Work vs workplace: The better way to corporate wellness

02 July 2019

Gihan Perera

Gihan Perera is a futurist, conference speaker, author and consultant who gives business leaders a glimpse into what's ahead - and how they can become fit for the future.

When you think about improving health and wellbeing in your workplace, there are five factors you should keep in mind.

I’m not a serious runner, but I do enjoy short 6km runs before work some mornings – purely for exercise and fitness. I enjoy it most in summer, when it’s warm and light at 5am. Other early-birds are out with their dogs or kids; the local coffee shop is open early, and I’m back home with my coffee, while almost everybody else is still in bed.

Even when I arrive home with aching muscles and sweaty clothes, I feel a real sense of achievement because I know it’s helping me maintain my long-term fitness. And even in winter – when it’s colder, it’s wetter, the sun rises later, the coffee shop opens later, and there are fewer people around – I still feel that same sense of achievement.

The same principle applies to the best workplaces. Much of the talk around corporate wellness is focused on tactics – either by changing the environment (such as the office layout, natural light, subsidised gym memberships, and healthy food options) or with processes for improving mental health (such as resilience, mindfulness, stress management, and psychological safety).

There’s nothing wrong with these initiatives, and if they are working for you, keep doing them. But they all start from the assumption that the natural work environment is ‘broken’, and you need to do something to fix it.

There’s a better way to enhance health and wellbeing: Make it about the work, not the workplace. When you provide challenging but meaningful work in a healthy culture where people contribute and grow, many of the workplace issues disappear, and wellness takes care of itself.

For many leaders, this is a profound shift in the way you think about workplace health and wellbeing. But it also reflects what the best employees want now. In the 1990s, Gallup surveys showed employees wanted benefits like superannuation, flexible holidays and job security.

More recently, workplace researchers Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones asked people what makes “the best workplace on Earth”, and the research they published in the Harvard Business Review identified a completely different set of factors that employees value now:

  • Autonomy;
  • Meaning;
  • Diversity and inclusion;
  • Talent development; and
  • Flexibility


In his book Drive, Daniel Pink identifies ‘autonomy’ as one of the three key drivers to motivate people at work (the other two are ‘mastery’ and ‘purpose’).

If you want to foster wellness in your people, don’t micro-manage every moment of their work life. They want to think independently and have the authority to act. Build their judgement, give them more authority, and let them show you how good they can be.

From a business perspective, it’s also an obvious advantage to have independent, self-motivated people who can use their judgement to make smart decisions.


A Cone Communication survey found two-thirds of Millennials (Generation Y) won’t accept a job if a company doesn’t have strong CSR (corporate social responsibility) values. And that doesn’t just mean a token allocation of revenue or profit to CSR; it means making meaning and purpose front-and-centre in everything you do.

The best people want to work for an organisation where (their) passion and (your) purpose align. In other words, they want to use the workplace as a vehicle to make a difference in the world.

Diversity and inclusion

It’s too easy to dismiss diversity and inclusion as the latest feel-good corporate buzzwords, but they make a measurable contribution to the organisation. (By the way, the difference between them is that diversity is like having more coloured pencils in your pack, and inclusion is using all of them.) According to EY, diverse companies are 35 per cent more likely to have higher financial returns; and Deloitte reports that two-thirds of executives rated diversity as an important issue.

The Diversity Council Australia-Suncorp’s Inclusion@Work Index 2018 research found that employees in inclusive teams are more innovative and more effective, and – importantly for wellness – more likely to be satisfied with their jobs and more likely to stay.

Talent development

Of course, people are happier when you support their learning and development, but it also works the other way around. The best people know they have skills and talents to share and teach – and would happily do so if you let them.

One of the simplest and most effective ways to achieve this is with ‘reverse mentoring’, which turns the traditional mentoring process on its head. With reverse mentoring, the more junior person takes on the mentor role, sharing their unique perspective with more senior people.

When The Hartford, a financial services group in the USA, launched a reverse mentoring program, it resulted in higher performance, increased social media engagement, and better communication within teams. From an individual viewpoint, 97 per cent of the people mentored (the senior people, remember) rated it extremely effective for their personal development, and 11 of the 12 mentors (the more junior people) in the project’s first wave were promoted within a year.


When a 2018 Robert Half survey of Australian workers asked the question, “What workplace benefit would you be willing to accept a pay cut for?”, the two most popular answers were “flexible working hours” and “working from home (at least sometimes)”.

In the past, it made sense to force everybody to come to the same office at the same time to work the same hours every day. It was not just easier; it was essential for getting work done. People came to the office because that’s where the files were stored, the secretarial staff were available, the meetings were held, and so on.

But it’s obvious that’s no longer the case. Laptops, smartphones, fast broadband and virtual meeting rooms mean we’re no longer tied to the 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday office routine.

Technology has enabled myriad work styles, and the workplace no longer needs to be a ‘place’. Modern organisations can accommodate various options for when and where people work: the traditional full-time office arrangement, always working from home, working from home with fixed hours, working from home with flexible hours, working part-time, working odd hours, and so on. There are even alternatives for people who enjoy the social interaction of an office environment: co-working spaces, networking hubs, business networking groups, and so on.

For your team members, their job is just one part of their life, and they juggle many priorities. A flexible workplace gives them a more enjoyable work environment and relieves much of the stress and anxiety of juggling multiple roles.

The technology is there, and other workplaces are doing it. If you aren’t, it’s not because you can’t; it’s because you won’t.

You might need to invest in upgrading your IT infrastructure and HR systems to enable some of these options. But it’s an investment worth making for the wellbeing of your team members and the profitability of your business.


When you think about improving health and wellbeing in your workplace, keep these five factors in mind. They might not be the first things that spring to mind, but don’t ignore them.

They aren’t as cool and funky as ping-pong tables, vegan food options, and mindfulness training. And – to be honest – they aren’t as easy to implement. But things worth doing are worth doing well, so invest in them now for long-term growth.

Not only will you be enhancing the health and wellbeing of your team, you’ll also be well on the way to creating a “best workplace on Earth” – and that’s healthy for everybody.