For years, research into organizational psychology has advocated for managers taking a holistic view of employee satisfaction and performance. It has long been understood that treating employees in professionally and personally nourishing ways yields immense benefits and prevents negative outcomes such as burnout (Judge et al, 2001). Factors such as presence of work-life balance, autonomy, and a sense of being valued within one’s organization have been consistently found to predict greater retention, higher motivation, and higher quality performance. However, a growing body of research encourages managers to take their concern for employee wellbeing even further (Berry et al, 2015). There are numerous apparent benefits for making the physical and even emotional health of employees a priority. This dossier will review some of the latest empirical research on the subject.
In some workplaces, caring for employees’ emotional and physical health is seen as intrusive, or as a frivolous additional expense. When organizations do intentionally devote resources to employee health programs, exercise classes, or mental health-related interventions, it can be seen as luxurious but unnecessary (Gates et al, 2006). Of course, many organizations do not have the ability to provide extensive employee health resources, but an even greater number do not see such resources as being worth theexpense. Some fear that excessive concern into employee wellbeing will be seen as coddling or wasteful.
This viewpoint, however, is not consistent with the latest research into employee wellbeing and work outcomes. Like a piece of valuable machinery, an employee requires maintenance. Unlike machinery, individual human beings are one-of-a-kind and are not easily replaced. When an organization invests time and resources into providing health and wellbeing programs to their employees, they tend to experience greater employee commitment, higher performance, fewer sick days, and less burnout (Berry et al, 2015).
Employees who are empowered to manage their physical and emotional health are more adept at managing conflicts at work, processing stress, and “bouncing back” in the face of setbacks (Penedo & Dahn, 2003). When an organization makes the health of its employees a priority, employees experience more gratitude and feel more attached to their organization – this loyalty pays off in terms of measurable, short-term output as well as long-term investment in the company’s success. Employees can be treated as replaceable and limited in value, or they can be valued as long-term investments that deserve regular maintenance. By taking the latter view, and investing in employee health, your organizational outcomes can vastly improve.
Physical Health in the Workplace
Whether your employees occupy a salesfloor, a warehouse, or a conventional office setting, there are health risks inherent to the work they do every day. Scientific research has established, time and time again, that repetitive use of a keyboard, poor desk posture, and prolonged sitting can cause significant and permanent physical harm (Gilson et al, 2011). These physical symptoms not only dampen productivity, they erode morale and employee commitment as well.
Some work-related symptoms – like carpal tunnel syndrome – are a painful annoyance at worst; others are far more serious, such as the increased risk of heart disease that comes with regular time spent at a desk. Long work hours can impact sleep and stress levels, and even cause premature aging in extreme circumstances (Schaufeli et al, 2008). Demanding working schedules can impede employees’ ability to get exercise or make regular doctor’s appointments, increasing their odds of illness. These effects, too, can damage an organization in myriad ways.
Improving the physical health of employees. As a manager, you can work to combat negative outcomes by investing in employee health (Berry et al, 2015). One easy way to accomplish this is by making breaks regular and mandatory. Remind employees to step away from their desks or workstations once every two hours, at the least. Schedule breaks during long meetings, and encourage employees to stretch or take a walk. Provide comfortable working conditions by making things like standing desks an option. Make sure to combat cultures of workaholism that pressure employees to spend long days working, at the expense of their health (Penedo & Dahn, 2005). Encourage employees to take sick days and schedule doctor’s appointments when they need them – this can help prevent the development of more serious illnesses, and improve employee morale as well (Kruger et al, 2007).
If your organization has the resources, intentionally invest in employee health programs. Some employee insurance programs can cover exercise classes, gym memberships, and even massage therapy. Combat the stereotype that such resources are indulgences – work takes a physical toll, and exercise and massage are proven to help employees remain resilient and motivated (Kruger et al, 2007). Some organizations have benefitted from offering reduced-price or free workout classes before or after work – yoga and aerobic classes can often be brought into an office with minimal hassle. Failing that, organizing an optional running club or coed sports can help employees bond while caring for their physical health (Watson & Gauthier, 2003).
Emotional & Mental Health
Work is stressful, even in the best of circumstances. Employees are constantly aware that their performance and behavior is being evaluated, and that if they fail to meet expectations, they may be at risk of losing their job or facing other consequences. This baseline level of stress, combined with the daily demands of the job, can worsen symptoms of anxiety, depression, or lead to other forms of emotional distress (Schaufeli et al, 2009). Emotionally distressed employees lose sleep, come in late to work, underperform on job tasks, experience greater conflict with their peers, and are less receptive to criticism (Schaufeli et al, 2008). And when multiple employees are stressed, depressed, or otherwise emotionally compromised, a “contagion effect” can occur, and lead to burnout for multiple individuals. As a manager, you must work to reduce the negative emotional toll your organization has on its employees, all while still working to keep individuals motivated and productive. Thankfully, research has provided several guidelines for how to accomplish this while still maintaining healthy workplace boundaries.
Improving the mental and emotional health of employees. If you wish for your employees to be proactive in caring for their mental health, you must be proactive in combating mental illness stigma. When discussing employee benefits, make everyone aware of the mental health resources that are available – explain how many therapy sessions per year are covered, and describe some of the types of therapy that are provided (for example, mental health counseling, addiction counseling, and gender therapy, to name a few; Kruger et al, 2007)). Allow employees to take “mental health days” in the same way that they might take time off for physical illness or family emergencies.
Work with HR to craft an environment where mental health needs are not disparaged. Confront biases in your own language and policies, which may send subtle messages of discouragement to workers with depression or anxiety. For example, do not assume that an employee failing to meet a deadline is caused by laziness – instead, examine whether there are situational and personal circumstances that can be managed and addressed. Many of the physical health interventions suggested above can also improve employees’ mental health (Gilson et al, 2011) – encouragement of regular breaks, providing exercise opportunities, and giving employees flexibility in how they meet job requirements can all ensure that your teams remain comfortable, encouraged, and adaptable.
Research shows that when organizations invest in employee health, retention, productivity, and performance are greater
Tailor your physical health interventions to the specific health risks associated with the work your employees do
Across a variety of types of organizations, offering regular breaks and exercise classes helps boost employee health and morale
Make sure employees are aware of the physical and mental health resources that are available to them, and encourage their use
Combat mental health stigma in your organization by encouraging the use of therapy and mental health days, and by confronting your own biases
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Berry, L., Mirabito, A., & Baun, W. (2010). What's the hard return on employee wellness programs?
Gates, D., Brehm, B., Hutton, S., Singler, M., & Poeppelman, A. (2006). Changing the work environment to promote wellness: A focus group study. Aaohn Journal, 54(12), 515-520.
Gilson, N. D., Burton, N. W., Van Uffelen, J. G., & Brown, W. J. (2011). Occupational sitting time: employees? perceptions of health risks and intervention strategies. Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 22(1), 38-43.
Judge, T. A., Thoresen, C. J., Bono, J. E., & Patton, G. K. (2001). The job satisfaction–job performance relationship: A qualitative and quantitative review. Psychological bulletin, 127(3), 376.
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Penedo, F. J., & Dahn, J. R. (2005). Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Current opinion in psychiatry, 18(2), 189-193.
Schaufeli, W. B., Taris, T. W., & Van Rhenen, W. (2008). Workaholism, burnout, and work engagement: three of a kind or three different kinds of employee well‐being?. Applied psychology, 57(2), 173-203.
Schaufeli, W. B., Bakker, A. B., & Van Rhenen, W. (2009). How changes in job demands and resources predict burnout, work engagement, and sickness absenteeism. Journal of Organizational behavior, 30(7), 893-917.
Erika Price is a social psychologist, writer, and statistical and methodological consultant based in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Erika's research has focused on the psychology of political tolerance and open-mindedness. In addition to conducting experimental and survey-based research on these topics, Erika helps clients use methodological and data analytic tools to answer pressing questions that challenge their organization.