SumTotal Blog

Take a Holistic Approach to Employee Well-Being for an Optimal Return to the Workplace

June 17, 2020 | by SumTotal Blog | 5 min read

In the wake of COVID-19, as organizations plan for the return of employees to the workplace, their focus is on how to help ensure the physical safety of their staff. However, many companies have yet to consider how to address other key elements of employee well-being.

“I’m doing more counseling of organizations on the mental and emotional side,” said Kevin Oakes, CEO and co-founder of the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). “Psychological safety is going to be a topic that will be brought up a lot post-pandemic and post-return to the workplace.”

A leading HCM research firm, i4cp examines the people practices of high-performing organizations - firms which report better revenue growth, increased profitability, and greater market share than their competitors. While i4cp’s research captures best practices, the firm is most interested in providing organizations with next practices – those actions with a solid correlation to business performance, which most companies have yet to take.

Kevin was the guest speaker for the first episode of SumTotal’s series of conversations on The Future of Work: HR Strategies for a Changing World, hosted by Brent Colescott, senior director of business strategy & transformation at SumTotal.

Kevin was a natural choice to give a “State of the Union” address on how HR can lead the way during this complex time given his wealth of HR experience and the research-based insights he brings from his current role at i4cp.


In a recent survey of organizations, i4cp discovered that executive leadership typically focuses as much as 25% of its collective energy on return-to-the-workplace efforts, while some teams are devoting 50% or more of their time to that endeavor.

“A lot of leaders don’t like to admit that they really don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” Kevin said. “We’re all in this for the first time.”

In talking with organizations, Kevin has learned that most companies have thought through the actions they need to take to help ensure the physical well-being of employees as they return to their office buildings. These considerations include policies on taking employees’ temperatures, the wearing and issuing of masks, elevator etiquette, and the reconfiguration of open-plan offices.

Kevin envisions that most organizations will adopt a phased approach to bringing employees back to the workplace, starting with a gentle suggestion, which becomes stronger over time, and finally becomes a requirement. At the same time, he urges empathy from organizations to employees’ different situations. This may include feeling uncomfortable or unsafe in the workplace due to COVID-19 or a home situation where an employees has had to take on the responsibility of childcare or elderly parents due to the closure of schools or nursing homes.

“One area I see as an opportunity for vendors out in the community is helping managers with the conversation with employees around their mental and emotional well-being,” Kevin said. “That’s normally been a taboo conversation.”

According to a recent i4cp research study, “Next Practices in Holistic Well Being: The Performance Advantage," high-performing organizations are already paying attention not only to employees’ physical and mental well-being, but other elements of well-being, including financial, career, social, and relational well-being. That attention to all aspects of employee well-being also positively impacts the employer brand as employees feel the company cares about them, and the majority will then recommend their employer to their friends.


Kevin cautions CEOs and other senior executives against basing any corporate decisions on remote working purely on their observations of working from home full-time. “Organizations have to recognize that we’ve got a wide range of situations out there that we’ve got to be empathetic towards and try to be accommodating towards,” Kevin said. For instance, some employees may lack the space or quiet they need at home to work effectively.

“My advice is not to react too quickly,” he said. “Hold off making those decisions carte blanche because they affect people differently.”

The sudden shift managers have had to make during the pandemic into becoming comfortable operating in a largely virtual environment has revealed their leadership skills. “One CHRO told me ‘I don’t need to do any assessment of leaders inside my company. This pandemic has told me everything I need to know, and it’s shown me who has stepped up and who has not,’” Kevin said.

The leaders who have successfully stepped up during COVID-19 have done an excellent job of communicating with their direct reports and more broadly across their organizations. “They have shown empathy,” Kevin said. “They recognize that this isn’t all about work. We have to be very empathetic towards the balance between work and life because it’s blended more than ever before.”

Kevin expects organizations to discuss how the impact of the pandemic and their response to it has affected their culture. They can then determine what needs to change and what can be maintained.

“Another caution I’ve given to companies is to make sure you’re treating your employees correctly because that will have a huge impact on how consumers and your customers look at your company,” Kevin said. From an employer brand perspective, that behavior will also impact how prospective new hires will look at a company long term, he added.

At the same time, some companies are finding some unexpected benefits to the current situation, particularly with workforce education. “I had one prominent CLO tell me that this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when we think about this captive workforce that we’ve got, in terms of trying to leverage the programs they had envisioned rolling out,” Kevin said.

Some organizations have been escalating their employee education programs to take advantage of the current period, while others are encouraging user-generated content. “That’s something that I’ve always felt was under-utilized in organizations,” Kevin said. “Getting the workforce to create content for the benefit of the company is another aspect of what we’re seeing increase right now when we’re all working from home.”

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