Healthy employees are happy employees
Illustration by Gloria Diianni
Employers of all stripes are embracing the concept of workplace wellness, with manufacturers, hospitals, your local university, and countless other organizations jumping on the wellness bandwagon. And why not? Having healthier, happier employees makes good business sense.
Workplace wellness means different things to different people though, and while comprehensive approaches that aim to promote psychological and physical health at work can be a rousing success, other employer efforts to promote wellness can emphatically flop and generate little interest among workers. “Participation rates on average are pretty low,” says David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA, director of the Center for Organizational Excellence at the American Psychological Association in Washington, DC. Only a little more than a third of workers use the health and wellness resources offered by their employer, Ballard says.
Wellness at work involves many factors, an intertwining of the physical and psychological. The physical structure of the building you work in matters — whether it’s loud or quiet, dark or brightly lit. But even if you toil in a welcoming space that is bright and open, surrounded by plants and splashes of daylight, if the culture of the company isn’t supportive of employees, wellness will remain an elusive goal. “I am a huge proponent of culture coming first when it comes to wellness programming,” says Stephanie Ceccherini, director of wellness services at The Lawson Group in Concord.
Management’s support of employees should be evident through initiatives such as flexible scheduling, fitness options, the availability of healthful food at work, and general promotion of a sound work-life balance. Even minor steps can make an impact. For example, Ceccherini says that employees who simply know that they have flexibility and the support of their supervisor are positively affected by that knowledge, and perform better as a result, even if the flexibility is to be used only occasionally. “Those very small things might not feel like a big deal but actually make a huge difference,” she says.
Indeed, although there is increasing evidence that employees feel and perform better when they have access to natural light and plants and a physical environment that is conducive to the kind of work they do, Ballard says, the physical surroundings need to work collectively with other programs and the company’s culture to enhance the well-being of workers and the performance of the organization as a whole. Employers must take a dual approach to wellness that addresses the physical as well as the psychological, Ballard says. “It’s really about the collection of practices — that they all work together as a system.”
Businesses that take a half-hearted approach to wellness likely will not reap much for their efforts, Ballard adds, but “there’s good evidence to suggest that when it’s done well, [employers] can get really solid results.”
A one-size-fits-all approach won’t cut it, though. “There’s no single way to do this,” Ballard says. “There’s no magic program that, if you put it in the right way, is going to create all these successful outcomes.” Instead, organizations should solicit employee input to identify the components of health and wellness that are most meaningful to workers, and tailor initiatives to suit the needs of employees.
The planning and invested time can pay off. Workplace wellness “can make a huge difference” to employers and employees, Ballard says, “because when employees are healthier and their well-being levels are higher, they perform better on the job. … It becomes complementary. Healthier workers perform better, and a better-performing organization is a healthier environment for workers to be in.”
Workplace wellness, done right, improves the physical and mental health of employees, and creates higher levels of job satisfaction, morale and motivation among workers. Employees “are more committed to the organization,” Ballard says. “They feel like the climate and culture of the organization is better, and they are better able to manage the stress that they face on the job.”
As a result, an organization that takes a solid approach to wellness typically sees reduced absenteeism and turnover, lower rates of on-the-job accidents and injuries, and decreased or a slowed increase of healthcare costs, Ballard says, plus improved job performance, productivity, and quality. “Customer service and satisfaction rates are better, and it affects the organization’s reputation too,” he notes, establishing the organization as “an employer of choice, so then they can attract and retain the best, brightest workers, which helps them in the long run.”
Best practices for workplace wellness
It is said that many of us spend about one-third of our adult lives at work. Given that, certainly, workplace wellness should be a priority for employees as well as employers.
The workplace practices that have the most meaningful effects on employee well-being tend to fall into the following five categories, says David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA, director of the Center for Organizational Excellence at the American Psychological Association in Washington, DC:
Meaningful employee involvement that enables workers to have a degree of autonomy and some influence on decisions that affect them day-to-day on the job.
Growth and development opportunities. This is one of the areas that employees are typically least satisfied with, Ballard says.
Health and safety promotion that provides decent coverage for a range of healthcare services, including mental health.
Work-life balance. This includes flexible work arrangements that acknowledge that employees have competing demands outside of work.