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Leaving Las Vegas and Surviving the Future of Work

Al Zink on May 02, 2017 11:12 AM

I went to Human Resource Executive’s Health and Benefits Leadership Conference to give a talk titled, “The Future of Work is Killing Us.” By the time I left Las Vegas, I was focused squarely on what we can do about it.

And, more than ever, I was resolved to reframe the notion of wellness at my company and beyond.

So why the sensational title? And what strengthened my resolve around wellness?

The talk was inspired, in part, by a few a-ha moments we’ve had at here at These were moments in which the statistics and reports about stress and burnout crystalized and really hit home.

The first a-ha moment occurred when our benefits broker told us antidepressants were the biggest source of insurance claims for 400 of his clients. The second was a bit of an exclamation point on the first – that moment when we saw from the broker data that mental health was a medical service used on par with cardio vascular.

Here’s the point in the story where I tell you we’re a company with an average age of 31. Humanizing those statistics through our employee base … it was eye-opening. 

But should it really be so surprising? Peeling back the onion to consider the seismic shifts in the world of work of the past decades, you see new paradigms, a new impact on our employees and a new kind of stress.  

What Doesn’t Kill Us …

We’re not punching clocks at 9 and 5 anymore. We’re moving faster than ever … living hyper-scheduled lives fueled by technology, automation, globalization. Speed can be the difference between success and failure. The modern worker’s slogan for self-doubt has evolved from “Am I doing a good job?” to “Can I scale?”

Not to mention that, for many of us, our identities are so intricately connected with our professional selves that who we are is what we do. It’s like a bad day at work is a bad day in our lives. 

Ironically, large swaths of today’s workforce are emotionally disconnected, but always on. Gallup research has found only 13 percent of employees are engaged at work. But work inevitably finds a way to follow us home. This state of constant connectivity has become so extreme that entire countries, like France and Germany, are considering outlawing after-hours email.

It all adds up to more stress, worries and anxiety. Timelines, workload and work-life balance weigh heavily on our employees. Here’s the chart I used to illustrate this point in my HBLC talk.


There’s a cost to this. To all of us.

Stress-related ailments cost employers an estimated $300 billion a year. Clinical research has shown 10 percent of strokes are related to work stress. The burnout, stress and overwork are reaching epidemic proportions. In Japan they even have a name for it. They call it “karoshi” … death from overwork.

Makes Us Stronger

So what do we do about it? Is investing in wellness—something SHRM says roughly 40 percent of HR professionals plan to do—a viable response?

I think it could be, but not wellness in the form it typically takes today. In the talk at HBLC, I used the picture below and asked the question: “Which of these is wellness?”


The one on the left is the easy answer. But the correct answer is both.

Yoga and flexible work arrangements should both be considered wellness. Too often, wellness is an afterthought program. An assortment of “perks” we throw against the wall to see what sticks. You know the list … but do you know the rationale for these programs at your company? Is there one?

Things that are nice – like free snacks and on-site yoga – do little to truly address stress and burnout at scale, and worse, they have the potential to mask the real underlying issues. And wellness has got to evolve beyond  tools to compete with what other companies in your city are offering.

What I’ve come to realize, while preparing for this talk and chatting with other conference attendees, is that wellness needs to move to the top of our health and welfare strategy. To have a real impact, it should be prioritized on par with other programs, to not simply address symptoms but proactively address the core health issues that are hurting our employees … and our bottom lines.

The hard part, I’ll admit, is knowing what your employees are going through. This is a level of understanding you can’t get through an anonymous pulse survey. We have to take the time to gain a deeper understanding of the stresses inherent to work and work-life. Then, we can map real solutions and elevate wellness to become a game-changing foundation of employee health and wellbeing.

Of course, complicating matters is an element of collusion. Employees want to be on. This is the new pace of life. A new study reported in Women’s Health found 91 percent of millennials actually reject the concept of relaxation.  

For some time now, I’ve been pondering re-casting the notion of wellness. How can we do this in a way that we’re driving a solution that our employees will actually use?  

I think the answer is that wellness needs to be fully integrated in our cultures. In one of his forecasting reports, Josh Bersin predicted an explosion in disruptive wellness and fitness apps, and the convergence of wellness, engagement, recognition and performance management.

It makes sense. For all of the advances we’ve made to make work more efficient, with tools and tech innovations, work teams and structures, it’s time for us to start thinking about both performance management and performer management. Think about Limeaide, Virgin Pulse or our own product, Care@Work.  These are wellness supports that are flexible and agile enough to work the way our employees do.

This aligns perfectly with something Laura Putnam, the CEO of Motion Infusion, spoke about in her HBLC keynote session titled “Workplace Wellness that Works: 10 Steps to Infuse Well-Being and Vitality into Any Organization.” The piece that really stuck with me is her concept of “stealth wellness.”

The gist: incorporate wellness in unexpected ways, in those little things that make a difference to employees every day. A moment of silence at the beginning of meetings, for example. For more on stealth wellness, check out this piece my colleague, Heidi Erdmann wrote for our Care@Work Blog

Today, companies are more benevolent and sensitive to employees’ needs, health and, ultimately, business results. But are we addressing new paradigms effectively and with new and innovative thinking about our wellness models?

I’d say we can’t afford not to.

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Al Zink

Al Zink is the Senior Vice President of Human Resources at