Two coworkers and smile and talk together about employee wellness.

What is Employee Wellness and How Can Leaders Make it Happen?

August 11, 2022

Employee wellness can go a long way in improving company culture and reducing burnout. But what is it and how can you make it happen? Diane Kim’s got answers.

Amy Lattimore
WITH, Co-founder

No matter who you are, employee wellness has likely been top of mind these past two years. Surviving a pandemic has highlighted gaps here for everyone—those working on the frontlines to those meeting in the C-Suite. There’s lots of room for growth in professional wellness. But before leaders can make positive changes, they need to rethink what health looks like and how it relates to work. What exactly is employee wellness? And how can you make sure your company is meeting the mark.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: it’s all about priorities.

On our most recent episode of Priorities, our health and wellness podcast, Bryan and I sat down with People & Culture expert (and world traveler extraordinaire) Diane Kim to talk about how to lead a team and make it your priority.

Whether you’re ready to make a big commitment to employee wellness or you’re just curious to see what these programs look like in practice, you can catch some key guiding principles in this talk with Diane Kim.

Listen to the conversation here or keep reading for the full scoop.

Employee wellness leader Diane Kim wears a white button-down and smiles for the camera.

Meet Diane Kim

When we sat down to interview Diane Kim for Priorities, she was shaking things up as the Vice President of People & Culture at Prose, a custom hair care company based in NYC and France.

Kim’s big thing is turning companies into progressive, nonconformist organizations, starting with their leadership. Kim actually brought this mission into companies from her personal life; as someone who grew up in a conserative Korean-American immigrant environment, she had to push herself to think more progressively and become a nonconformist as an adult. 

Today, she feels like this self development has gotten her to a point where she can do anything she wants to do.

She works to create similar changes in the corporate world.

“As leaders, we can transform ourselves, thereby transforming the company or organization into a more progressive, forward-thinking [place],” she explained.

Needless to say, we’re pretty big fans of Kim’s work, and we’re not the only ones. 

Just last year, Glossy (a beauty-focused online publication) named Kim HR Leader of the year, citing culture-add changes she made at Prose including: 

  • Launching a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) council with representatives from all levels of the org (factories to the Paris office)
  • Conducting a pay equity audit to make sure all employees were earning a fair salary
  • Partnering with us at WITH to connect Prose’s people to excellent wellness resources

And she did all that in little more than a year of working at Prose. All we can say is that Diane Kim is a woman who knows how to prioritize.

But before we dive into how Kim is shaking up the employee wellness scene, let’s start with the bigger picture in HR.

Bye HR, Hello People and Culture

“I never really got amazing feelings inside when someone called me a resource.” -Bryan Lattimore

Quoting Bryan here, but I couldn’t agree more. We’re guessing you feel the same way. We’re whole people after all, not just productivity bots with a built-in timer running from 9 to 5. 

Kim is on the same page. That’s why all three of us are thrilled about the new direction many companies are taking with their HR departments in terms of both name and substance.

“I think that—for the right reasons—a lot of companies are retitling or rebranding [HR] as People and Culture. [The field] is less to do with humans as resources… and more to do with how companies can take a people-first approach to achieve success.”

Woman sits at table and writes in a small notepad. A window-filled room and large green plants are visible in the background.
Photo by Mikhail Nilov

Building a Definition of Employee Wellness

Let’s zoom out for a minute and answer a central question: What is an employee wellness program?

You'll find some common themes in any employee wellness definition:

  • Quality healthcare
  • Competitive parental leave
  • Generous paid time off

We’re fully onboard with these dimensions of employee wellness. But we also think there’s more to it than that. 

The very first step of creating a healthy workplace is understanding your people and creating a positive culture.

In Kim’s words: “You have to enjoy who you work with. If you don't understand the people you work with on a human level, then how are you even going to get through a day at work?”

That’s so real. 

But practically speaking, how can positive inter-employee connection happen in hierarchical, widespread organizations? Especially with a workforce spread remotely across the country? 

What’s the key to cultivating a central culture of wellness?

What is a Company Wellness Program Like? Prose Knows!

 Kim has some ideas.

A big one is creating opportunities for employees to come together (virtually or in person) across all levels of a company. Bonus points for turning these meetings into idea-generating and problem-solving opportunities.

At Prose, this is exactly what happens at meetings of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) council. 

“I think a lot of companies say they're prioritizing diversity, they're prioritizing equity inclusion, but in reality, there's a lot of indicators that show that they're not,” Kim said. 

Because of this, it was really important to her to create a council that talked the talk and walked the walk. This meant doing things like:

  • Paying non-leadership council members for their time
  • Recruiting a well-rounded representation of council members (from the factory to headquarters)
  • Putting initiatives and goals in place and taking real action towards them

Prose also hosts monthly town halls where all employees can hear about what the DEI council is up to. 

Four coworkers sit around a table discussing notes and papers.
Photo by Anna Shvets

What Does Employee Wellness Mean? An Opportunity for Design Thinking.

At Prose, the definition of employee wellness goes beyond presenting decisions to employees. In Kim’s eyes, employee wellness rests on including workers in the decision making process.

Learning how to make decisions is already hard. How can leaders learn to make them with employees?

Like any worthwhile pursuit, there are a few solid options. 

Kim’s method of choice is equity-centered design thinking.  

Design thinking is all about centering humans in open-ended design processes. You’ll generally see it outlined as a five-step process:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Creators and designers use this process to think like users and deliver a product, platform, or service people will love. 

But, Kim explained, “equity-centered design goes one step further by saying ‘let's involve the community. Let's involve the people that are most impacted by this problem and have them be the co-designers.’ So I've taken that approach of equity-centered design thinking to involve our employees in workshops, round tables, and to quickly ideate and come up with solutions.”

We love this and hope to see more companies follow suit.

Practically speaking, we also get that each employee has their own workload to tend to, which limits the amount of time they can spend at workshops and roundtables ideating with People & Culture leaders.

Surveys can be a great solution! But only if your employees know that:

  1. Leaders will listen to what they have to say
  2. Leaders will take action based on their feedback

If you’re a team leader who is struggling to make all the changes your employees want to see, Kim’s suggestion is to focus on only one or two items.

“I'd rather do one or two things very well than focus on 10 things and not do any of them very well,” she said.

What is Employee Wellness? A Win-Win!

But how does employee wellness fit into the future of work? 

We get it, people aren’t staying at company for decades anymore. “Even five years is a long time,” Kim said. But that doesn’t mean leaders should ignore employee wellness and burn workers out in short periods of time.

Instead, it means leaders have to “think differently about what it looks like to have a mutually beneficial relationship in a one year or two year period of time,” Kim said.

Even for short stints at a company, focusing on wellness is symbiotic. Leaders who are committed to going beyond the bare basics of employee health (paying a decent wage and assigning a fair workload) will see huge returns through increased employee engagement and productivity. 

We see three core areas where employers can focus efforts in employee wellness programs:

  • Financial wellness
  • Physical wellness
  • Mental health

Wondering what employee wellness programs are?

Holistic Employee Wellness 

For employees feeling stuck in any area of their life, having someone to talk to and bounce ideas off of can be integral.

At WITH, that's exactly what we provide. Employees whose employers are subscribed to our service can access our top-notch network to find: 

  • Career coaches
  • Therapists 
  • Wellness professionals 

Workers can use this resource to boost multiple areas of their life, making it easier to bring their healthiest self to work each day. 

Prose is already a WITH subscriber, so we got the chance to talk to Diane Kim about her employees’ experiences with us and our providers. 

At one Prose wellness event, a DEI council member shared how much WITH positively impacted his well-being and all the personal insight he gained through sessions with coaches. 

“Our CEO was there and heard that, and I think it really clicked for him then…why we do these things, why we invest in the wellbeing of our employees,” Kim said.

Financial Employee Wellness

But of course there are still some things that we can’t provide at WITH that people leaders need to navigate internally, from financial wellness to PTO.

When it comes to financial wellness, employers can certainly provide workshops on saving and investing, but paying employees fair and equitable wages must come first. 

Kim is a great example of how a people leader can rectify past issues with payment through pay audits: “One of the things that we recently worked on was a racial pay equity audit,” Kim said. “I had a sub team of the [DEI] council sit down with me and look through 45 employees (names and personally identifiable information redacted) to go through and say ‘this person needs an additional increase.”

No matter how long a person works at your company, prioritizing their mental, physical, and financial wellness will set a solid foundation for a working relationship and future networking opportunities. It’s a win-win.

Cheerful businessman walks along a bridge outside and talks on the phone.
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

What Does Employee Wellness Mean for People Leaders?

You’ve heard it before: you have to care for yourself before you can care for others. 

But when your whole job is caring for people, you’ve got to get creative.

We asked Diane Kim to weigh in on how she manages to look out for her team while maintaining her own wellness. 

She was honest with us and explained that if one employee is unhappy, she feels that. 

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to take care of that individual and resolve that for them,” she said. “So it often feels quite heavy. What I've realized for myself is that if I'm not feeling good, if I'm not in a state of mental clarity, if I'm not taking care of myself, and if I'm not feeling inspired, there's no way that I'm going to be able to inspire my team.”

Recognizing this pattern motivated Kim to create a wellness PTO routine. She aims to schedule one vacation every quarter. Prose’s 25 PTO days per year makes this very feasible. 

But even for people who aren’t getting 5 weeks of paid vacation time, being intentional about scheduling days off on a regular basis can go a long way for maintaining your personal wellness hygiene.

If you’re feeling like you need more support than a vacation, you’ve got options! Caring for your wellness through it all could look like:

  • Booking a session with your therapist
  • Taking a mental health day to clean the house, rest, or visit the doctor
  • Scheduling a call with one of our wellness coaches
Team lead stands at the end of a table and talk to coworkers. Bulletin board covered in post-it notes in background.
Photo by fauxels

Stay Tuned for More on Employee Wellness

At WITH, we’re big believers that everywhere a person spends time will make an impact on their overall health. That includes the workplace.

Bryan and I were so impressed by the amount of effort Diane Kim puts in to advance employee wellness at Prose, especially in such a short amount of time. 

If you'd like to hear more about what Diane Kim had to say you can check out the latest episode of our podcast “When your team is a priority.” Plus, you can also check out more articles from us on our health and wellness magazine.

And stay tuned for more details about our next Listening Party!

P.S. Love the podcast? Want to get in touch with us? You can contact us here.

Photo by Alexander Suhorucov

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