Article: 'Employee wellness will be a top priority for companies'

Strategic HR

'Employee wellness will be a top priority for companies'

In 2020 mental health and well-being has become front-of-mind. Looking ahead, it is crucial that we recognize the importance of building one’s mental resilience as a key component in achieving positive health outcomes, says Michelle Leung, HR Officer, Cigna International Markets.
'Employee wellness will be a top priority for companies'

Working closely with the International Markets CEOs, US and Country HR teams, Michelle is responsible for developing and executing people strategy to support the accelerated growth of the international business and to ensure a clear focus on organizational design, talent and leadership development, succession planning, workforce effectiveness and employee engagement across 15 different markets.

Michelle has over 20 years of international business and HR experience. Prior to joining Cigna in June 2011, Michelle has spent 11 years at Goldman Sachs Asia holding a variety of roles. The most recent one being Asia Head of Wellness and Global Ventures. In this role, she managed operations, business-continuity, and crisis-response planning and managed all HR-related due diligence and processes relating to acquisitions, divestitures, and new office openings. Michelle developed an integrated Wellness Strategy which included onsite case management for critical illnesses and occupational health, managed the opening of the first childcare center for Goldman Sachs Japan office and she served as one of the founding members of the Asia Wellness Forum – an organization that encourages large corporations to exchange best practices and become advocates for corporate wellness.

Prior to Goldman Sachs, Michelle held management positions at 3Com Asia, a global networking company based in Hong Kong, where she managed the Global PeopleSoft implementation project across Latin America, Asia, and Europe. Michelle is also a qualified accountant and has worked at a variety of firms in the UK before switching career path to Human Resources.

Here are the excerpts of the interview.

Can you take us through the most impactful restructuring exercise/initiatives the company has undertaken in recent times in the wake of the pandemic?

COVID-19 has revolutionized the way we view healthcare and the New Normal means that people are taking a more engaged approach to their health cover and being more motivated about ensuring that they have access to the best care, should they need it. They also want access to information and resources that help them manage and improve their health and well-being on an ongoing basis.

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Take stress, for instance, the fourth edition of the COVID-19 Global Impact Study released in December, reported that stress levels continue to remain high with 87 percent of respondents saying that they are stressed. Well-being has also reached record lows in most of the 11 markets we looked at. 

In 2019 we launched See Stress Differently, which was the first-ever initiative that enabled people to visualize their stress. We launched this because we want people to understand the impact of stress on their overall health, both physical and mental, and recognize that our stress is personal to us. 

Over the course of this year, we have expanded that, to our Check-In initiative, which had helped people support one another during the pandemic. This program sought to empower people to take control of stress through a range of online tools, insights, and expert advice created specifically for employers and individuals. The tools, which were available for the general public to access, aimed to help them manage teams, balance home and office work, and protect their general well-being.

In 2020 mental health and well-being has become front-of-mind. Looking ahead, it is crucial that we recognize the importance of building one’s mental resilience as a key component in achieving positive health outcomes. 

What are some workplace barriers to implementing employee learning during these volatile times? What's your plan to overcome them?

Given that we are almost a year into the pandemic, we find that digital fatigue has become an increasing norm. As we are on video calls more than ever before, many are increasingly finding it exhausting. 

This could be a challenge for organizations in implementing employee learning as the associated fatigue that employees experience on video conference calls may cause them to lose focus. 

To ensure success in employee learning initiatives, tailored learning, and development tracks should be created based on the long-term skills that employees want to learn or skills they need for cross-training. Aside from tailored programs, offering employees a choice will make them feel valued which boosts engagement and retention in the long-term. 

While training can no longer always be done in-person and in big groups, we believe that digital learning should also enable a level of collaboration with features such as polls, surveys, and quizzes. Such collaboration builds community and having that community spirit builds self-motivation to learn. 

Finally, another way to combat this fatigue is to make training sessions shorter and more structured. With most of the working population still working from home and subject to environmental factors such as children home-schooling, it is easier to have shorter sessions so that employees can fully focus for a shorter time and thus better retain the information.

Given the kind of job losses and the increasing role of new-age technologies, where do you see the man-machine equation in the near future?

While we are increasingly seeing new-age technologies such as AI and chatbots taking up jobs that were conventionally done by humans, we believe this would also create new jobs that will support the automation economy. 

Humans offer a level of intuition and creativity, which far outweighs what AI-led technologies can offer. However, that being said, as we move towards an increasingly augmented global workplace, it is crucial that the workforce is equipped with multiple skill sets. 

Only if employees continue to upskill themselves in the face of such transition can they remain in demand in today’s automated world. 

What would the future of work mean to you as we come out of this crisis? How will the work and workforce change?

The future of work would be one where employee wellness becomes a priority. One positive impact of the global pandemic is that it has allowed mental health and well-being to rise up the corporate agenda and employers now realize that looking after their workforce's health goes well beyond simply providing a traditional health insurance package.

They recognize that employee mental health can make a huge difference to work performance and productivity and we can help them by providing them with the tools and means to support their employees.

As we emerge from the crisis, leadership means continuing to prioritize the whole health of employees. It is key to adapt leadership to the new ways of working. As leaders, we have to develop a set of practices to be able to communicate clearly with employees and stakeholders. 

This can include looking at what has worked over the past few months, along with the lessons that the team has learned, and then applying it to this ‘set of practices’ in the post-pandemic environment. 

How do you see the larger HR landscape evolve in 2021 and how should talent leaders reimagine workforce management in 2021?

We have seen from our COVID-19 Global Impact Study that employees said they want more well-being support from employers. In the latest edition of the same report released in October, 56 percent of respondents said they wanted to continue working from home at least half of the time. As HR leaders, we play an increasingly pivotal role in the transition to a post-pandemic environment and we must recognize that investment in effective workplace wellness programs as well as having flexible work arrangements will help employees become healthier and more productive.

In the report, we launched in November, ‘Health and Wellness in Workplaces: What Works? - ROI analysis of Health and Wellness Interventions’, we found that programs with middle management support averaged an ROI of 10x the initial investment and the most successful programs could give up to 60x ROI. With talent leaders being the bridge between employees and the upper management, actively involved in the design and implementation of workplace wellness programs should be a priority in the year ahead.

Given the digital fatigue, how can employers foster the morale of their employees and keep productivity intact amid this uncertain time?

One of the key takeaways that we have found, having gathered data on people’s responses to the pandemic throughout the year, is that family and friends remain a main source of resilience. 

This insight shows that it is crucial for employers to encourage employees to be flexible with work arrangements so employees can spend quality time with their loved ones, rather than simply focusing on work outcomes.  

While employers certainly have a critical role to play in employee well-being, it is equally important that people assume personal responsibility for keeping themselves well – physically and mentally. 

An easy first step in fostering a greater sense of wellness is to disconnect: to literally put the phone down and spend more time interacting with friends, family, and co-workers. 

Read more such stories from the January 2021 issue of our e-magazine on 'Outlook 2021’

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Topics: Strategic HR, #Outlook2021

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