Moderator John Pletz of Crain's Chicago Business, left, with panelists Rohini Shankar of GE Capital, Christy Harris of Allstate, Lori Healy of MPEA, Tony Callander of Quantum Health, and Kenneth Matos of Culture Amp (All photos by Timothy Hiatt)

A healthy workplace today doesn't just mean a physically safe place, with proper ventilation and fire escapes. The concept has steadily evolved into a much broader idea of employee wellness, including such issues as mental health, sexual harassment, office conflicts, work-life balance and much more.

When companies take an enlightened approach to a healthy work environment, it's not just employees who benefit. The companies do too, because they have a stronger hand in recruiting and retaining good workers, as well as helping them be more productive, said a panel of experts last week at the From Day One conference in Chicago, moderated by John Pletz, who covers technology for Crain's Chicago Business.

One of the hardest things for workers to deal with is change—and there's a lot of it going around these days. GE Capital, the financial-services arm of General Electric, has gone through drastic restructuring since the financial crisis of a decade ago. “We had to train our leaders to have one-on-one conversations about feelings, which in financial services doesn’t happen,” said Rohini Shankar, senior VP of GE Capital Industrial Finance. “We’ve been going through such a tough time, but because leaders care, employees feel that they are valued. They’re willing to stay and go the extra mile. That translates into business results.”

Allstate's Harris spoke about the challenges of talking about mental health in the workplace

For GE Capital, the whole dynamic of the business was upended. “When you’re going through a business struggle, when the mood of the business is no longer held by the momentum of the growth of the business, how do we retain employees to make sure the work gets done, and to go on this journey?" GE Capital's leaders asked themselves these questions, Shankar said. Among other things, the company decided to create a feedback system so employees could respond to management's announcements of new developments. When layoffs were going to occur, the company told employees up to a year in advance, so they could prepare emotionally and financially, and contracted with an outside agency to help them find new positions, she said.

One of the reasons that companies need to take increasing responsibility for worker health and happiness is that many people don't have the support systems earlier generations had. “We used to rely on families and churches and communities. We find that those aren’t supporting them—and organizations are feeling the pain of employees,” said Kenneth Matos, leader of people science at Culture Amp, an employee-engagement firm. “They’re breaking down physically, mentally, financially. So [companies are] getting ahead of some of these issues and trying to make for more sustainable and enduring employees.”

Sensing that employees want more community involvement, the leaders of Quantum Health, a company that helps employees navigate the health-care system, sought to build on that sentiment. "One of the things I learned was how many people join us because they see our community awareness and how many partnerships we have, which we treat as a benefit," said Tony Callander, senior vice president of human resources. "We support a lot of different groups, but didn’t realize what a great driver of talent that was. So we shifted our recruiting efforts to community involvement, being more available, being there, taking resumes, taking applications at events."

Rachel Ernst, VP of employee success at Reflektive

Companies that trust employees with more information, rather than being overcautiously reticent, are likely to foster more trust in return, the experts said. For example, if a firm implements a policy that allows employees to work from home, it should explain why it's doing that and how it will benefit various workers—and allow them to voice their opinions about it. “When there isn’t trust, you spend more time and effort on control systems,” said Matos. “All the layers that slow down your business, that drive everyone out the door, that can create complications.”

Getting employees to speak up about painful issues isn't easy. Matos said companies should start the process by polling employees on small, actionable issues and then reacting to the feedback. “The thing that can go wrong is that they’re going to go into a room of people who’ve felt their voice has been silenced for years and expect suddenly to get them to be talkative,” Matos said.

Mental health is one of those issues that many people dread to talk about, especially in a work environment. Christy Harris, the Allstate insurance company's vice president of talent management, benefits and inclusive diversity, said she was talking with a friend recently who shared that she had suffered from depression and had attempted suicide. Her friend’s willingness to open up about her mental-health struggles inspired Harris to take a step in favor of more openness on the issue.

After “a little bit of perseverance” getting the idea through senior management, Harris said that last year, on World Suicide Prevention Day, Allstate screened a video of employees who had been affected by suicide talking about their experiences, as well as an expert who outlined warning signs and support services.

“We weren’t sure how it was going to be received and we were really sort of nervous about the reception of it,” Harris said. “But I’ll tell you the number of emails I got thanking us for being bold and being courageous and leading with this example really gave us momentum to really bring those issues out in the open.”

Employers need to recognize when certain jobs are more than typically stressful. At Quantum Health, many workers are advocates for people undergoing health problems, which can be stressful for Quantum's people as well. "Our mission is built on caring for people," Callander said, "and how do we care for people who are on the other side of the phone and are our employees?”

One of the biggest drivers of employee well-being is hope for the future, a sense among employees that they're going places with the company. Lori Healy, CEO of Chicago's Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA), noted that retaining young people is a challenge for the public organization since older employees “love their job so much, the benefits are fantastic, nobody ever wants to leave.”

Alexi Robichaux, co-founder and CEO of BetterUp

As a way to attract and retain young talent, MPEA has instituted a new maternity policy for growing families, which included installing Mamava lactation rooms "all over" its McCormick Place convention hall. Among other retention-oriented benefits, the MPEA started reimbursing employees up to $10,000 per year to complete their college or master’s degree, she said.

“Our finance department, which is 11 people, ten of them have used that tuition-reimbursement program and we have kept every single person in there. It is one white male and everybody else is diverse,” Healy said. “It’s been a great way to encourage people’s education and keep them as employees of the organization. It’s been really incredibly fulfilling.”

In earlier keynote presentations, Rachel Ernst, VP of employee success at Reflektive, a people-management platform, spoke about how to manage gender pay equity through the employee lifecycle, and Alexi Robichaux, co-founder and CEO of BetterUp, a company that integrates behavioral science and employee coaching, addressed the importance of a sense of purpose in the workplace.

Nona Tepper is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, MarketWatch, Crain’s Chicago Business and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter here.