Employee Wellbeing


The Challenges of Employee Wellbeing in 2021

As 2021 begins to unfold, there is certainly a lot of chatter, discussion about and the promotion today of employee wellbeing. It is clearly a hot topic in both the employer and employee benefit circles I travel. Since employee wellbeing is such a broad subject, I see multiple problems, issues and challenges facing employers, employees and their wellbeing today.

While the attention and focus on employee wellbeing continues to build momentum, the biggest challenge I see with employee wellbeing is a lack of clarity around what employee wellbeing actually is. Unfortunately, there is no consensus based definition, description or model employers and workplace practitioners can follow. There are, in fact, many different definitions, descriptions and models of employee wellbeing.

This essentially means that each and every employer must decide for themselves what employee wellbeing means within their organization, how they will describe it and what their model of employee wellbeing will look like. Sadly, my observations are that many employers and workplace practitioners are skipping the core foundational planning pieces and jumping directly into action mode by offering wellbeing programming and interventions. Clarity of purpose, desired outcomes, goals, employee ownership, employee voice and strategic/operational planning are all either being ignored or largely being ignored.

The big elephant in the room is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. It continues to significantly challenge employee wellbeing. Two new, more contagious variants of the COVID-19 virus have emerged and will not doubt appear in workplaces soon. Vaccines for the COVID-19 virus are coming online which will no doubt raise discussion and debate in workplaces surrounding mandatory vs. voluntary vaccination.

The U.S. EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) has released a rule regarding COVID-19 vaccination, as well as draft rules related to the use of incentives in conjunction with employee wellness programs. Both of these actions could impact employee wellbeing so they both should be seen as employee wellbeing challenges this year.

With the swearing in of a new U.S. President on January 20th, speculation is swirling around that OSHA (U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration) will issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) related to COVID-19. An OSHA ETS could certainly impact employee wellbeing.

Another significant employee wellbeing challenge this year is employee mental health. Clearly, employee wellbeing includes employee mental health.

Employee mental health was a hot, emerging topic even before COVID. The subject is certainly more pressing now that we are 11 months into the pandemic and we are starting to see its mental health implications.

Typically in the workplace, employee mental health is seen as being just about employers addressing employees who are experiencing a mental illness or substance abuse disorder. In reality, mental health actually encompasses three components: mental illness, mental wellness and psychological or mental distress. The challenge related to employee wellbeing is for employers to recognize that they need to address all three components of employee mental health and not just mental illness.

Related to employee mental health, as we enter 2021, employers are also beginning to recognize that the inner or mental side of employees is just as important as the outer, technical or action taking side of employees. Our inner side actually drives our outer side. As one psychology researcher has noted: “Human excellence in virtually all domains is guided by mental factors.” (Orlick, 2005) Employee wellbeing requires time, energy, attention and resources at both the inner and outer levels. Helping employees to address their inner game is yet another employee wellbeing challenge in 2021.

Survey research reveals that approximately 75% of U.S. employees are living paycheck to paycheck. Financial security can have a huge impact on employee health, mental health and wellbeing. Given today’s 2021 economy, financial security is also a huge challenge related to employee wellbeing.

When it comes to employee wellbeing, employers and employees would be wise to plan and prepare their employee wellbeing initiatives across each of the domains in their employee wellbeing model. A planned and prepared outcome driven wellbeing initiative is far superior to an activities driven initiative which simply offers a series of activities.

Since wellbeing is a journey and not a destination or endpoint, continuous improvement is a hallmark of employee wellbeing. Continuous improvement needs to occur at both the level of the individual and the level of the organization. As employees seek to change on an individual level, organizations need to create the workplace environments which support and facilitate employee wellbeing.

Last year was no doubt a troubling year on several different fronts. Many of these fronts are likely to continue into 2021. Since employee wellbeing consists of multiple domains, we need to be careful to not just get sucked down any one rabbit hole related to employee wellbeing. Many factors will influence and impact employee wellbeing.

The challenge of employee wellbeing is to not focus on just one domain, but to focus instead on each domain deemed important to both the needs and wants of the employees and the organization as a whole. And we need to remember that one approach to employee wellbeing fits but one person or one organization.


Orlick, Terry. 2005. The Wheel of Excellence. Available electronically at: http://www.zoneofexcellence.ca/free/wheel.html. Last accessed: December 27, 2020.

©2021. William McPeck. All Rights Reserved.




Bill McPeck has been involved as a leader and practitioner in employee health, safety, wellness and wellbeing for close to 30 years.

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William McPeck

William McPeck

Bill McPeck has been involved as a leader and practitioner in employee health, safety, wellness and wellbeing for close to 30 years.

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