The need to feel accepted, connected, and valued is a priority in all corners of the employment world. Belonging — feeling acceptance and respect for who you truly are — is essential for well-being, and many wellness leaders strive to infuse it into organization culture.
But while you advocate for everyone else’s belonging, who’s taking care of yours?
Employers should do what they can to cultivate well recognized drivers of belonging like empathy, alliance with underrepresented groups, respect for each individual’s background, and psychological safety. Wellness leaders, however, are uniquely vulnerable and need a layered approach.
The Loneliness of Wellness Leaders
Many employers hire just 1 person — you and only you — to implement a well-being strategy. Or, if you’re fortunate, you may be allotted an assistant or a team that’s likely too small for the tasks at hand. You’re probably seated in a department, like HR, where your coworkers do much different work.
Loneliness and feeling undervalued can arise from the very nature of your job, which is perceived as secondary to the organization’s core activities:
- Learning and development plans are targeted to those in the most visible functions (like sales and operations). Training isn’t tailored to wellness professionals.
- Incentive and rewards programs are tied to business outcomes like revenue and customer retention. You don’t earn a bonus or even a plaque for spearheading improvement of the organization’s overall well-being.
- The business conducts sprints during certain seasons or product cycles. These unify most employees around a common goal, but you’re mostly an observer.
- You don’t have in-depth understanding of what the business does or what a typical worker’s day is like. If you’re lucky, you have access to employee engagement data, but even that leaves you in the dark about the true experience of those whose well-being you aspire to support.
- Most employees don’t understand your job or how wellness knowledge and offerings have changed in recent years. Some still think of you as a glorified gym teacher.
- All the organization’s talk and energy — in annual reports, all-hands meetings, and public relations — are directed toward business outcomes or popular environmental, social, and governance themes. You’re lucky if your efforts earn a footnote.
You, and hopefully your manager, know your work is vital; success depends on a thriving workforce. But others might not see the connection. This, plus your distance from most typical day-to-day tasks, challenges, and achievements, can leave you feeling like you don’t belong.
Working in a Vacuum
In a podcast interview, one wellness coordinator describes her progression to burnout. For 10 years, she led a program for a midwestern power company’s workers. “These are people who are out climbing the poles, hooking up your power, driving around in trucks, troubleshooting, restoring power, all those things,” she says. “And I love these guys.”
Despite that love, her own work took place “in a vacuum.” She cautions:
“One of the most dangerous things in our field is so many of us are working pretty much by ourselves. We’re in departments or… sometimes have a wellness team… But oftentimes, we’re just us trying to come up with stuff.”
She eventually left the profession.
10 Tips to Get Started
Take action to increase your sense of belonging. Focus on the tips that fit your situation best — whether you’re new in your role or a seasoned veteran — or use them as a springboard to brainstorm your own:
- Attend training targeted to sales and operations (or the equivalent at your workplace). Enhance your understanding of the business and get acquainted with those doing the work.
- Shadow other employees. Identify main functions and spend a day with employees. Have them walk you through their responsibilities, duties, favorite parts of their jobs, and challenges. This also is an opportunity to ask how to best support their well-being.
- Invite influencers from other departments to shadow you. Don’t just show them your tasks; explain how each relates to their jobs.
- Promote your work internally. Connect with communication specialists to help get out the word about your work, its value to all employees and importance to everything else in the organization. Read other departments’ materials to do the same.
- Assert your role as an essential team member. Ask to join interdepartmental teams or committees working on DEI, business continuity planning, change management, sustainability, safety, or whatever initiatives are in the works. Seek opportunities to collaborate.
- Familiarize yourself with the key performance indicators. Remember you’ll never feel like you belong if you’re not well-versed and committed to everyone’s goals.
- Respectfully correct others in the organization when they refer to wellness as your program: “It’s not mine. It’s ours.”
- Present to internal groups, including leaders. Request a slot on other departments’ meeting agendas. Share what you do and why. Try to stay for the entire meeting to bond with attendees.
- If you supervise others, support their sense of belonging. Help them take the steps above. This is especially important for entry level team members.
- Network with wellness leaders outside your organization. Don’t depend on your workplace to satisfy your need for job-related belonging. Stay in touch with peers. See the HES blog post, What Real Networking Can Do for You.
Most of these actions serve multiple objectives. Immerse yourself in the organization; your well-being programs and strategies will grow stronger along with your sense of belonging.
Analogies to first securing your own airplane oxygen mask may be overused, but aptly illustrate wellness leaders’ relationship with belonging: You must tend to yours to do your job well.
Bob Merberg is an independent consultant with 20+ years in managing employee well-being programs. He specializes in helping employers increase engagement and health outcomes through innovative programs, communication, workplace environment, and organization development strategies. Bob’s well-being program evaluation results have been featured at wellness conferences and in various media outlets.