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More than Health Benefits and a Fitness Room

Evidence-based practices and strategies can help employers support the mental health and well-being of employees.

Lindsay Smith Rogers

Workplace wellness goes beyond health insurance coverage, a fitness room, and a safe working environment. It’s an overarching workplace culture that sees each employee as a whole person.

“Many employers don't realize that their actions, their policies, their statements, how they work, actually influence the mental health and well-being of their workers,” says Ron Goetzel, PhD, MA, director of the School’s Institute for Health and Productivity Studies, which focuses its work on the relationship between employee health and well-being, health care use and costs, and productivity.

In advance of the School’s June 27 National Summit on Workplace Mental Health and Wellbeing: A Focus on the Graduate Academic Environment, which will convene leaders in workplace mental health, Goetzel explains the point at which business and public health intersect, what goes into creating a workplace that prioritizes mental health and well-being, and why it’s important for institutions and employers to pay attention.


Public Health On Call

 This Q&A is adapted from the June 21 episode of Public Health On Call.



Mental health and wellness at work is a component of health and productivity management. How do they fit together?  

It's actually a unique aspect of public health, which is a collaboration between the business and public health communities. The reason that's important is that 160 million or so Americans go to work every day and spend the majority of their waking hours at work.

Employers want employees to be healthy and productive. And that means more than not being sick. It means the ability to do pleasurable things, enjoy fun activities, get together with family and friends, and to be focused on work when they're at work.

What’s important to employers is obviously that employees show up for work—having energy, not worrying about their family's health, being engaged, and feeling proud about the job they’re doing.

Why is this work particularly important now?

We have a labor shortage. Employers are struggling to find talented people. And especially younger workers are looking for places to work that are more than just a 9-to-5 paycheck, but a place where they can connect to other people, have fun and have purpose and meaning, and also feel supported for their efforts by their employer. We're hoping that more employers adopt best practices and provide a positive organization support experience for their workers so that they can keep them instead of workers deciding every six months, “This is not for me, I'm going to go somewhere else.”

What can employers do to adopt this holistic perspective toward employee health?

It's not necessarily just a program—it's a culture that evolves in a workplace, and that usually starts at the top with leadership. They have the authority and power to provide that kind of culture, with funding, with strategic planning, with program and environmental supports, and the most important aspect is measurement and evaluation. Not only do you put these things in place, but you also track and monitor whether they're actually delivering value.

What does this concept look like in practice? 

We've done a number of best practice and benchmarking studies, and the programs that work address three broad categories: psychosocial, organizational, and environmental.

Psychosocial includes things that you can control—eating healthy, getting enough physical activity, not smoking, not drinking excessively, not using illicit drugs, driving safely, having regular preventive exams with your doctor. All of this is important for you to be fit physically. The organization can support all that by providing healthy food in cafeterias and vending machines, for example. They can provide access to fitness centers; they can have ergonomic workstations, no-smoking policies, insurance coverage for screening and preventive exams, access to medication and services at low or no cost.

On the environmental side, it means protecting employees from toxins and hazards, and that obviously includes illnesses like COVID-19. It also includes other elements of the physical space—healthy air, healthy water, not being too hot or too cold, having sufficient light, having the space being designed in a way that allows you to focus and concentrate but also socialize with other people in the workplace.

These things seem to be primarily associated with an office setting. Can you talk about workplaces that are smaller and might not have the resources to be able to provide these supports to their employees?

We've put in place a whole series of different scorecards that employers can use to decide whether they have a healthy company culture. A popular one, which we developed with the CDC, is called the CDC Worksite Health ScoreCard. It has 18 modules, including social organization, support efforts, stress management, depression management, blood pressure screening, ergonomics, and other factors.

And a lot of them don't cost a whole lot of money. It's just a matter of changing policies in the workplace and making sure that everybody is aware of those policies.

The pandemic upended all kinds of workplaces. What are some of the changes that you have seen, and some lessons learned from the pandemic that apply to workplace health?

I think the COVID-19 pandemic made business leaders aware of the connection between population health and the economy and their business performance.

People stayed home, the economy cratered, and employers then asked public health officials, “What can we do?”

We published a report that was sponsored by the de Beaumont Foundation which talked about seven ways that employers can support their workers through this kind of crisis. Number one is listen to advice from public health experts and government agencies like the CDC. Secondly, make sure your workers are healthy. And not only healthy physically, but healthy mentally and socially—and financially, because many people were suffering because they weren't getting paid.

Most importantly, I think mental health and stress emerged as a common problem. It was really something that every one of us faced and had to deal with on a daily basis.

What are some other resources for employers interested in investing in the well-being of their employees?

Something that we began at Johns Hopkins with the Luv u Project is the Mattingly Awards, given to organizations and employers that have executed exemplary best practices, tools, and services and programs that support the mental health and well-being of their organizations. We've established a checklist with 10 criteria for winning the award that's also a good scorecard employers can use to improve health and well-being in their organization. But there are other tools out there, as well as reports and guidebooks that are available on our website.

What is the backstory of the Luv u Project?

It started tragically, with the death of Carolyn Mattingly at the hands of an employee of the organization of which her husband was CEO. The employee was fired, and he took out his rage against Rich Mattingly on Carolyn.

Rich Mattingly decided to form a foundation that would focus on improving mental health in the workplace, and that's how the Luv u Project started. The Project has collaborated with Johns Hopkins University and our Department of Mental Health, and most recently, the Johns Hopkins P.O.E. Total Worker Health Center.

How can employees advocate for their own well-being in the workplace?

Certainly, they should let their managers know that their health and well-being is important to them, that it's really part of who they are when they come to work every day. It’s not just about their physical health. It's also their mental, social, financial, intellectual, and career health, and even in some cases, spiritual health and having purpose and meaning in their work.

They can also form support groups and have well-being champions in the organizations. They may want to be part of a committee that potentially improves the health and well-being of the employee population. They can ask for a budget, for a real influence on recommendations.

And in order to make sure that all of this really works, you've got to measure it, evaluate it over time, and provide feedback on things that are working versus those that are not.


Lindsay Smith Rogers, MA, is the producer of the Public Health On Call podcast, an editor for Expert Insights, and the director of content strategy for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.