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Episode 23: A return-to-work plan: How wellness can help

An empty office with black chairs, blue dividers at each desk and grey carpet. There is a window at the end of the hallway and the Like Nobody's Business in the bottom left corner, with a teal background and black and white block text.

Workplace wellness has become a hot topic following the pandemic. Employees are valuing work-life balance in a way they never have before, spending less time commuting and more time with their loved ones. Employers are learning to navigate the space between work-from-home and a return-to-office, balancing the needs of a physical office space with the benefits of a virtual one. 

Research from Ipsos on behalf of Global News in July 2022 showed that “(74%) of Canadian workers have returned to their pre-pandemic working conditions: 13% are working from home, as they did prior to the pandemic, 4% remain in their pre-pandemic hybrid model (partially working from home, partially at the workplace), while 57% are back at their place of work.”

What does this mean for employees? What about employers? How should employees advocate for their needs and how can employers support them? What does a healthy return-to-office plan look like?

To answer these questions enters Dr. Ellen Choi, an organizational psychologist with training in the fields of Social Psychology and Organizational Behaviour and is an assistant professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management. She has expertise in mindfulness, resilience, emotion regulation, authenticity, and leadership. Joining her is PhD student, Steven Kavaratzis, who is currently working on a manuscript titled "How well do we know wellness?"

Podcast Transcript - Episode 23

Cassandra Earle Workplace wellness has become a hot topic. Following the pandemic, employees are valuing work-life balance in a way they never have before, spending less time commuting and more time with their loved ones. Employers are learning to navigate the space between work from home and a return to office. Balancing the needs of a physical office space with the benefits of a virtual one. Research from Ipsos on behalf of Global News in July of 2022 showed that 74% of Canadian workers have returned to their pre pandemic working conditions. 13% are working from home as they did prior to the pandemic. 4% remain in their pre pandemic hybrid model, partially working from home and partially at the workplace, while 57% are back at their place of work. According to the Toronto Star, the city's downtown office vacancy rate hit 15.3% in the first quarter of the year, the highest it's been since 1995.
Cassandra Earle So what does this mean for employees? What about employers? How should employees advocate for their needs and how can employers support them? What does a healthy return to office plan look like? Joining us to help answer these questions is Dr. Ellen Choi, an organizational psychologist with training in the fields of social psychology and organizational behavior. She's an assistant professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and she has expertise in mindfulness, resilience, emotional regulation, authenticity and leadership. Joining her is PhD student Steven Kavaratzis, who is currently working on a manuscript titled "How Well Do We Know Wellness?"
Ellen Choi Hello, I am Ellen Choi. I'm an assistant professor in H-R-M-O-B or Human Resources Management and Organizational Behavior at TRS.
Steven Kavaratzis
My name is Steven Kavaratzis. I am a PhD student in the PhD management program at the Ted Roger School. I am supervised by Dr. Ellen Choi and I'm also a staff member at TRS in the dean's office in decision analytics.
Cassandra Earle In order to understand what a healthy return to work plan might look like and how companies can achieve that, we need to understand what workplace wellness is and why it's important. Steven explains the definition and what other ideas intersect with workplace wellness.
Steven Kavaratzis
I think the important distinction about workplace wellness is that it's conceptualized with a bunch of different terms, and it's important to understand how those terms are different. So if we consider health, illness, wellness and wellbeing, all of those concepts, they all mean very different things and often people mix up what they mean. So to start off, health is this idea of the optimal flourishing of an individual. So everything's great in your psychology, your physiology, everything. So that's this idea of health. The idea of illness are different stressors in your life that are impeding on your health. So we've got kind of two sides of the scale, health and illness. Wellness is this idea of how all of those characteristics, behaviors, and components that feed into each of those sides balance out. So your optimal wellness or how your wellness may be balanced or imbalanced is this distinction between health and illness.
Steven Kavaratzis So first that's really important to understand because there's health, illness and wellness of an employee and of an organization. So those are again, very important distinctions. Now, another term that gets thrown in a lot is this idea of wellbeing. Now, wellbeing is a lot different from all of those things because wellbeing relies on the individual. Wellbeing is this idea of regardless of all these components that are often the ether that people have contributing to their life and stress, how does an individual person, regardless of their circumstances, conceptualize and understand their own health illness and wellness and how all of those things interact. And I think that while all the terms are important, wellbeing is a very important perspective because it is very employee-centric. It focuses on the perspective of the individual within the organization and how they perceive the organization as well. So I think in order to understand wellness and health of an individual, an employee in an organization, we have to take a wellbeing centered perspective in recognizing that wellbeing is extremely multidimensional, that there's, as we were saying earlier, there's physiological, psychological, social and interpersonal, and then there's also the workplace side of wellbeing as well.
Steven Kavaratzis So that's employee attitudes towards their work and how they do it, such as how committed they are to their job or how satisfied they are with the work they do, how much autonomy they feel they have. And then on the other side, there's also performance-based outcomes. So that can refer to how quickly a task is completed or how effectively and those all contribute to the health of an organization. So how an employee performs their tasks contribute to that overall wellness of that organization. And then on the other side, those things can create stressors for employees. So there's that competing priority sometimes where the employer is demanding something from employees that can actually often degrade their health and wellbeing. And in terms of optimal workplace wellness and wellbeing of an employee, we have to consider how we can again, balance those scales, being able to prioritize the health, wellbeing, welfare and flourishing of the individual, of the employee, while also still maintaining the status quo of the organization.
Cassandra Earle How has the pandemic changed what employees value when it comes to workplace wellness? What can we learn from the pandemic as we move forward in a return to work plan?
Steven Kavaratzis I think what's important to consider in regards of pandemic and post pandemic living is that COVID-19 created this disruption in people's lives, in industries and how we perceive our own health because we were dealing with a situation that required us to prioritize our health and wellbeing. So I think it's important to recognize that it was a disruption that had many positive outcomes and many challenges with it as well. For example, many people that were required to work from home had opportunities to introduce themselves to this idea of micro interventions of wellbeing and wellness. And what we consider that to be is maybe you step away from your computer and your work for 15 minutes and you wouldn't have normally done that in the office and you go and you bake some bread or you go for a walk with your dog or a loved one.
Steven Kavaratzis These ideas of introducing micro spurts of wellness and wellbeing in your everyday life are proven to be just as effective as going for a 45 minute yoga class because they are very attainable, achievable, and it's easy to commit to doing that every day or so forth. So there's a lot of interesting research about this idea of micro interventions and I think that it introduced a very wide and broad population to this idea of being able to step away from your desk and have your full access to your home and all of the resources you have at home for your health and wellbeing that may not normally be with you at the office. Now the challenge to this I think as well is that not all industries had access to this luxury. And sometimes it was a challenge. Some people have demands at home. We talked about caring for family members or having dependents and sometimes that also can take away from your opportunities or abilities to be able to take time for your health or wellbeing.
Steven Kavaratzis So that's an important thing to consider that for some people maybe going to the office is an opportunity for them to be able to partake in those activities. And then there's also industries where they are not able to come home. I just recently did a talk with nurses at Sunnybrook and we were talking about this idea of introducing wellness interventions. And while it's such an incredible idea of being able to participate in this program where you're introduced to something like mindfulness or yoga where you can build your resources to mitigate stressors, it may not be feasible. The demands may be so high in a hospital that you may not have the time or capacity to be able to implement something like that. So that's a true challenge that I think Covid really brought to light is that there's a huge landscape of inequality and who gets access to these resources of wellbeing and who doesn't. And I think that's the greatest challenge for employers and employees to balance is how we can equitably offer resources to mitigate stressors regardless of the type of work you take part in.
Cassandra Earle What should employers keep in mind about workplace wellness? What role can they play to facilitate that healthy environment for employees?
Steven Kavaratzis Much like concepts such as leadership and influence, as we were talking about, wellness can be understood as a trait. So something that people have, it can be understood as a process, something that people undergo in or participate in to improve parts of their life or their behavior. And then it can also be considered as an outcome or a desired place to get to. So I think that for employers, it's important to consider all three of those components. How do we instill wellness and wellbeing in our employees as a trait so that they can influence and inspire other individuals to invest in the resources that they have access to provided by the employer? Because I do think it's important for employers to provide resources to their employees, whether it's a training program or a wellness intervention or access to different benefits that support and reduce the effects of the stress that they're causing their employees to be experiencing, right?
Steven Kavaratzis So I think that's an important side of it. And then also ensuring that the HR systems in place are constantly providing these processes to employees, these opportunities to learn about wellness and wellbeing, to invest in their wellness and wellbeing is extremely important. And how that looks is going to be very different across employers and workplace organizations, depending on the culture, the type of work they do, the types of stress that they're exposed to, that's really important. Not one program is going to work for every single organization. Context is extremely important. So it's important that when employers are considering to bring in a wellness resource for their employees that they first do their diligence and knowing the literature or having professionals that do know the literature come in, assess the organization, assess the stressors and the employee's needs to figure out what's going to work well and why and how to sustain the outcomes and benefits.
Steven Kavaratzis Long-term past four weeks of the program leaving, I always like to think of this metaphor when you bring a wellness resource in, it's like a circus coming into town when you have this big circus that comes into a parking lot in a city and it's all fun and everyone's really excited, and then the circus leaves and there's just this huge mess in the parking lot. So we don't want that when we bring a wellness resource into a workplace. We want the idea of the circus to persist past the circuses exit and there not to be this huge mess left in the parking lot. We want there to be able to be this continued lasting effect of employee satisfaction, employee productivity, wellbeing, flourishing, all of those important components that make employer and employee health so prominent.
Caassandra Earle Dr. Choi agrees that the role that employers play in workplace wellness and a return to work plan is important and needs to be factored into the messaging given to employees regarding mandated days in the workplace.
Ellen Choi If managers are trying to facilitate a healthy return to work-- first, you would have to have a good understanding of what health comes you're trying to advance. Is it physical health, is it emotional health? Is it psychological health or relational health? It could be many types of health we're talking about. And ideally you do have a bit of a pulse on each one of those. What we can tell very quickly is that when people never come together and they work entirely in their own silos because of the nature of the human mind, we tend to get very much into our own heads and our own experience and disconnection can occur fairly rapidly. Also, depending on which generation you came up in, you may have this belief, however true or false, that if I can't see you, I don't trust that you're working. It's like that old idea of coming in early, putting a coat on the back of your chair so that people think that you've come into work or you go somewhere else and you put the coat on the back of your chair so you can prove that you were there.
Ellen Choi I think there is still those types of beliefs that exist. And because of that, once we're all in separate areas, we may have a tendency or a bias to attribute absence or a slow response negatively. And then you don't actually have the relational ties to have these conversations in a way that you could subtly by hanging out around the coffee machine at work. So there's something that gets lost in all of these sort of negative self-serving highly judgmental thoughts that we have because that would be totally normal. Or if I put it differently, some of the social anxiety that can arise. Am I doing enough? Do I matter? Do they care about me? Am I going to get fired? Why wasn't I CC'd on that email? All of those thoughts that individuals will experience, they're now happening independently. So if I am a manager and I'm thinking about how to create a climate of authenticity or an environment where groups feel like they can share honestly their own interpersonal distresses and they don't have to pretend to be happy or pretend to be professional all the time, that's something that I want to start thinking about.
Ellen Choi So to be honest, if I'm a manager, the first thing I need to do is do my own self work so that I can have these conversations in a way that's productive but also genuinely empathetic. When you look at the outcomes or the sort of positive wins related to the flexibility of hybrid work, most of them end up being something related to work-life balance. This is probably what I think is the most important thing to think about as we mandate or implement return to work policies is with so much humility to think about what these policies implicitly ask of people. And if you are someone that is dying to go back to work five days a week, you are probably lonely or you don't have a lot of dual responsibilities, whether that's children or aging parents or other dependents. And again, empirically when you look at the research, there are minoritized groups that are significantly quicker to walk from a job that doesn't offer that flexibility than other groups. And I think that should say something,
Cassandra Earle When looking at those groups that are quicker to walk away from fully in-person jobs, we can learn about the workplace and the demographics of employees. Research shows where those discrepancies are.
Ellen Choi

In terms of best practices or at least things to consider. There's research that says 36% of employees if they were given the chance to choose which days they could come in would choose Fridays to stay at home. And I think that's who doesn't love a long weekend? Versus 82% of people would rather come in on Wednesday than come in on a Friday. And so if I am in charge of delegating or coordinating these efforts from a managerial perspective, then me saying, these are the certain days that you need to come in, probably does start to make some sense. Otherwise you'll have everyone gone on Mondays and Fridays. Another way to think about your return to work plan may be roles as opposed to all employees as equal. So there's some research that says that administrative assistance actually showed poor health outcomes. So increased burnout, decreased engagement when working remotely, and then the idea of tasks again or context.

Ellen Choi So when meetings are larger than four people, it seems better to come in in person. There's something that happens. But if they are less than four people, then there is some research to suggest you can still be entirely productive and efficient at no loss. The idea of promotion versus willing to walk. So in this study that I was mentioning, there was a 50% lower rate of promotion for people that were not working in the office every day. That's pretty considerable. And then when you think about who is willing to walk when they're not accommodated or when they're working in a really rigid system, you have employees 18 to 34 years old were 59% more likely to leave than those that were 55 to 64 years old. Black employees were 14 more likely to leave than white employees. People from the LGBTQ+ community were 24% more likely to leave than their heterosexual counterparts than women were. And, this is shocking-- 10 to 50% times more likely to leave than men and employees with disabilities were 14% more likely to leave. So then if you think about all of those groups that are considerably more willing to leave and are ready to walk away from the idea of a promotion, then who is raising in the ranks becomes a systemic problem.
Cassandra Earle Although a balance between remote work and in-person work is currently the model many companies and institutions have adopted, Dr. Choi highlights the potential issues that need to be mitigated within this model. 
Ellen Choi I think what's important to take away from the idea of what's lost in hybrid is that groups silo very quickly. So if you are in a particular department or if you have a work wife or a work bestie, you'll stay in touch. But the collaboration across departments that tends to occur when you're together gets lost very quickly. The other thing is people underestimate how much influence they have. And what this study showed using different kinds of network analysis was that you can influence very reliably up to three people beyond yourself. So there is some child I've never met that plays with my daughter, that then plays with that kid that may take down some mom nuggets that I've thrown down to my daughter because I can influence three circles outside of myself. And that happens across the communities that we're involved in. So sometimes when we're all alone in our own little nest, I think that's important to remember because the more that we are coming back together, the more chances we have to connect and to influence.
Cassandra Earle So what about wellness in the workplace? How can that be part of a return to work plan? Dr. Choi explains what aspects of wellness are useful in the workplace, but also how deeper issues may create barriers.
Ellen Choi Similar to greenwashing, I think sometimes wellness initiatives at work can be subject to a similar idea where you are putting lipstick on the proverbial pig and trying to offer, here's some lunchtime meditation, and here's a smoothie bar. But nothing deeply substantial changes. And when you look at work stressors or mental stress, these are new factors that are increasingly important and fall within an occupational health and safety set of mandates. So Europe is ahead of us in North America, but already the psychological health and wellbeing of employees is something that in other parts of the world do fall within the purview, the intimate purview of the organizations themselves. And I don't think we're quite there yet, but I think what needs to be considered is, is this a superficial effort? Am I asking you to be more mindful and meditate and you go find your individual inner peace while nothing at work changes? And if that's the case, I think you will run into some sort of moral injury set of limitations where no matter what lipstick you're putting on, it will never change what's happening inside that organization.
Cassandra Earle As we move forward with hybrid plans being the general consensus for offices and companies, what can we expect for the future? Will five days in the office become normal again, or can we expect a hybrid model to stay? Dr. Choi describes what she believes will be the future of workplaces.
Ellen Choi You think of a company like Telus, which has thousands of employees, many thousands, which were recently laid off. They have all gone remote. So an entire major organization, fully remote. Then I think about public service and from what I understand, public service, an example where you have a lot of push and pull around expectations to come back more than what the current employees seem willing or excited about committing to. This feels like an adapt or die circumstance. It depends how the power structures in an organization works and how deeply embedded they are and whether or not they can survive if they don't adapt. Because some industries, you could mandate this and continue to survive, and you have the position with your employees or the position and the ecosystem with your competitors that you could sustain something like this despite the turnover. But there are so many efficiencies and so many work-life balance benefits that are empirically supported.
Ellen Choi

It would be very hard to logically understand why anyone would go back, and it's not anyone but why the majority of companies would return to a normal baseline that's so deeply influenced. It's just a vestige of work practices that were born hundreds of years ago. So it does feel like a time where change is incredibly hard in acknowledging that if there isn't change, there would be quite a bit of backlash. If you look at what the top challenges are to hybrid work, it ends up being things like access to resources and equipment, feeling less connected to people, decreased team collaboration, I suppose communication related issues or process related issues where the efficiency of not being right where you need to be at that time becomes a barrier. But in terms of wellbeing in particular, the evidence is quite established in that you have sort of 75% of people in these polls that consistently report.

Ellen Choi We want some sort of hybrid, and the productivity argument is hard to push back on because so many people were in fact more productive. And that makes sense because so much of our time gets diluted in meetings and pleasantries, but it can be inefficient. So if you have a wellbeing and productivity increase, it would be hard to imagine a world where we are all now going back to what's normal. You had asked Steven earlier now that this has happened, what does that mean for our wellbeing? And Egert Tolle has this idea that when you realize you're in a nightmare, you have all the more reason to wake up and start making changes. And I think COVID was a nightmare for a lot of people, but when you are in a pleasant dream or it's good enough and fine, you don't have the same sense of urgency to wake up and make change. For those organizations that had employees that really suffered through Covid, and so many of us did, this is the time that change needs to happen. So many people woke up and to go back seems like a step backwards
Cassandra Earle Like Nobody's Business is a presentation of Toronto Metropolitan University's, Ted Rogers School of Management. For more information, visit Thank you for listening.