When it comes to being healthy, what really matters?
Most of our conversations focus on the latest diet, fitness, and weight loss trends, especially at the start of a new year. We assume that “healthy” people are those who drink kale shakes and do intense workouts and that “healthy” companies have treadmill desks and free apples. I’m a health coach and believe in the importance of nourishing and moving our bodies (and happen to love smoothies), but I know this traditional view of health is limited.
We’re missing something.
Despite the media’s obsession with physical health and companies’ enthusiasm over initiatives like weight loss challenges, we are not well. As a society, we are facing alarming rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, burnout, disengagement, anxiety, depression, loneliness and suicide. According to Stanford Professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer, workplace stress is now the fifth leading cause of death.
To address those escalating issues, most organizations have determined that workplace wellness programs are the solution.
If we just incentivize people to be well and give them the information to do it, they will change…right?
According to the RAND Health Study, only 24 percent of employees whose companies offer wellness programs are participating in them. What’s more, some of those programs may be more harmful than helpful, as employees engage in unhealthy behaviors to lose weight and other behaviors that are not evidence-based. It’s easy for us to make assumptions instead of exploring deeper, especially within our own organizations. We assume that if someone is not healthy by our standards that they must be lazy, checked out, or disinterested. We assume that putting a wellness program in place will reduce medical spend, an assertion for which we have little to no evidence. We assume that bringing in chair massages and meditation training will, in and of itself, fix the stress, anxiety and depression that run rampant across many organizations. We assume we can “get” people to change if we just pay them enough money and give them enough of an incentive, despite the evidence that that approach may do more harm than good.
Something needs to change if we want to effectively and compassionately support employee health, wellbeing and happiness at work.
The approaches most organizations are taking are rooted in decades of “best practices.” We can’t fault ourselves for following seemingly reliable guidance and advice, but most of us, if we’re honest, realize that what we’ve been doing isn’t working.
When people are doing something that isn’t effective, they likely feel stuck or don’t know what else to do, so they would rather stick with what is familiar than risk changing. All we can do, in any area of our lives, is the best we can do with the skills, resources and support available to us at that time.
As Maya Angelou reminds us: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”
Having worked in the health and wellness field as a consultant and speaker for over a dozen years, I’m optimistic about the future. Many organizations and business leaders recognize that the traditional, hyper-medicalized approach to wellness isn’t working and are open to a new path.
A Whole Person Approach
The findings from the 2015 Quantum Workplace Wellbeing Survey make a strong business case for taking care of our people. When employees believe their employer cares about their health and wellbeing, they are 38 percent more likely to be engaged, 10 times less likely to be hostile, 17 percent more likely to still be working there in a year, 28 percent more like to recommend their organization and 18 percent more likely to go the extra mile. In other words, companies that focus on and commit to a culture of wellbeing benefit from a boost in engagement, morale, retention, recruitment and performance.
This isn’t just about bringing yoga mats and apples to the office and making sure everyone is getting a flu shot.
Wellbeing is about so much more. It’s about boosting human performance and happiness, rehumanizing the workplace, and supporting the triple bottom line – people, planets and profits. When we put people first, profits tend to follow, as companies highlighted in the book Firms of Endearment have discovered.
We align with the model of wellbeing created by Gallup, which focused on the integration among the five essential elements of who we are and what matters to us – career, social, financial, physical and community:
- Career wellbeing is about liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals.
- Social wellbeing means having supportive relationships and love in your life.
- Financial wellbeing emphasizes managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security.
- Community wellbeing is about liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community.
- Physical wellbeing is defined as having good health and enough energy to get things done daily
According to Gallup, while 66 percent of people report doing well in at least one of the five main areas, only seven percent of people are strong across all five. What’s more, employees who are thriving in all five areas are more likely to be adaptable, 41 percent less likely to miss work because of poor health and 81 percent less likely to seek out a new employer in the next year.
Because of rising concerns about mental and emotional health at work in recent years, we also focus on emotional wellbeing. When we are emotionally well, we are equipped to cope with life’s stresses, work productively, realize our full potential, and make meaningful contributions to the world around us. Mettie Spiess, a mental health stigma crusher whose mission is to create a world without suicide, advocates for introducing one mental health supportive initiative in our workplaces for every physical health initiative. Employees want help – they’re often so overwhelmed and concerned about perceptions of asking for help that they stay isolated and suffer alone.
The most important thing to realize in this new conversation about wellbeing is that all these elements are connected and impact each other; they do not exist in silos. When we are stressed at work and don’t have the support, clarity or autonomy we need, we tend to suffer physically and relationally. When we are lonely, we don’t have the support and encouragement to take care of our bodies and can end up being depressed and not perform as well at work. When we are financially strained, we experience the stress relationally, physically, and emotionally. We are more likely to hide than to reach out for help and connect.
If we want people to be well, we must change the very nature of how we work and connect with each other. At a time when people are more digitally connected yet intimately disconnected than ever before, more people are battling loneliness, and it’s taking a toll on us.
In a recent study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, four factors were identified as having an impact on early death – air pollution, obesity, excessive drinking and loneliness. According to the study, living with obesity increased the risk of early death by 20 percent, while living with loneliness elevated the risk of early mortality by a whopping 45 percent.
We are starving for community and craving authentic, meaningful connection.
After dealing with my own transformational health journey as I recovered from Epstein-Barr Virus, an acute form of mono, two years ago, I’ve come to recognize that we must focus more on relationships and connection as a primary way to foster wellbeing within and beyond the workplace.
Employee engagement expert, Jason Lauritsen’s former employer, Quantum Workplace, collected open-ended responses from 14,000 different people who work at best places to work. They asked the question: “What single thing, other than pay or benefits, is most important in making a place a great place to work?”
The answer that came up 2.5 times more frequently than any other response was relationships with co-workers.
Quality relationships boil down to trust, and we build trust by fostering connection. We connect with people by getting to know them through shared experiences and commonalities. Whether it’s a scavenger hunt, team building activity, community service initiative, paint night, picnic, potluck, or happy hour, when we bring people together for the sole purpose of fostering connection and giving people the experience of belonging, everyone wins.
Ben Horowitz had this to say about the importance of connection and spending time together:
“The key to high quality communication is trust, and it’s hard to trust somebody that you don’t know.”
Authentically connecting to each other is one of the most important components of wellbeing. If you’re going to focus on anything in your wellbeing strategy this year, focus on what you can do to bring employees together to get to know each other, have fun, meet each other’s loved ones, serve and give back, and learn how to communicate and appreciate each other in meaningful ways.
I encourage and invite you to take stock of your own organization and consider what you’re doing to support wellbeing across the five areas. Notice areas of strength and areas of opportunity. Think about how you might redefine “wellness” at your company considering this broader, more comprehensive definition:
- Career: mentoring programs, training and development opportunities, employee recognition, strengths-based career planning, continuous performance management system, psychometric assessments (Predictive Index, CliftonStrengths, Core Clarity, DISC, etc.)
- Social: effective communication classes, paid time off, maternity and paternity leave, company-wide social events, potlucks, parties
- Financial: retirement plan, financial budgeting programs and resources, company-paid disability benefits, tuition repayment benefits
- Physical: healthy food options, standing and walking meetings, onsite fitness classes, cooking classes, proper lighting to reduce eye strain, access to filtered drinking water, clean air, physical spaces that encourage community, collaboration, and heads down work, wearable devices like the WHOOP band and Oura ring
- Community: paid time off for volunteering, company-sponsored charitable events, and volunteer days
- Emotional: EAP, suicide prevention, resilience and burnout training, mindfulness and mindset training,
To dig deeper into the topic of culture and wellbeing, connect with me on LinkedIn, as I regularly post about these topics and share upcoming speaking events. You may also be interested in these other articles as well:
- Rehumanizing the Workplace: Hope for the Future of Work
- Be, Belong, Become: A New Vision for the Workplace
- The 3 Cs of Wellbeing: A Return to What Matters Most
For further reading, visit the Wellness Council of America, my go to resource for workplace wellbeing insights, and check out the following books:
- Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elementsby Tom Rath & Jim Harter
- The Healthy Workplace Nudge by Rex Miller, Phillip Williams & Michael O’Neill
- The Healthy Workplace by Leigh Stringer
- Change Your Space, Change Your Culture by Rex Miller, Mabel Casey, Mark Konchar
- How to Build a Thriving Culture at Workby Jon Robison & Rosie Ward
- Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer
- Firms of Endearment, 2nd Editionby Raj Sisodia, David Wolfe & Jag Sheth
- Workplace Wellness that Works by Laura Putnam
- An Everyone Culture by Lisa Leahy & Bob Kegan
Wow. Great post, Rachel! You covered a lot of ground.
Since this is a “work design” site, I interpret a lot of what you’ve said to fit into the model of job design (and, indeed, work design). Based on the job design research, we could say that key ingredients of employee wellbeing and performance include: reasonable schedules (including limits on overtime, predictability — as well as flexibility, of course); fairness (the organization delivers its end of the bargain, treats people equitably, doesn’t tolerate bullying or harassment); challenging tasks/responsibilities; fair rewards relative to employees’ efforts; autonomy (which includes employees’ participation in decisions that effect them and in how the work gets done, and decisional latitude, which is empowerment to make task-related decisions); job security; and having the resources necessary to get the job done.
Again, you mentioned most of these directly or implicitly, but I think there’s value in spotlighting job characteristics as elements of work design. Work: It’s the one thing employers don’t seem to want to talk about, but the evidence shows that it’s relly where the rubber hits the road when it comes to employee wellbeing and performance. And it’s the thing employers can and should influence. In fact, I encourage people to go beyond whole person wellness, and imagine wellness more in terms of whole-system or whole -environment. Like the old work-environment saying goes: If you want to cultivate the perfect pickle, you can’t just change the cucumber — you must take extra care to attend to the brine and the barrel. 🙂
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