When most of New York state shut down in the spring of 2021 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, some of Rochester’s largest 75 employers — including the places that cared for us, put food on the shelves and kept the economy going — could not.
Two years later the effects — stress, fear, anxiety and exhaustion — are still being felt.
“The pandemic wreaked havoc on our health care workers’ overall wellbeing,” said Dr. Bridgette Wiefling, executive vice president and chief physician enterprise officer of Rochester Regional Health, which ranks No. 2 on the RBJ 75 list for 2022. “Chronic stress disorder has become a major problem for our workforce globally. We fought a war against an invisible enemy.”
Now companies are fighting back by ensuring their wellness and other human resources offerings are stronger, more accessible and more in-tune with the physical, emotional, financial and social wellbeing of their employees than ever before.
The 2021 Wellbeing Diagnostic Survey, conducted by consultancy firm WTW (formerly Willis Towers Watson) asked 322 U.S. employers with 100 or more employees about their expectations for 2022 and found 86 percent believe mental health, stress and burnout are a priority.
“Now more than ever employee wellness programs must be robust,” said Wiefling, who notes RRH has long had a strong wellness program but is now taking it “to the next level” through the work of a multi-disciplinary steering team guiding the process.
RRH’s current wellness offerings are comprehensive and include an employee assistance program (EAP), programs building coping skills and resiliency and addressing important topics like sleep and stress management, yoga classes, monthly massage sessions, discount programs for fun activities, an employee fitness center with classes and more.
Mid-pandemic the organization launched affinity groups and drop-in groups at the hospital that were facilitated by internal professionals to discuss challenges employees were facing from the pandemic. Those groups were so successful that RRH is now in the process of expanding its groups and affinity groups to include a 1:1 peer support program.
Wiefling notes that it’s important to also offer wellbeing support online too for employees that may feel more comfortable accessing services that way or whose work-family life schedule makes online a better option. Some of RRH’s remote supports include a virtual journal club and an online library of wellness with titles like “Practicing Self Compassion.”
At Rochester-based LiDestri Food and Drink, ranked No. 31 on the 2022 RBJ 75 list, the majority of employees never stopped working in person, even during the height of the pandemic. As a food and beverage manufacturer, their business was essential, and keeping wellness front and center was a critical mission of the human resources team.
“We kept rolling,” said Sarah Miller, LiDestri’s vice president of human resources, “We had messages by the time clocks in the plants about wellbeing and added online offerings. There are kiosks here for online wellness training, learning labs and other supports.”
LiDestri has long had a pioneering wellbeing program that Miller attributes to Dr. Cindy Reddeck-LiDestri, a retired clinical cardiologist who began the company’s program about twenty years ago when only about 7 percent of employers offered comprehensive wellness programs, according to the 2004 National Worksite Health Promotion.
“Part of our culture is a robust wellbeing program,” said Miller who notes LiDestri’s most popular wellbeing benefit is up to 24 hours of paid time off annually for employee wellness.
Employees can earn these hours in many different ways, including completing preventative screenings like colonoscopies and eye exams, performing volunteer work, participating in physical activities like 5Ks, attending Red Cross certification classes and more.
If an employee prefers not to take the time off, they can be compensated for their wellness hours instead.
“What people want more and more is paid time off to maintain a work-life balance,” Miller said. “But if they don’t want to use that time off, that’s OK too. We offer the flexibility to address the right fit for each employee.”
No. 4 on the 2022 RBJ 75 list, Paychex, Inc. has also long been ahead of the curve when it comes to employee wellness benefits. For example, right before the pandemic hit, the company had begun a pilot program with meQuilibrium, a well-being and performance platform that focuses on building resiliency.
Soon after, the world learned how important resiliency, which the American Psychological Association defines as “adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress,” truly is.
“One of the things that has been so challenging for all of us [through the pandemic] is the ups and downs,” said Jake Flaitz, director of benefits and wellbeing at Paychex. “Resiliency and the ability for us to weather life’s ups and downs is greater than it ever has been.”
Flaitz has championed resiliency and other wellbeing tools at Paychex for 16 years.
“During the pandemic and even today there has been a lot of focus on emotional well-being and rightfully so,” Flaitz said. “Fortunately, we had already built a cadre and culture around health and wellbeing here.”
Paychex’s offerings encompass five core wellbeing values: career; community/social; financial; emotional and physical. All values are tied together holistically. Resources include EAP, resilience training, virtual meditation, financial fitness seminars, employee discounts, company-sponsored volunteer activities, programs with Fitbit Health Solutions, telephonic health coaching, virtual mindfulness and yoga classes and ergonomic support.
The company also strives to include dependents in their wellness offerings and to make sure wellbeing and feeling a sense of community is part of the company’s culture for employees who work from home too.
As an example, he cites the many children, cats and dogs who made unplanned appearances on-screen during pandemic-age video work meetings.
“We didn’t see that as disruptive,” Flaitz said. “We tried to recognize that this was a very different environment for all of us. We’ve done a really good job embracing and understanding change and what it has meant in our employees’ lives.”
Caurie Putnam is a Rochester-area freelance writer.