by David G. Epstein, SHRM-SCP, CWP, CDP

COVID-19 and Employee Expectations

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations that had diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs had to reassess what wellness programs are needed in the workplace. And those organizations who did not begin their DEI journey needed to pivot and prioritize putting a program in place. Why? Not only did employees expect wellness programs to include DEI, but organizations realized that doing so was critical to establishing a workplace in which all staff was engaged and felt psychologically safe.

Why Employee Expectations Changed

Traditional benefit programs and Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) were not sufficient to meet the needs of employees. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there was a 25% increase in anxiety and depression, impacting productivity, employee engagement, and well-being. And in the wake of the pandemic and social unrest due to the tragic murder of George Floyd, employee expectations for their employer changed.

This change in thinking goes beyond the expectation of offering traditional medical, dental, and life insurance; rather, employees expect their workplaces to promote wellness and support for mental and emotional health. Furthermore, employees expected their leaders to ensure that they feel psychologically safe. Critical to achieving this, was to have DEI programs and training, reflecting social justice values.

DEI Programs Are Needed

Organizations need to create space for safe discussions surrounding DEI issues such as racism, trauma, and violence directed at BIPOC, Asian, Latinx, and LGBTQIA+ communities.

Underrepresented and marginalized groups experienced disproportionate outcomes from COVID-19, ranging from mortality rates to economic, mental, and emotional health.

According to Guardian’s 10th Annual Workplace Benefit Trends Survey, “Employees who are part of a corporate culture that values flexibility and inclusion, supports diversity, responds to social justice causes, and encourages empathy generally report 70% better well-being than those who work in an organization that does not offer DEI support.”

Moving DEI Forward: The Wellness Paradigm

What is needed to create and prioritize a culture of wellness through a DEI lens requires intentionality and investment. It needs to be communicated as a priority to employees, with a structure that allows for feedback and to pivot as needed. Some areas to consider DEI as part of wellness includes:

  • Anti-racism/unconscious bias training: provide anti-racism and unconscious bias training to staff, managers, and the Board.
  • Vicarious trauma program: recognize that staff may experience trauma through the work they do or their experiences such as caring for a loved one or witnessing a violent event on TV. Bring mental health professionals in to provide training and ongoing support.
  • Focus groups on specific issues: Proactively provide opportunities for employees to discuss how they feel on a regular basis. It is important to check in often.
  • Affinity groups: Support and encourage existing and new affinity groups in the workplace.
  • Employee Feedback Surveys: Have a formal, anonymous survey to get feedback from staff.
  • Enhanced mental health programs: Ensure that mental health is affordable and that employees are encouraged to seek help, and that this is not stigmatized. Often, therapists do not accept insurance; it is important to offer out-of-network benefits or a health reimbursement or flexible spending program to help cover these costs.
  • Evaluate Employee Assistance (EAP) programs: Ensure that the EAP is meeting the needs of your workplace. For example, how many sessions are offered to staff, and how are these short-term therapy sessions linked to the medical program.
  • Flexible and remote work options: Examine how work is done and whether jobs can be done remotely or with more flexibility, in order to meet employees where they are.
  • Child and elder care: Consider offering support for child and elder care. This may include a program that provides discounts for childcare, as well as, senior daycare programs, for example.

DEI, Wellness, and Employee Retention

DEI is the right thing to do. Organizations should want to ensure that all staff feel safe and heard. But it also is crucial to employee engagement. 49% of employees surveyed by Guardian’s Workplace Survey indicated that they would stay with their employer an additional 10+ years who handled the pandemic well, as opposed to only 29% of those whose employer handled the pandemic poorly in terms of its COVID response such as emotional and wellness support systems.


David G. Epstein, SHRM-SCP, CWP, CDP, is the Director of Human Resources & Talent Strategy for Mobilization for Justice, Inc., in New York City. He is a Certified Wellness Practitioner, a Certified Diversity Professional, and a Senior Certified HR Professional.