31 minute read 15 February 2023

Why corporate well-being initiatives aren’t doing so well—and what companies can do about it

Employee well-being programs are a good start, but work processes and management practices might need to change too, according to two Deloitte workforce professionals

Tanya Ott

Tanya Ott

United States

Large organizations spend an average of US$10.5 million a year1 on well-being programs. They’re providing exercise incentives, nutritional counselling, stress-reduction apps, meditation classes, employee assistance programs … the list goes on.

Yet workers are still stressed out, and burnout rates are increasing, which suggest that these well-being programs aren’t doing so well.

Jen Fisher, chief well-being officer at Deloitte Services LP, and Colleen Bordeaux, who leads the Workforce Experience by Design offering for Deloitte Consulting LLP, contend that these initiatives focus on the wrong end of the equation. They say that, instead of putting the burden of action on individual employees by providing them a constellation of difficult-to-access perks and programs, organizations need to take a hard look at the structure of work—and at the “toxic rockstars” who may bring in revenue but drive off talent.

Fisher and Bordeaux coauthored The well-being imperative, an upcoming article in Deloitte Insights that breaks down the leadership capabilities, organizational designs, and workplace systems that can make or break employee well-being. They recently sat down with me to discuss how successful well-being programs go beyond the HR function and stretches into the C-Suite to ensure that employees’ wellness outcomes match the organization’s well-being goals.

Fisher and Bordeaux share some staggering statistics—you’ll be shocked by how much more time we’re spending in meetings since the pandemic—and some reasons for hope. There are leaders and organizations that are doing this well, and we can learn from them. But they say it will take a concerted effort, one that goes beyond the HR function and stretches into the C-Suite, for our wellness outcomes to match our stated goals.

Colleen Bordeaux: It feels ridiculous to say to a manager who is doing the jobs of three people or has more direct reports than there are hours in a day that all we can do for you is offer you an exercise benefit to deal with the stress and overwhelm of your job.

Jen Fisher: This expectation of “always on” has gotten worse, I believe, in this virtual digital hybrid world because there are no spoken or written expectations around what that's supposed to look like.

Q: We all have things that we know make us feel better—physically, mentally, and emotionally.  Maybe it’s your daily trip to the gym, eating clean, or playing board games with friends or family.

Companies want to help boost their employees’ well-being—but what happens when the work itself is what’s stressing you out? That’s what we’re talking about today on the Press Room.

I’m Tanya Ott. Thanks for joining me for a conversation that I think resonates pretty strongly with many of us. Despite spending a lot of time and money on it, many workplace wellness programs simply miss the mark.

And my guests today have new research that points as some of the reasons. Colleen Bordeaux is a senior manager in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Human Capital Practice.

Colleen Bordeaux: … and I have done the majority of my work over my 10 years at the firm at the intersection of our customer and marketing human capital practice, at taking what has worked for decades in understanding and influencing customer experiences and applying that to workforce experience issues. And I cofounded our Workforce Experienced by Design practice, which takes human-centered design methodology and brings that into workforce experience challenges.

One of the biggest challenges that we've been hearing about over the past couple of years—[which]  we know is getting worse—is burnout and anxiety at work, and the mental health crisis at work, loneliness, all centering around well-being.

Q: Deloitte’s Chief Wellbeing Officer, Jen Fisher, also works in this space. Jen and Colleen have teamed up on some new research that looks at the issue of workplace wellness a little differently because, honestly, for many of us the way we’re working these days is very different. It’s time to reexamine if how we work really works for us. 

Jen Fisher: [M]any organizations [are] taking steps and actions, with all of the best intentions, to help support what their workforce might be going through in their life or what the needs are of their workforce. However, despite all of that effort, I think what we're seeing—and perhaps  the pandemic helped bring more of this to light, although I think it was certainly there potentially bubbling up over the surface prepandemic days, if anybody can actually remember what those are—in large part, the efforts that so many organizations are making aren’t working. The workforce is still feeling overwhelmed. Many in the workforce are feeling burnt out. We’ve seen things like quiet quitting and the great resignation and pick your favorite trend or terminology. People feel like their well-being is getting worse as a result of work, which perhaps is a new spin—at least for me, somebody that's been in the well-being space for many years now.

Interestingly enough, we never really looked at the impact that work was having on people’s well-being. We thought of well-being as in the traditional ways of how do we support our people to make better choices around exercise and movement and nutrition and sleep. And while all of those are important, incredibly important—they’re probably foundational—we never really looked at the impact that work was having on people. I think with the drastic shift of the pandemic and the ways of working, it really highlighted some of the negative impacts that work is having on people.

That said, I tend to be a bit of a positive thinker, right? There’s only room to go up and grow and get better from here. Some of the workforce is actually doing quite well. That could be because we’re looking at workplace flexibility differently. Because people are working remotely, they feel more of a sense of control and autonomy. All of those [are] things that we have long known very positively impact the workforce, but it’s not enough to outweigh the negative impact that we’re seeing, that the workforce is feeling because of the work that they’re doing, the leaders that they’re working for, unfortunately, the conditions in which they might be working, how their work is designed, etc. And so that led us to say, okay, there needs to be a new way of thinking about this.

Bordeaux: Absolutely. So, one thing to add in addition to the core point Jen made: Organizations have recognized this is an issue for a long time and have essentially not only not made progress, in some ways [when] you look at the outcomes, we’ve been going backwards.

There is a fundamental shift in the way that we work driven by the pandemic and also a shift in the power dynamic between workers and employers that we’re seeing in a wide variety of arenas where well-being at work is becoming a table-stakes expectation. In the midst of that shifting power dynamic and the rapid change to the way that we work, organizations in many ways have fundamentally lost control of the way that work gets done and still think about well-being as something that is the responsibility of the individual to really manage. We can offer you benefits and programs, but there’s not much we as an organization can do to help you be well.

But in reality, when you look at this fundamental lack of control of how work is getting done, it feels ridiculous to say to a manager who is doing the jobs of three people or has more direct reports than there are hours in a day that all we can do for you is offer you an exercise benefit to deal with the stress and overwhelm of your job.  We have some great research on the kind of overwhelm that so many workers across industries are struggling with. One of my favorites is that you are spending 288% more time in meetings than you did before the pandemic, without a created value to the bottom line of your organization. We’re just sucking up more of people’s capacity and energy and time. It’s not being done in a valuable way.

We also know that organizations in many ways are still using human beings as middleware to manage outdated technology systems. We’re wasting 34 days on average just toggling between outdated apps that existing technology and API (application program interface) could do to save you that kind of low-energy and draining work that sucks up so much people’s time.

So, when Jen mentioned the work determinants of well-being, we’ve really taken a step back and thought about what is an organization’s responsibility to look at their systems and structures that are creating the mental health crises at work, stress, and overwhelm, and that they need to be thinking differently and taking more accountability to change those things so that the workforce can be healthier. We know that work has always been a social determinant of health, but it has been traditionally defined as your physical safety on the job and your financial security and your ability to create income. When you look at how quickly work has changed, it’s time to modernize and expand that definition of what about work determines your well-being and health outcomes and start to put more of the impetus on organizations to make meaningful change.

Q: So, let’s talk about what hasn't worked and why it hasn't worked.

Fisher: The way that we’re working has changed significantly, but we’re still working the same way that we did 100 years ago, essentially. Other than adding technology into the mix, which has in many ways been a blessing but also a curse, so much about work hasn’t changed. We need to evolve and modernize our thinking around work and also listen to the sentiments and expectations of the workforce, [which have] changed because they’re looking at their parents and others that they know that have sacrificed so much for their careers and perhaps missed out on much that had to do with their family and being present, etc. They’re saying there has to be a better way.

And, so, I think there’s a confluence of many, many factors that are going on right now. Workload is certainly an issue for so many. It’s probably the no. 1 issue that I hear about. We have one person doing the work of three people. How is that possible? How is that sustainable? Then when you add on top of that outdated systems, outdated technology, outdated process flows, (laughs) outdated everything, and the need to log into 14 different systems in order to get one thing done, [it’s] a huge burden on the individual.  It’s draining and it’s impacting people’s ability and desire to show up and do good and meaningful work. I think the meeting one, we could probably spend an entire podcast on that, right? And so …

Q: Let’s schedule a meeting for that. 

Fisher: Yeah, exactly! That number the, the 288%, to me is staggering. The outcome of that is not only are we spending more time in meetings that aren’t needed and/or productive; you see all the memes out there “don't schedule a meeting that could have been an email.” We’re all experiencing email and digital overwhelm as well. It shows that kind of the systems and the structures and the ways [in which] we’re using technology, even if the technology is present and available for us, we might not be using it in a good way.

But what we’re also seeing is that because we’re spending so much more time in meetings, there’s no time to get your actual work done. They’re [in] all-day in meetings, and then they’re spending time catching up on work because they were in all-day meetings, and then they log off to do something in their personal life, you know, parents doing homework and engaging with their family and their children and then logging back on again to get the rest of the work done that they weren’t able to get done during a normal workday because they spent so much time in meetings.

And then this expectation of “always on” has gotten worse, I believe, in this virtual digital hybrid world because there are no spoken or written expectations around what that's supposed to look like. People don’t know what’s expected of them. They believe that they always need to be connected in case something comes up, because these conversations aren’t being had. There aren’t team- or organizational- level policies or even shared responsibility, shared goals around what are standard working hours, and what’s the expectation from me when it’s outside, quote unquote, what those standard working hours are. It’s created this environment where people feel like they always need to be connected.

I think a really interesting example of that is, recently, an e-commerce company came out and basically put into place rules around meetings. You’re seeing organizations take steps specifically to enact rules around meetings, which I think is fantastic. It’s a step in the right direction. However, I still feel like it’s a little bit of a Band-Aid. I think we’re acknowledging that there’s a huge problem in this one area, but to me it’s not enough of a step back to say, okay, what are the systemic issues that are actually causing this? Meetings themselves aren’t bad, right? Like, we need to have meetings, right? You need to engage and connect with other people. We just don’t need to do it on every issue all the time, all day long, five days a week. 

Bordeaux: To add to that, we have been talking about the well-being crisis as a leadership crisis. A lot of our research points to lack of competency and capability of leaders to meaningfully own and address what’s not working. We know that executives down to entry-level staff are experiencing these issues.

I think there’s a generational divide playing into this as well, where we have millennials and below rising through the workforce and demanding change on this issue and feeling as though there are more options than ever before for where and how they work. And then you have executives, leading organizations who recognize there’s an issue, feel it personally, but essentially became successful by doing the exact opposite thing, by making sacrifices, not taking care of their own well-being. I think [they are] really struggling to zoom out and really think about what fundamentally needs to be changed even in our legacy ways of thinking and our orthodoxies around what’s driving some of the choices we’re making.

Q: To give a personal example, I had a leader of a company that I worked for who I really appreciated and thought did an amazing job in many ways. But this leader also sent emails at like Saturday night at 9:30 because they were just thinking about something. I had to manage up and say, don’t do that. Don’t do that for my staff, because they are going to feel like they have to address that right away. And unless it’s an emergency, we don’t need to do that. And, you know, this person changed their approach to it. But I think that gets to that leadership issue. Sometimes, leaders aren’t aware that what they’re doing is ineffective. Sometimes, they’re consciously ignoring it, potentially. So, what makes a good leader when it comes to managing and promoting wellness in their workforce?

Bordeaux: Jen, I can take this one. I know you have a ton of experience, but we did a research study with an organization, and we took a design-thinking approach called Studying the Extremes. If you think of your workforce on a bell curve, the edges or tails of that bell are your most satisfied or least satisfied workers. Traditional thinking is, study the mainstream, but that tends to limit innovation, because if you look at what everybody is doing, that’s where what’s not working is happening. In the extremes, you can get really deep insights that help you meaningfully solve the problem.

What we learned from studying those extremes was that there was a set of desired and undesired behaviors of people leaders, really looking at not just executives but anyone who had the responsibility and oversight of someone else who had the ability to impact performance review and pay. [We] started to recognize that some of the behaviors around empathy and clear and transparent communication—Jen mentioned naming what’s not working and being able to talk through with your team, what are some of the norms that we need to put in place to take better care of everybody else, and the ability to cultivate psychological safety in a digital environment. Candor and openness are another one that came out of the desired behaviors looking across a huge variety of workers. Also, reliability and trust, that comes from working with a leader that you feel like you can be open with and have conversations around what’s going to best support your needs and the team’s needs.

Then we also learned about the undesired behaviors, and a lot of those centered around, quite frankly, unmanaged anxiety and unmanaged negative and toxic behaviors of people leaders. That led to feelings of their team like they didn’t have trust of their leader, that they were being micromanaged, that [they needed] visibility, and [to have] their dot be green, [showing] they were on for the day for, you know, eight to 12 hours a day. Things that essentially add zero value to the organization and, in fact, to some of Jen’s earlier points, is costing the organization a ton of money. They really started to think about how do we start to transform our investments in leadership development to get real about how do we address the drivers of those toxic behaviors and really more meaningfully incentivize the desired behaviors?

Fisher: I think that the other thing that has come across loud and clear, and that we’ll dive in deeper in our full report, is that historically we have relied solely on the human resources function within an organization to deal with all people-related issues and opportunities, and well-being is certainly one of those and has fit into that bucket. And what needs to change and what organizations that actually do this well [do], is that well-being is a C-suite issue, from the CEO on down. Also, it’s a board-level issue.

There’s a ton of risk that’s associated with having an unwell workforce, especially depending on the industry that you’re in. Our pilots and truck drivers and even rideshare drivers these days aren’t allowed to work 24-hour shifts, yet we celebrate auditors and tax accountants that stay up to finish our tax returns or our audits. There’s a huge amount of risk associated with something like that. And if our younger people see those types of behaviors rewarded and celebrated, they believe and perceive that’s what they need to do to be successful in the organization. But there’s a ton of risk associated for the organization. This is a C-suite–level issue that can no longer be ignored or relegated only to HR.

Q: Well, I think the way to think about this is solving at scale, not individual little bites at the big cookie or something. So where does that start, that idea of solving this at scale?

Bordeaux: So I think back to that point around, it can’t sit in HR. There is a capability competency that executive leaders need to recognize in order to make meaningful changes.

I think at scale, getting beyond the sort of self-reported “do I feel well at work” type of survey [and] taking a broad look at what is your operational data, what is your sentiment data telling you about what is fundamentally broken within your organization that needs to be addressed—letting research and data help drive where you go first.

We keep using this term low-hanging fruit, and we know across organizations that there [are] a few areas. It’s really hard to transform your technology footprint overnight. That’s a longer term and much, much harder transformation to make, but needs to get done not just from a well-being perspective, but also your ability to continue to compete in markets.

The one that feels also hard, but in many ways there’s already existing investments being made around it, is on leader behavior. How can we start to, number one, figure out where we’ve got toxic rockstars that are driving people away from our organization and deal with them. And then start to figure out where we can better develop and better enable people managers to create psychological safety and improve certainly the outcomes of well-being and experience at work in the way that they’re showing up for their teams every single day. Jen mentioned, what are we incentivizing? And taking a look at broadly your culture and performance management systems and getting crisp on, what does the better future look like for us? Where can we start making some meaningful moves that demonstrate better beliefs, values, and behaviors at the top down? Then rewarding them so we’re really embedding that into our organization. So, a lot to get done, but those are the ones that I think are critical now.

Fisher: I mentioned previously that there is a good portion of the workforce that is doing seemingly well, according to another Deloitte Insights piece that we published last year, our C-suite well-being study. That did say that more than 59% of employees reported having excellent or good well-being. That’s a big number, but 41% are struggling and/or feeling burnt out, which is an equally concerning stat.

But it’s important to not dismiss those that are doing well and understanding what it is about that population in the workforce that is seemingly doing okay. They’re doing well. Of course, this is a self-report, but still—what is going on? Is it the way that their leaders lead? Is it the way their managers manage? Is it just that they inherently know how to self-pace their work? Is it the systems that they use? Study the population of the workforce that is doing well and what can we learn from them, and then how do you scale those types of solutions?

It may come down to many of the things that Colleen just mentioned, but I do think that it’s worth noting that it’s not all doom and gloom. There is a big portion of the workforce that is doing well, but that doesn’t change the burning platform, because if we continue down the path that we’re going, those that are doing well won’t be doing well. So, I think we need to use this opportunity to learn from them and do better and get better.

Q: I was wondering about this because so many of us are working in-person. So many of us are working remotely. Some are doing like a hybrid combination of things. How do you two think about this idea of leaders who may have people who are in all three of those categories and how you have policies that are fair and effective across the different types of work environments that people reporting to them might be in?

Bordeaux: So there’s been a ton of research and work on really what we’re calling hybrid ways of working, and there is no silver bullet answer or solution to how you set that up for success.

I think that there is a reality where pushing decision rights down to that immediate team-leader level is worth exploring because it allows for more individualized and fit-for-purpose solutions that can be created and cocreated with the team versus a directive from a leader that might be overlooking the day-to-day needs and realities of what their people are navigating and working through. There’s a skill to be able to do that as a team leader that organizations can realistically address and help to promote.

There’s also [a] second piece, which is how do we get real about recognizing diversity of our workforce and the diverse needs, and also recognizing that we have some things that we have to do at a systemic or structural level to better enable our people to thrive and to also drive the outcomes we need as a business.

And thinking about that incentive model, I think individual team leaders are a lot more capable and know a lot more about what would work well or potentially work better, and how can we start to think about incentive models and recognizing the leaders that are really figuring out how to drive positive outcomes, not just on the bottom line but for their team and start to incentivize that more consistently.

Fisher: An interesting point to add on to that is in Deloitte's own workforce, we are all trying to navigate and figure out what hybrid truly means. So much of the news is about organizations going completely virtual or organizations that are pendulum-swung completely the other way and they’re demanding the workforce back in the office.

For our workforce, in large part, we’ve left it up to them. If you want to work in an office, work in an office. If you want to work from home or from a virtual location, work from a virtual location. [This is] obviously dependent upon the work that you do and the needs of that work and the needs of that client, those things might shift and there’s always going to be a time for people to gather and come together in person.

What we found is that people that chose to work in the office felt like work in the office was better for their well-being. People that chose to work from home felt like working from home or from a virtual location was better for their well-being. We see that as we’re getting the best of both worlds because we’re allowing individuals the decision rights and teams these decision rights, so that they make the decision on when they come together and when they don’t. And then each individual actually gets to make the decision kind of on a day-in, day-out basis in a large part where it’s better for them to work because everybody has different needs of whether or not they want to be in an office or whether or not it’s better for them to work virtually or work from home.

Q: Well, Jen, Colleen, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s a great conversation and one that I know a lot of people are very interested in/perhaps struggling with.

Fisher: Thanks for having us.

Bordeaux: Thank you.

Q: Jen Fisher and Colleen Bordeaux have a piece that digs deeper into all of the things they talked about, including where to start and how to scale up. The report is The well-being imperative, and it will be available on our website: www.deloitte.com/insights.

You can find us on Twitter at @deloitteinsight and I’m on Twitter at @tanyaott1.

We’ll be back again in two weeks with another show. I know the holidays can get kind of hectic, but if you subscribe or follow the show you’ll have it dropped directly to your device, so you won’t miss anything.  Plus, it’s great listening for that road trip or flight.  So, subscribe or follow today and put your ears on autopilot.

I’m Tanya Ott. Thanks for listening and enjoy the rest of your day. 

  1. Stephen Miller, “Employers Enhance Well-Being Benefits for a Post-Pandemic Workforce,” SHRM, June 16, 2021.

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Cover image by: Sofia Sergi

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Colleen Bordeaux

Colleen Bordeaux

Leader, Deloitte’s Human Capital Consulting


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