Though the Omicron variant has pushed back many reopening plans, many companies are still preparing to welcome employees back to the office in 2022. The question on everyone's minds is as stark as it is simple: How do we make sure everyone stays healthy?

By now, most everyone knows the basics--the mask, the social distancing, and all the other common-sense precautions we've mastered since the pandemic's outbreak. But as the CEO of a health system that treated more Covid patients than anywhere else in the country, I learned that cultivating a healthy workplace is much more than mere face coverings. For two years, we've been radically rethinking our approach to our employees' well-being, taking a more holistic approach that landed us the No. 2 spot in the list of the healthiest workplaces in America. And because rethinking the meaning of health is now a priority for companies across sectors and industries, below is a blueprint for making sure the workplace nurtures employees' bodies, minds, and spirits.

Get Smart About Tech

There's no shortage of apps, gadgets, and gizmos purporting to improve overall health, productivity, and anything in between. The abundance of options may be overwhelming, but taking the time to find the right tool can pay off handsomely. Here's a smart first step: Realize that employees crave simplicity, and that any solution you offer should address them as complete human beings, not merely as workers. According to recent research by behavioral scientists at RAND Corporation, Americans now spend one-third of their lives, or a whopping 90,000 total hours, at work. If you shave off the time we spend sleeping, eating, and bathing, it's clear that work remains our chief activity. To that end, we teamed up with Virgin Pulse to offer our employees a platform and app that allows them to create their own personal well-being journey, including access to a health risk assessment, tracking their steps, and access to health tips and resources both internally and externally, all in the same place. 

Employers may feel reluctant to step into the health and wellness realm, thinking it's none of their business if their employees get a good night's sleep or the requisite 10,000 daily steps. That's a mistake: A good platform that brings together the personal and the professional can inspire and motivate, resulting in healthier and happier people and fewer resources needlessly squandered.

Talk It Out

American culture has always celebrated virtues like grit and resilience, which too often translates into keeping our spirits high, our mouths shut, and our eyes on the prize. That's admirable, but as Covid-19 demonstrated all too tragically, when faced with major and painful challenges, people can only endure so much before feeling overwhelmed.

At Northwell, we addressed this challenge by setting up an Emotional Support Resource Call Center, which is now available 24/7 and offers employees anything from immediate support to emotional and psychological services. We're hardly alone: More and more employers now are realizing that offering access to quality mental health services is key to keeping employees healthy and productive. Already increasingly anxious and stressed before the pandemic, Americans are now feeling even more insecure: Between February and March of 2020 alone, for example, prescriptions for anxiety medications spiked 34 percent, and an overwhelming 73 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center that they felt anxious for some or most of the week. Those feelings come at a cost: As recent research suggests, employee stress, leading to everything from decreased functional capacity to work absences due to illness, has cost the U.S. around $180 billion and 120,000 unnecessary deaths each year. These numbers are so daunting that the World Health Organization now treats employee burnout as a medical condition. Employers, then, should continue to step up their mental health offerings, making sure their team members have access to the resources they need.

Let the Spirit Move You

Not long ago, Fortune magazine asked Americans what they needed to feel a real sense of satisfaction; 78 percent said they needed to feel a sense of spiritual growth. More surprisingly, perhaps, a majority also said they spoke about their spiritual needs openly at work, and a whopping 85 percent of respondents told the Business Intelligence Journal that an executive's spirituality absolutely impacted his or her ability to successfully lead an organization. And while spirituality is still a bit of a touchy subject in a secular society like ours, a host of research suggests that employees who are spiritually satisfied perform better.

Surveying 306 South Koreans in a study published in the journal Current Psychology last year, researchers found that "employees' spirituality is positively related to their intrinsic motivation, which in turn results in engagement in job crafting and hence is positively related to job performance." At Northwell, we implemented this insight by launching the Heart-to-Heart program, led by trained chaplains who create a sacred space for people of all faiths and cultural beliefs, helping them navigate stressful, life-changing, or transitional moments, finding meaning, hope, connection, and comfort by enabling them to identify and draw upon their own sources of inner strength.

Cultivate a Culture of Shared Responsibility

All of the aforementioned stressed the things employers can and should do to help workers feel better. But there's another side to the coin, one that's no less important: expecting employees to take charge of their own well-being. As we learned, quickly and painfully soon after Covid-19 struck us, individuals who were obese were significantly more likely to get sick or die from the virus. Avoiding smoking or substance abuse or sexually transmitted diseases, there's a lot that individuals can do to get better and stay better, even without much external support.

Regrettably, this aspect of the wellness paradigm too often gets lost in the sound and the fury of our national health care conversation. It shouldn't: Just as employers have a responsibility to their employees, employees themselves must help curb those behaviors that lead to health risks and illness. And well-being is best achieved when achieved together, through cultivating a culture of shared responsibility. At Northwell, we facilitate this culture by a diverse array of solutions, from the popular annual Walk To challenge, which helps team members increase physical activity while building a sense of companionship among the health system's different teams, to sponsoring educational workshops each month, to providing access to a team of health professionals and wellness coaches that can help get team members on the right path.
As more and more Americans return to their offices in the coming months, business leaders must recognize that the vaccines that made it safe for us to once again congregate in enclosed spaces are not the end of our fight for good health. It's the beginning of a long journey, one that requires us to rethink our attitudes and create an environment that fosters true well-being for all.