It’s a fact - a healthy and happy employee is always more productive than one who is exhausted, unwell, and burnt out. But too many strategies to deal with workplace stress rely on employees taking individual actions, like meditating or doing more yoga. While these strategies might work briefly, a much more effective approach is to make changes to your workplace as a whole.
And focusing on employee mental health and wellbeing at work isn’t just something that feels nice to provide - it’s actually beneficial for many areas of your business. Each year, according to Harvard Business Review, more than 550 million workdays are lost to stress on the job, and workplace stress costs the US economy around $500 billion every single year. Plus, burned-out employees are 2.6 times more likely to be looking for a new job. So if you want to keep your best employees and help them do great work, you need to focus on improving employee well-being.
What factors affect employee wellbeing? We’re glad you asked! There are three essential factors that increase employee health and wellbeing at work, and we’ll cover them all in-depth today, so you know exactly what you need to do to have happier, healthier, more productive employees.
One of the biggest factors in employee wellbeing (and employee engagement) is how much discretion they have over what they do and how they do it. That’s the basis of job control. Limited job control is linked strongly with poorer physical health, including higher death rates and more heart disease and diabetes.
Job control is also an important factor in mental health. Multiple studies have found that people with higher levels of job control have less anxiety and depression. These findings mean that even though higher-level workers tend to do more stressful tasks, have more responsibilities, and often work long hours, they have fewer negative health effects from their careers because they have higher levels of job control.
Increasing Job Control in the Workplace
It might seem fairly challenging to increase job control for lower-level workers who are mostly responsible for repetitive, boring tasks where they lack control. But it just takes some imagination to look at a new way to increase job control.
For example, reducing the amount of micromanaging that leaders and managers do is a great first step. While managers certainly need to manage their people, getting too into the details and controlling employees is unhelpful for everyone. If you’re hiring the right people, you really should be letting them do the jobs they were hired to do with the skills they have and not watching their every move.
And even workers infamously tightly controlled phone lines can be given some additional autonomy with some creative thinking. Collective Health empowered its “patient advocates” who answer phones to solve complex patient problems to solve problems on the floor as they come up, instead of giving them a strict script. This has increased employee retention, satisfaction, and motivation. And it’s proved more efficient at solving customer problems as well - everybody benefits.
Job control doesn’t just affect physical and mental health - it also has a strong impact on how motivated and engaged employees are in their jobs. When employees work in an environment where they don’t have much control over their work or how they get it done, it creates a lot of stress and uncertainty. They might be forced to follow ineffective or outdated procedures and then punished for poor results or have goals set for them that are impossible to achieve in their roles.
When this happens, it’s hard for any employee to stay committed to going above and beyond. When you don’t feel you have ownership of your tasks, it decreases competence and accomplishment. That’s not a workplace that encourages you to try your best because it probably won’t be recognized or rewarded if you do. Low feelings of job control make workplaces feel chaotic and unpredictable - you don’t have control over your role or tasks, so it’s hard to predict your actions' outcomes. That is a pretty significant demotivator for most employees.
Having friends and a strong social network is highly beneficial for health and helps decrease stress, including workplace stress. But in many companies, life in the workplace actually decreases feelings of social support and connection. Sound surprising? It’s not when you consider the environment at many top businesses. Many workplaces have performance measures that pit workers against each other - like forced curve ranking or promotion systems where only a specific number of employees are eligible in each review cycle. Other businesses treat employees like they’re in a purely transactional relationship, where work is exchanged only for money.
Commit to Caring
Instead, try committing to encouraging employees to care for each other. This can be through programs where employees donate unused time off to colleagues suffering from serious medical conditions who need extensive treatments or committing to volunteering in the community together with time off provided by the company.
It’s also helpful to increase the opportunities for connections among your employees. If your workplace setup feels sterile and isolating - a grey farm of individual cubicles with little natural light - employees will not feel welcomed or connected. Focusing on creating natural spaces where employees can gather casually and get to know each other can create stronger workplace bonds and friendships. After all, we spend most of our waking time at work. Cafeterias, breakrooms, and outdoor spaces that encourage mingling and mixing can build those important bonds.
Lose the Lingo
Being thoughtful with the language you use in internal communications with employees is also part of increasing social support in the workplace. Phasing out the use of words like “employee” and “worker” and “manager” except when necessary is a good start, and you can replace them with words like “teammates” and “village” where appropriate. Language is a powerful tool to build connections and create a strong workplace culture. Building the kind of culture you want through your communications can help you bring your teams together and make employees feel more social support.
The Right Employee Wellbeing Framework
When most employers think of an employee wellbeing program, they focus on getting employees to take part in healthier individual behaviors on their own. This could mean quitting smoking, drinking less, exercising more, or eating healthier. Employers typically put these programs in place not to focus on employee needs but to bring down their own healthcare costs. That’s the wrong employee wellbeing framework to use. The drivers of unhappy and unhealthy employees are more often factors that are in the control of employers - unfair workplace practices, unmanageable workloads, lack of role clarity, poor communication, and not enough time to get work done.
While getting more exercise and meditating can certainly reduce stress symptoms, if your employee wellbeing program doesn’t address the root causes of that stress, you’re not going to solve the problem with a gym discount. Giving people reasonable workloads and a sense of fairness at work will go a much longer way to reducing stress-related healthcare costs.
Employees also want more than just a gym discount to care for their health - especially if they’re too tired or burnt out from work actually to make it to the gym every day. More than 25% of US employees would like their workplaces to offer more support for mental health. Coping with burnout by eating a healthy diet isn’t very effective - employees need and want more support for workplace stress levels they often deal with.
Improving Employee Wellbeing
Employee wellbeing is more than just a nice-to-have. It’s vital to the health of the human beings who work for you, and it’s also a positive business driver. Employees who are free from high levels of workplace stress and burnout have control over their tasks, and strong social connections at work are more productive and engaged. Wondering how further to promote that link between employee wellbeing and performance? You can simply ask your employees how they’re regularly feeling to learn how they’re handling stress at your workplace and what they really want from wellbeing programs.