Even the most toxic workplaces could benefit from creating a company culture that embraces and promotes employee self-care.

10 Minute Read
Man, happily working from home

If you have done any sort of strategizing around your company’s values, you’ve certainly thought about the habits and processes you want to encourage in the workplace. For many companies today, those values probably include a consideration of your employees’ mental and physical health. In fact, you can think of “employee wellness” as self-care extrapolated for the company, a collective form of wellbeing.

What’s to be gained? Well, nearly everything. Employees who participate in a wellness program are generally happier, healthier, and stick around longer. One study from Johnson & Johnson found that their wellness programs produced an ROI of $2.71 for every dollar spent. Companies are catching on, to the point where it seems more out of touch not to have some sort of wellness consideration in your company’s repertoire.

Many studies will cite very large companies to illustrate the success of wellness programs, but you don’t need to spend a ton of money to create a culture of self-care. What’s important is that the policies and ethos are real and not performative, showing that the company truly cares about its people. Here are a few easy steps that leaders can take to make sure self-care finds a way into your work culture:

Embrace Paid Time Off

The Swedish do a remarkably good job with PTO. They generally take 5 weeks of paid vacation every year, seeing vacation as more of a worker’s right than a benefit. Americans tend to skew in the opposite direction. Even the 2 weeks paid vacation policy that so often gets bandied about appears to be in decline. In 2017, employees with five years at a company averaged 15 days of paid vacation, but a study showed that 52% of Americans didn’t even use all of their vacation days that same year.

Whether it’s fear, enthusiasm, or something else entirely, Americans clearly feel tethered to their jobs. Even companies who endorse a so-called “unlimited” vacation policy (which seem to be growing in popularity) may be discouraging actual paid time off through a workaholic company culture. Every company is going to have a different answer to how much time employees can take off, but outlining those policies clearly and making sure they are applied fairly is a good first step.

When the PTO starts, make it meaningful. This is where your real culture begins. As well-known “CEO for the underdog” Dan Price tweeted, “The only acceptable response to an advanced time off request [is] ‘OK.’ Employees earned their time off and can use it however they want. Asking ‘why’ just puts unnecessary personal pressure on them. You wouldn’t ask why they need to use health care or get their paycheck.” Being able to take time off without feeling guilty—yes, even without periodic check-ins—is the true hallmark of taking time away from work. Create a contingency plan that ensures responsibilities are under control.

Here’s a revolutionary idea: Bosses should also encourage PTO. This is a great time to lead by example and take a break from the grind as well! Studies show that people who take vacations have less stress, better heart health, improved sleep and—surprise—improved productivity at work. Plus, respecting employees’ desire to take time off is also important for their mental health.

professional standing to work with their laptop elevated with a portable laptop stand

Change Up Your Meetings

Has COVID-19 turned you into a Zoombie? Many workers saw their jobs suddenly go remote when the pandemic hit, and many are still not back in the office nearly two years later. That’s a dramatic shift in a very short period of time for a very long period of time, which can be disorienting enough. Factor in the explosion of online video conferencing tools like Zoom and this brave, new world is even more complicated. 

Part of the trouble is in our DNA: Humans want to be near others, feeling their energy, and picking up on nonverbal cues. That cannot happen in a virtual setting, at least by today’s standards, so online meetings take up even MORE of our concentration. Again, this contributes to fatigue.

Capping meetings under an hour is a good rule of thumb. You can also get creative. Take a walking meeting, which has been shown to boost creative problem-solving, or try meeting outside. Whatever makes sense for your team and the time you have available.

Another common concern is having so many meetings that an employee can’t have quiet time to solve problems and be creative. A calendar crammed to the brim is actually counterproductive. Studies show that working fewer hours in a day can actually boost productivity. Make sure you are valuing employee schedules by starting and stopping meetings on time and creating agendas to guide the meeting.

Finally, always ask the time-tested question, “Could this meeting have been an email?” Everyone will appreciate the self-query. 

Promote Acts of Mindfulness in the Workplace

Americans spend a lot of time pursuing their careers. Over the course of a lifetime, Americans will spend 90,000 hours at work, or about a third of the average person’s lifetime. In 2017, full-time employees spent about 9.3 hours working in the average weekday. However, when we talk about self-care or see it on social media, the context is typically outside of work: exercise, bubble baths, home-cooked meals, etc.

As a leader, how can you bridge the gap?

Culture can be difficult to talk about because by definition it is amorphous. Yet, we all feel it. We’ve discussed how a lack of appreciation can be a culture killer in the workplace, but the opposite is also true: A culture of gratitude can really go far in cultivating a sense of happiness and mindfulness. Perhaps that means starting meetings with a gratitude exercise, or sharing feedback when customers are satisfied. Could you even have a physical representation in your space, such as a gratitude jar/wall/journal? People are hired at organizations as much for their attitude as for their skills and accomplishments, so keeping up the positivity can go a long way.

If the resources are available, consider some ways to periodically take the edge off your work environment for your employees. Perhaps that means offering an afternoon yoga class, creating a physical space for meditation, or having a massage therapist take in-office appointments at a stressful time of year. Tons of apps also exist to help cultivate mindfulness and cultivate good physical habits, so perhaps the company can underwrite one of those tools.

As a reminder, don’t force anything when it comes to self-care. Employees will sense the inauthenticity. If culture is indeed about the unwritten rules, a few low-cost adjustments can get you started down the right path.