Think back to the last time you had the flu, or experienced a bout of insomnia, or endured a period spent worrying about or grieving for a friend or family member. I’m going to hazard to guess that those probably weren’t your best days at work, either. When we are sick, tired, anxious, or stressed out, it impacts our ability to function at work. Our resources are geared toward overcoming the threats and obstacles we face, and we have fewer to direct to work tasks. Organizations are becoming increasingly savvy to the fact that employees’ wellbeing dramatically affects the quality of their performance at work. Our physical, mental, and emotional equilibrium, or lack thereof, directly impacts our focus, attention, and creativity, not to mention our ability to navigate the web of social relationships through which work is accomplished.
As a result, more and more companies are investing in wellness programs, activities and initiatives designed to promote employee health and wellbeing. The benefits include boosts to engagement and productivity and reduced costs through maintenance or reduction in healthcare costs, reduced turnover/increased retention, and enhanced reputation/recruitment. Research by the Aberdeen Group found that 41% of surveyed organizations reported reduced healthcare costs, 41% reported increased productivity, and 38% reported decreased absences as a result of the implementation of a wellness program. Further, a recent Harvard study showed that for every dollar invested in a wellness program, companies can expect to return $3.27 from healh care savings and $2.73 from reduced absenteeism. It’s small wonder that nearly 90% of organizations offer some sort of wellness program.
Although there is growing interest in employee wellness, the majority of organizations seem to emphasize reducing health care costs and as such focus primarily on physical health – for example, offering on-site health assessments, discounted gym memberships, or smoking cessation programs. But an increasing number of companies are beginning to take a more holistic approach to worker wellbeing and really entrenching it in company culture. From yoga classes and massages, to personal coaching and work-life balance workshops, to on-site gyms and free food, some companies are thinking out of the box to drive employee wellbeing and reap the downstream benefits. For example, SAS purposefully staffs amply in order to reduce weekly work hours – their retention rate is only 4% compared to the industry average of 20%. Intel offers a 9-week mindfulness program that has proven to reduce stress, improve wellbeing, happiness, and creativity among employees.
While organizations have considerable influence on cultivating a culture that promotes employee wellbeing, the power for realizing our potential for happiness, wellness, and success lies in the choices we make as individuals. You need to know what wellness looks like for yourself and to have the insight and discipline to make wise choices, as well as to afford this freedom to others. This may involve tough decisions – can I push back on the client about when to schedule that meeting so I can attend my daughter’s dance recital? What will my boss and coworkers think if I leave thirty minutes early on Wednesdays for a running meet-up? Should I really order a sheet cake for each of the six birthdays in the office this month?
It also requires unearthing limiting beliefs and assumptions about what makes people successful or happy. On a scale from the Scandanavian’s “happiness at work” (arbejdsglæde) and the Japanese “death by work” (karoshi), our cultural puritan work ethic leans precariously close to death-by-work. As individuals, we need to discard the notion that long hours, skipped vacations, and skimped-on sleep are badges of honor. Checking email at all hours does not make you indispensable; working at the expense of exercise and downtime doesn’t confer power or prestige. We have to accept that the truth is that doing so actually depletes our finite resources and quashes our potential contributions. First work and then play doesn’t work, because there is always more work, but without play we do indeed become dull – and less effective. It will take individuals, individual managers, and organizational leaders working together to create a new paradigm for how work can be accomplished and capture the happy byproducts of healthy, successful lives and businesses.