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The Importance of Bringing the Whole Person to Work

Drazen Zigic / iStock

The coronavirus pandemic has changed virtually every aspect of the work experience. The past 17 months have also wreaked havoc on employees’ sense of work-life balance and brought the importance of employee well-being into sharp focus. 

Scott Behson is a professor of management at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the author of the new book, The Whole-Person Workplace: Building Better Workplaces Through Work-Life, Wellness and Employee Support. Workspan recently spoke with Behson about his new book, recent COVID-related changes to the workplace and how organizations can support employees with their work-life challenges.

Workspan: Your new book is entitled The Whole Person Workplace. Can you describe the concept behind it; the impetus for writing the book?

Behson: Some employers value employees merely as parts of the machine, investing only enough in them to keep the chain moving. Many others view their employees as valuable assets, which is generally good, because you take care of valuable assets. But this is still a transactional relationship; an investment because it brings a return.

I propose that the best employers value their employees as whole people, with lives, priorities, responsibilities, passions, stressors and challenges outside of work, and a desire to bring more of themselves into work. If we have this whole-person mindset, we take on the responsibility for helping our employees with their life challenges, so they can be successful both at work and in their lives.

Once you take on this mindset, then a whole host of policies, programs and ways to treat employees open up to you. You listen to and consider the needs of your employees with whatever challenges they have, and then develop custom-fit solutions for you and your employees.

These solutions range from flexibility, parental leave, child care, elder care, wellness programs, educational benefits, employee development, vacation time, employee onboarding, support for volunteerism, job design, compensation, core benefits or whatever else it may be. I present lots of actionable advice and examples from both tiny and enormous companies in many different industries.

I believe the key to success in the newly transformed workplace is properly valuing employees. That’s how you attract, retain and engage great talent. This approach also helps build more resiliency, so you can be adaptable and flexible in the face of the next disruption.

By becoming a whole-person workplace, you create a culture of support and commitment that flows in all directions — to and from your employees, to and from you as a leader, employer or HR professional, and, of course, to your customers. You’ve built a better workplace that works for everyone.

Workspan: And how has the coronavirus pandemic brought the importance of employee well-being into the spotlight?

For a long time, employers have told employees that work and life should remain separate, so that life doesn’t interfere with work. This idea of separation has always been false. After all, how can you do sustainably good work if you are unwell, overly stressed or overburdened? When people thrive in their lives, they can be more engaged and focused at work. This isn’t a new concept, but it’s only fairly recently become evident that the separation between overall well-being and productivity is fiction.

For 18 months, we got a front-row view into the lives of our employees and colleagues. We got to see their living rooms, their cats and their kids in the backgrounds. We saw how all of us adjusted to remote work, online school, barking dogs, isolation, anxiety and new time management challenges. And while some thrived, many have struggled. Because of this, so many employers have found or rediscovered the need to support employees as whole people during the pandemic, often in very creative ways.

How do you see employers responding — providing more flexibility, expanding benefits, offering more generous PTO packages and so on — in their effort to help better support employee well-being?

All of the above, and more! I think so much that had not been seriously considered before is now on the table.

But beyond the specific ways in which employers support employees, the fundamental connection is in listening to employees and then leading with empathy and trust. If we truly value our employees as whole people, we’ll learn and then consider their needs as we develop formal programs or simple informal ad-hoc arrangements to support them in their work-life challenges. At a large company, this may mean formal policies, extended parental leaves and extensive benefits packages. For smaller employers, this may mean figuring out customized solutions for individual employees.

This also influences how we design and structure work assignments. Teams with overlapping membership and responsibilities, for example, enable continuity when one employee takes vacation or personal leave without overburdening any one employee — all while allowing employees to unplug during time off knowing their team has them covered.

Finally, I really hope we continue to value “essential employees” as essential, and that this term was not just superficially used during the height of the pandemic. Front-line employees and those whose work requires them to be at a particular place at a particular time deserve safe and healthy workplaces, livable wages and the same core benefits typically associated with white-collar employees.

More specifically, what do you see employers doing — or what should they be doing — to better support employees who also have caregiving responsibilities at home, for young children, elderly loved ones or, in some cases, both?

Parental leave and help with child-care or elder-care arrangements are obviously directly aimed at supporting caregivers. However, we should also consider that most employees need the time and money to create solutions that work for them. This means good pay and core benefits, as well as respect for paid time off and the ability to “unplug” after work.

There are also a host of other creative solutions. I know of an EAP that helps employees navigate Medicare, long-term care insurance and other paperwork as they make arrangements for elderly family members.

Also, one large employer that transferred employees from around the country to a new regional office pre-booked slots at local summer camps, sports programs and pre-schools for the children of the employees being transferred; one less thing to worry about while making this transition.

One small employer simply let an employee wear her new baby in a sling while she worked. One firm realized that early morning meetings were hard for parents doing school or day-care drop-off and implemented a “no meetings before 10 a.m.” policy. Once you decide to help the whole people who work for you thrive in their lives, solutions present themselves.

Looking into the future and the post-pandemic working world, what pandemic-produced changes do you think will be instituted in the typical American workplace?

It would be such a shame if we all suffered through this pandemic to just go back to the way things were without learning or applying any lessons. We should examine what’s worked well and what didn’t in the midst of the pandemic, in terms of flex, hygiene, safety, remote work and collaboration, and use these lessons to build better workplaces that work for everyone.

Specifically, I think some elements of flexibility are here to stay. Even in companies that will want most of their employees back in the workplace most days will have mechanisms for informal or as-needed flexibility. And I believe the renewed focus on wellness and well-being is so necessary. The past two years have been traumatic for everyone, and it will take a lot of time for people to feel fully themselves again. Employers should relish the opportunity to play a major role in this.

After all, wouldn’t you want to look back five years from now and feel proud of how you helped the whole people who work for you through a historically difficult time? Taking the whole-person approach to your employees will help you do that.

About the Author

 Mark McGraw is the managing editor of Workspan.

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