Perspective Pieces

Fortifying the Well Organization of Today and Tomorrow

by Deb Butters, Orbia Chief People Officer | Oct 08, 2021

There was a day not so long ago when the “human resources” department was referred to as “personnel”. The function was administrative, employees were considered costs, and work versus life was considered a zero-sum game. While the semantic difference between “human resources” and “personnel” was there, it was a shade between social contract and labor transaction. It was hardly any wonder that “careers” were less common lexicon than “jobs” or “gigs.”

I do remember this day clearly; it was the one upon which I was setting off from university to pursue a career in human and organizational development, prioritizing learning and discovering how I could contribute meaningfully to cultures of work. Fast forward to today, I have seen an arrival of sorts for organizations, their leaders and employees, accelerated by the technological and globalization races, generational shifts and the COVID-19 pandemic. In this challenging present has come a wake-up call long in the making: doing well by doing good for people is not a choice but a necessity. And now, as leaders, we have the chance and opportunity to prioritize getting it right.

The Timely Case for Well-Being

It could be said to be a truth universally acknowledged today that employee well-being is tied to greater engagement, productivity and retention. Well-being and wellness have been concepts rising in the cultural consciousness for some time now but employee well-being—that state of inner and outer fulfillment, most readily visible in employees showing up empowered to perform as their whole selves at work—is now part of the corporate conversation. More companies are adopting inspired ESG-driven agendas to engage their employees in purpose-driven journeys that have rising tide benefits for all stakeholders, as Orbia is. Mental health is being actively spoken about, addressed and supported. These are important strides.

In many countries around the world and notably here in the United States, the COVID-19 crisis and its redefinitions, uncertainties and shifts have been a needed push for companies to bridge the historic gaps between work and life, mental and whole physical health, individuals and families through employee programming and support mechanisms. To that end and according to a recent McKinsey survey, 96% of businesses have launched focused interventions and support policies for their employees during the pandemic. But while 44% of companies have implemented well-being and enrichment programs and 52% have extended mental health support services, only 1 in every 6 employees has felt truly supported.

When we think about what these results tell us and consider that the many human challenges related to COVID-19 will be with us for some time, it’s on us as leaders and managers to think critically and act swiftly for the sustainability of our organizations—best expressed in healthy, thriving, truly well populations.


"Quite simply, the deciding factor for actualizing the well organizations of tomorrow is not about processing nor programming, but people."

—Deb Butters, Orbia Chief People Officer

Leader Practices for Fostering Well-Being

Role model healthy practices.

While it’s broadly understood that support from leaders matters when it comes to improving employee well-being, the degree to which it does is particularly significant: employees who feel their leaders support their well-being are 38% more engaged. But supporting well-being is not just about paying lip service or referencing available well-being programming and resources. For many organizations where well-being hasn’t historically been part of the employee experience, it’s incumbent on leaders to normalize and validate its importance in action. No actions are too trivial: in modeling even small wellness and well-being behaviors in sum, cultures change and sometimes even at hyper-speed. For leaders, creating environments where employees feel supported on their well-being journeys is often as simple as scheduling and communicating daily breaks, using and encouraging use of PTO and work-life resources, and openly discussing personal well-being priorities or goals with team members.

Develop the ability to identify, discuss and target mental health needs.

Mental health resources are coming to be recognized as essential resources for employees and starting to be offered with greater frequency. But they are also far from even being partially utilized in most organizations. My theory is that the resources themselves are less important than those delivering them. As many employees grappling with mental health issues are all too aware of decades of stigma, leaders need to become comfortable and emotionally adept with handling issues at the source. Though most executives are not medical doctors nor mental health specialists, there’s not an expectation that they should be. “Well” organizations are providing their people leaders with doctor and specialist-delivered training to help them recognize common mental health issues, engage in productive and empathetic conversations and select the right resources to fit individual needs (whether an employee assistance program, support services, or another resource.)

Take an oath of ongoing listening and learning.

As a leader, the only real way to understand employee needs for well-being and come through on them continuously (the true gauge of “well” organizations) is to ask quality questions, listen loudly and keep conversations and solutions coming. Though the mechanisms for exchange are many, from one-on-one conversations to small discussions to surveying/active listening channel experiences, the magic is in coming in with nothing more than a hypothesis as to needs and potential solutions. As feeling well is most often born of feeling belonging and belief—that is, identifying ourselves as safe, understood and valued in a given context—authentic questioning around the topics of support and resources, desired work arrangements and areas for autonomy should be up for discussion between leaders and employees continuously; not just during the pandemic, in response to an issue or as part of performance cycles. Better yet, leaders who take and make oaths verbal, written or otherwise to employees as to watching out for and investing in improvements for their well-being are powerful demonstrators in establishing employees’ senses of worth as people and lasting trust.

Quite simply, the deciding factor for actualizing the well organizations of tomorrow is not about processing nor programming, but people. By seeking out, elevating and being those who set the tone for wellness and model well-being, who support and attend to mental health needs proactively and who make space for continued discussion around opportunities for healthier and more inclusive environments for employees, the future of the “human resources” function is perhaps even better described as the “people” function. And then, all leaders should be people leaders.

I hope my colleagues and peers around the world feel as inspired as I do to invest where it truly makes a difference: in the well-being of the most valuable, resilient and generative capital of all.