioners or providers for services that are in demand and health insurance doesn’t always cover what is needed. Changes are necessary to include out of network coverage so people can get access to the clinicians and providers that they need.
There are many more benefits that have emerged as a result of the pandemic to support employee mental health and that’s all been for the good. It’s a huge demand area and it’s one that if employers are not responding to that they are going to see that people will really look for those important benefits and programs and resources from other employers.
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