Talent development and employee wellness: COVID-19’s push to a new partnership

Mike Siano

Director, Thought Leadership & Advisory Services

COVID-19 has transformed nearly every aspect of our future.

Almost all organizations got shoved into a giant experiment to enable employees to work from home. Organizational priorities got uplifted, shifted or completely replaced. The talent marketplace has been turned on its head, and the skills gap is widening. This is causing employers to rethink how they strategize, recruit, retain, and grow employees for the future of work.

All this turmoil yields some new and possibly unlikely partnerships throughout many organizations. Consider employee wellness and talent development. Understanding the background of each of these efforts will reveal a partnership primed to flourish in the future of work.

Understanding the history of employee wellness

Employee wellness has been a focus for organizations across the globe for a long time. In fact, the history of employee wellness is quite robust. It is believed that the earliest focused efforts on researching and understanding the benefits of employee wellness date back to an Italian physician in the 17th century (Rucker).

Naturally, this concept of employee wellness has evolved throughout the years. Workplace wellness resulted in ideas such as the 8-hour workday and Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). For a substantial amount of time, wellness was focused only on the employee's physical health. Throughout this evolution, employees gained new benefits and programs; however, to better meet employees' needs, the concept of holistic wellness was created and expanded.

Forrester Research defines employee well-being into three major categories that are split into eight sub-categories:

Individual Wellness

  • Emotional Wellness
  • Psychological Wellness
  • Physical Wellness

Environmental Wellness

  • Social Wellness
  • Occupational Wellness
  • Spatial Wellness

Contextual Wellness

  • Financial Wellness
  • Spiritual Wellness

These eight categorizations of wellness paint a much fuller picture of what employees need. However, most organizations look at employee well-being and talent development as isolated efforts instead of complementary pursuits.

How talent management has evolved through the years

Before the modern era of learning and performance management systems, talent management was focused on leadership bench building and succession planning.

Since the 1950s, organizations like PepsiCo and GE were beacons for formalized, structured development programs (Harvard Business Review). These programs were isolated efforts without any coordination from the employee wellness department. However, as times and markets changed, organizations that did not adapt were forced to lay off much of the workforce, especially those considered non-essentials, like talent and wellness teams.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, talent management technology solutions emerged. Many primarily used these systems as compliance or transactional platforms — usually limited to — supplying courses to their employees focused mainly on regulatory or safety training. Performance reviews were typically focused on how the employee helped the business and not how the organization helped its employees.

The access to advanced technology certainly allowed more engagement between talent and wellness teams. However, this was rarely the case. We now know that adaptability is crucial for organizations to survive. The future of work demands that organizations rethink their investments in their workforce and the relationship between wellness and talent. The data is already out there telling this same story.

The effects of COVID-19

In 2020, Cornerstone analyzed all of its customer bases to gather insights into what type of content learners were seeking. Throughout its over 75 million users, the data showed a significant spike in content consumption on topics related to the shifts in environmental factors people were experiencing. In the spring of 2020, COVID-19 hit and forced most companies to enable work-from-home strategies.

Cornerstone saw an increase in learning by a factor of five. The most consumed content focused on Remote Work and Effective Communications. By the summer of 2020, there was a six-time increase focused on "unconscious bias" and "working with multi-cultural teams." This reflects the social unrest happening in many areas and people turning to their employers to help gain understanding.

Then, in the fall of 2020, there was a three-fold increase, focused on Remote Work and Mental Health. By this time, employers were extending the work-from-home experiment and/or making permanent employee environment shifts, and employees needed to find ways to cope with that change. The theme within the data is that employees' wellness is affected by their situation and environment, and they turn to their employers for support on crucial topics in their lives.

However, the results also show a gap between what content employees want (knowledge, skills, wellness) and what employers traditionally offer (compliance, regulatory or safety). With any gap comes an opportunity to adapt — a clear call for the wellness and talent teams to partner up to meet the growing needs of their workforce.

According to MIT Sloan Review, 85% of employees say their work stress is bleeding into their home lives, 78% of workers say the pandemic affects their mental health, and 76% think employers should be doing more to support their workforce. As a result of the pandemic, employers are forced to think of new ways to engage with their employees by prioritizing connectivity and flexibility to meet the needs of their workforce (Tulane University). This is an area in which adept organizations' talent development teams recognize the impact they can make on their employees' wellness and development.

The data is clear. Employees are looking to their employers for more significant support in their lives. This is why benefits and wellness teams need to create stronger partnerships with their talent management teams. To truly engage employees across all eight types of well-being, organizations need the right strategy, content and vehicle for delivering that content. By aggregating this data, a few generalized themes emerge:

  • Employees want ways to be engaged and to grow;
  • Employees need a sense of community and belonging;
  • Employees seek understanding about the events around them; and,
  • Employees need a sense of purpose and direction.

Wellness, talent and the future of work

The path forward needs to be engaging and empower employees to excel in their careers. That path should include suggestions of how they can grow. Employees need to feel included in a social learning community, which is not strictly focused on work. There need to be methods for employees to learn about the world around them and a feedback loop for employees to be heard (Forrester). Achieving this requires a joint effort between HR functions like wellness and talent, focused on enriching their employees' lives and addressing all areas of wellness.

At a macro level, here are some opportunities where talent and wellness teams can combine their efforts:

  • Integrated wellness and learning culture with managers leading by example
  • Wellness and development embedded into performance check-ins and reviews
  • Career pathways and supportive development opportunities
  • Content that enables growth beyond the role or company
  • Social outlets where employees can connect and interact with their colleagues with similar interests

To achieve these outcomes, we suggest the following:

  1. No meeting Fridays or introducing bookends to each day (MIT Sloan Review). Both focus on balancing workloads and transitions to home life, especially when there is no longer a commute home to decompress.
  2. At the organizational level, incorporate development and wellness-focused questions into the regular check-ins or reviews between leaders and employees. This will keep a consistent pulse on the workforce and lead to a greater understanding of what your workforce is passionate about and the pathways, job architecture and content needed to support that development.
  3. Create social groups or communities where all employees can engage with each other on various hobbies — workout bike groups, travel groups, food groups, etc. Having friends and a place to belong at work is critical to an employee's well-being (Forrester).

Organizations can expand their support beyond their employee base to their families. By enabling the employee's family members to access a version of the organization's learning platform, they can learn about effective communication, resume writing, computer software skills and/or unconscious bias. Benefits teams can offer this as an added perk to employees during open enrollment. This provides the added benefit of family support to help ensure your employees are present and productive every day.

These are just some of many possible suggestions that can be adapted to fit any organization. They show the importance of wellness and talent teams partnering closer together for the future success of any organization in this new future of work.

The costs of not investing in your people

It is widely known and accepted that happier employees are more productive employees. A preponderance of research shows the value of investing in employee wellness. In one study, Harvard Business Review researchers found a six-to-one, fully loaded return on investment of healthcare savings when organizations invest in employee wellness. The return on investment can manifest as reduced costs on premiums, claims, and lost workdays, amongst others.

Furthermore, organizations should see increased employee engagement because of these investments. In a Gallup study, work units in the top quartile of engagement saw a 22% boost in profitability and a 21% increase in productivity compared to those in the bottom quartile. Gallup's study also found that higher employee engagement positively impacts nine key performance outcomes: retention, absenteeism, safety and quality.

Whether called the "Great Resignation" or the "Great Migration," all industries face this issue. Attracting, retaining, and growing employees is more critical now than ever before. The pace of technology is making that abundantly clear. The cost to replace an employee can vary drastically, ranging from 50% to 400% for High Potential (HiPo) employees (ClearCompany). SHRM calculates that it costs upwards of 200% of the employees' salary to replace them. Consider an employee making a salary of $50,000 per year. At 200% of their salary, it will cost the organization $100,000 to replace them. Multiply that by a factor of 100 employees, and the cost to the organization increases to $10 million. A sizeable amount that likely any organization would prefer to reinvest into growth instead of spending on retention issues.

What we owe to each other

According to Forrester's research, the degree of focus an employer puts on employee wellness can vary based on geographical location, culture, and industry. Yet, COVID-19 had no regard for location, culture, or industry. It disrupted every aspect of what we considered our "normal" lives.

The history of employee wellness and talent management has taught us that the way things were are not how they will or should be (Rucker & HBR, respectively). One of the worst phrases a leader can say is "this is the way we have always done it" because it only leads to stagnation.

The responsibility is on the employer to better support their employee population if they want to attract, retain, and grow top talent. The organizations that will survive and thrive in the future are the ones that become agile to the ever-changing environment they've been thrust into. Forrester's data reveals that "COVID burnout" creates a considerably greater reliance on organizations to provide wellness support to their employees. From saving on healthcare costs (HBR) to saving on people assets (SHRM) and factoring in the high attrition rates resulting from COVID-19, the numbers are an apparent reason why organizations need to prioritize this. Fortunately, the return on this investment is there, and top executives reposition this from a cost function to an investment proposition.


  • "The interesting History of Workplace Wellness," Michael Rucker, 2016
  • "COVID-19's Impact on Corporate Wellness", Tulane University, 2021
  • "How Employee Engagement Drives Growth," Gallup, 2013
  • "Employee Wellness Programs Are No Longer A Nice To Have," Forrester, 2021
  • "How Organizations Can Promote Employee Wellness, Now and Post-Pandemic," MIT Sloan Management Review, 2021
  • "What's the Hard Return on Employee Wellness Programs?" Harvard Business Review, 2010
  • "Talent Management for the Twenty-First Century," Harvard Business Review, 2008
  • "What Makes High-Performing and HiPo Employees?", ClearCompany, 2021
  • "Retaining Talent," SHRM, 2017

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