Employee Health, Wellness— No Longer Optional Benefit, but Strategic Imperative

When you develop and implement work+life flexibility strategies that help businesses operate and individuals manage their work+life fit, you run into many often baffling false beliefs.  Since the start of the recession, two of these off-base convictions have stood out as managers and employees struggle to do more with less:

  1. Individuals think their health and wellness are "optional" parts of their work+life fit, and
  2. Line business leaders don’t connect how employee health and well being directly impact the optimal, effective functioning of their workplace, and they don’t understand (or don’t want to deal with) the role that they play to ensure employees are as healthy as possible.

Families and Work Institute (FWI) just released The State of Health in the American Workforce study.  The numbers are not only disturbing, but they are a real call to action for both individuals and employers.   The research shines a light on the paradox that working harder, faster, longer does more harm than good not only to our personal health and well being, but to business.   In the new work+life flex normal, employee health and wellness are not an "option," they’re a strategic imperative.

Here are some highlights (to read the full report which is "the only study of its kind to provide 30+ year comparisons of life on and off the job," go to the Families and Work Institute website):

Employee Health and Wellness Are Suffering:

  • Less than one third of employees (28%) today say their overall health is "excellent"—a significant decline of 6% from 2002.
  • 41% of employees report experiencing three or more indicators of stress sometimes, often or very often, which is a significant increase from 2002.
  • Work-life conflict increasing, especially for men.
  • One in three employees experiences one or more symptoms of clinical depression.
  • 49% of employees have not engaged in regular physical exercise in the last 30 days.
  • One in four smokes.
  • While little changed since 2002, 27% of employees still experience some kind of sleep problem that affected their job performance within the last month at least sometimes.
  • Nearly two out of three employed individuals (62%) are overweight or obese.
  • 8% of employees have no health insurance from any source, with low-wage/low-income employees less likely to have access and least likely to use even if they do have access.

 
Why Does it Matter?  Direct Impact on Business

There are two employees, A and B.  Employee A reports low levels of personal overall health and wellness, and B reports high levels.  Common sense would say that a manager gets more from employee B in terms of extra effort, satisfaction and commitment.  But the FWI research shows how significant this correlation between health and business impact really is:  "Employees’ physical and mental health, stress levels, sleep quality and energy levels all significantly impact important work outcomes of interest to employers, such as engagement, turnover intent and job satisfaction."   Here’s my best attempt to present the study findings visually:  

 FWI chart

In other words, employee health and wellness isn’t just a nice perk, or program to offer when times are good.  Employee health and wellness are mission critical to an organization’s operating success, especially in this difficult time when everyone needs to bring the best of themselves to the table everyday.

A couple of specific findings to note:

  1. Hopefully, this research will be another nail in the coffin that work+life fit is a "women’s issue" only.  It is an "everyone" issue.  Work-life conflict increased more significantly for men than women from 2002 to 2008.  You might be surprised, but men said they are more positively affected by having economic security in their jobs and a good fit between their work and personal lives.  Whereas, women are more positively affected by being challenged in their jobs and by having autonomy.
  2. FWI joins WLF in using the term work-life "fit" in their research.  Hopefully, this affirmation of the concept of work-life "fit" will move us away from the limiting and inaccurate concept of "balance" to describe optimizing the unique way an individual’s work and life fit together.   Also noteworthy is the fact that work+life fit is the workplace effectiveness factor that directly affects the most aspects of employee health and wellness in the FWI study. 

What Can Managers/Employers Do?

How should a manager or employer respond to the findings especially in turbulent times when resources are tight, and there’s constant pressure to perform financially?  Too often when business leaders think of "health and wellness," they go immediately to perks like an on-site gym and EAP.  But, as outlined in the visual model of the findings above, the interventions that lead to "excellent employee health and wellness," and, in turn engagement, retention and satisfaction, are broader.   Some are benefits like health insurance, paid vacation and sick days that cost money, and others are behaviors and ways of operating the business that cost nothing.   Regardless, any money or effort expended is an investment that will have a return.

The FWI report offers insightful implications for businesses,especially around the difficult task of addressing economic security in these tough times, but I would add:

  • Make  work+life flexibility, or flexibility in how, when and where work is done and life is managed, part of the way your organization operates and not just a program, perk or benefit.  It will go a long way to achieve many of the behaviors and workplace effectiveness factors outlined in the report that affect health and wellness.
  • It’s not enough to offer stress management or weight loss classes, reimburse gym memberships and provide information about healthy eating.  You need to give and encourage time for people to use the gym, shop for healthy food and go to weight loss class without feeling badly.  (Check out Cindy Goodman’s excellent post on the FWI research and how one Florida business owner make weight loss and health a mission in her company).
  • Be a role model and clarify expectations.   People are very, very scared right now.   They are terrified to do anything that jeopardizes their job.   Managers must role model the desired behavior if employees are to feel comfortable— take vacation, and sick days, talk about going to the gym, eating healthfully and getting rest.  Things you should be doing anyway, and might have let fall to the wayside over the past few months.   

 

What Can You as an Employee Do?

Much more than you think.  Yes, many of us are scared but really that is no excuse.  Doing as much as you can to be healthy and able to contribute extra effort and commitment on the job is no longer optional.  In fact, it’s imperative for your job security.  Again, paradoxically, you may think working harder, faster and longer will reduce the risk of losing your job.  But the research shows that if that overwork make you unhealthy it’s having the opposite impact.  You aren’t as engaged, committed or satisfied, which could make you more vulnerable when employment decisions are made.

Where to begin?  When I run my corporate work+life fit seminars we always end with an exercise called "One Small Thing."  Small changes in your work+life are very powerful especially as they relate to health and wellness.  Here are common examples of small health and wellness changes employees have committed to making over the years:

  • Go to bed an hour earlier and get up earlier to work out two days a week.
  • Put my gym clothes in my car and go right to the gym before going home.
  • Make a list of meals for the week and shop over the weekend so there is food in the house.
  • Turn off the TV an hour before a go to bed and wind down.
  • Start meditating for 30 minutes every morning.
  • Keep a journal every night before I go to bed.
  • Make a date with my best friend to go to the movies once a month.

Your employer can do its part to create a culture and workplace that supports employee health and wellness, but in the end, it’s you doing it. This is particularly true when it comes to financial security, one of the workplace effectiveness factors influencing health and well being.  While not part of the study, I wonder how much of this increased stress relates to the fact that "three out of five workers" live paycheck to paycheck according to a recent CareerBuilder survey.   Better personal financial choices could mitigate some of the stress related uncertainty in employment and earnings. 

Finally, during the call to announce the research results, FWI President, Ellen Galinsky, summed it up by saying, "In the U.S. we see work as a sprinting marathon.  Instead we need to think about it more in terms of weightlifting.  In between periods of exertion, there’s rest and recovery.  This gives you the strength to exert your best effort the next time."  I agree.   Hopefully this research will challenge the false beliefs that employee health and wellness are "optional" and break us out of our sprinting marathon that is no longer working—if it ever really did. 

Other related posts:

Ellen Galinsky, President of FWI "Wellness Responsibility of Business as Well as Worker," HuffingtonPost.com
Lauren Young Businessweek, "How Recession is Making American Workers Sick"
Leanne Chase, CareerLife Connection, "Workers’ Health, HR’s Failure, Employees’ Responsibilities"

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