While specific benefits and special programs can help ensure a healthy workforce, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that having a healthy culture is crucial to helping organizations and their employees thrive, especially in tumultuous times. Vermont-based Marathon Health operates about 200 on-site health centers for large employers throughout the country. Its mission: help employers build healthy workplaces by giving workers the tools they need to manage their health. Marathon’s employees often say they joined the organization, in large part, because they were attracted to the company’s mission. “I’m employee number three. I’ve been with Marathon Health since we opened the doors. (A sense of mission and purpose) doesn’t get old. It doesn’t get stale,” said Tracy Moran, the company’s vice president of brand and communications. She said the company needs to lead by example if it wants to convince other employers to have a healthier workplace.
Leaders that want to foster such an environment need to put their workers first, experts said. Marathon CEO Jerry Ford believes that if the company takes better care of its employees, they will deliver better care to patients. That will lead to more satisfied customers and, ultimately, the company’s success.
“That philosophy has really held true. We’ve built … a very strong culture of health,” Moran said. “It guides … everything we do.” The COVID-19 pandemic changed what it means to be a healthy workplace. Not only did the outbreak lead to financial and operational issues for employers, but workers also had to adjust to new ways of doing their jobs and coping with challenges in their home lives. It’s led to rising levels of stress and anxiety for everyone. Leading healthcare organizations have taken it upon themselves to give staffers extra help, whether that’s educating them about existing benefits or creating programs to address new challenges.
“We’re providing continued—and in many cases, enhanced—access to telehealth, physical fitness and financial wellness resources, as well as emotional wellness programs and support,” said Karen Ward, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Tennessee. “We also ramped up our at-home fitness offerings and collaborated with our employee assistance program to offer resources that address behavioral health issues such as burnout, substance use disorder, anxiety and depression.”
Marathon created a special fund to help employees affected by the pandemic. Under the program, managers can apply for grants to help their employees fulfill unmet needs created by the outbreak, such as childcare or tutoring. It helps employees through “hard times,” Moran said.
The company is also granting employees more time off on a case-by-case basis if needed, even if they’ve used up all the time off allotted them under the company’s usual policy.
“We’ve been very flexible with people … to make sure they don’t have hardships … due to a PTO policy,” Moran said. Morrison Healthcare, a company that provides food and nutrition services to more than 750 hospitals and health systems, waived telehealth copays for its employees throughout the pandemic because “people didn’t want to go into the doctor’s office,” said Brad Burden, senior director of human resources.
It also created pop-up stores for employees to buy household essentials like milk, eggs, paper towels and other necessities during the pandemic, as well as prepared foods.
“It was very popular and very much appreciated by our associates,” Burden said. Morrison also taught its managers how to use technologies like web conferencing to connect with their employees to help ward off the sense of isolation many workers feel during the pandemic. That might include a virtual happy hour or activities like a trivia contest. It’s a time for employees to connect, not to talk about work.
We all enjoy “participating in those, and I don’t see (them) going away. It’s kind of become a habit,” Burden said. The Tennessee Blues offers support for parents of school-age children by aligning with school systems that serve most of its employees and encouraging workplace etiquette like meeting-free hours among teams to give caretakers more flexibility.
“Soon, we’ll be offering employees two new benefits: a backup childcare and elder care service and a tutoring service,” Ward said.
Experts said employers must communicate with workers throughout the organization, regardless of their seniority, to ensure a healthy culture. It’s important to share what’s changing and why and be open to feedback, especially during an emergency.
“We’ve emphasized how we’re working to balance the needs of our members with the health and safety of our employees,” Ward said. “We’ve also asked employees to tell us what they want and need to be successful in their various roles—not only as employees but as parents, caregivers, students and others they might be filling during this unusual time.”
Organizations need to have an unwavering commitment to their employees’ well-being if they want to have a healthy workforce because workplace culture is paramount, according to experts. “Many companies have culture statements (but) they don’t carry through in all the actions and behaviors of the organization,” Moran said.