Employers are aiming for a lot of meaningful targets. They want better employee engagement, higher productivity, and improved retention.
These are all worthwhile goals – but they’re also outcomes, not inputs. They’re not things you can act on directly, but rather results of your employee experience and your other efforts to support your workers.
So what levers can you pull to improve those metrics (and plenty of others too)? Employee wellbeing is one of the biggest.
What exactly is wellbeing at work?
Employee wellbeing is a term for the overall physical, mental, and emotional health of your employees. It’s often oversimplified to represent employee happiness, but true wellbeing is much deeper.
While often discussed alongside other culture-first HR strategies, employee wellbeing is distinct from experience and engagement. Employee wellbeing means your workers have the appropriate working conditions, opportunities, resources, connections, and support to thrive not only as part of your organization but in their personal lives too.
The business case for employee wellbeing
Especially in times of tight budgets and strapped resources, it’s tempting for employers to write off employee wellbeing as a luxury. As leaders struggle to do more with less, it’s understandable for them to ask: Why is employee wellbeing important? Why is it worth investing energy, attention, and money into?
Prioritizing employee wellbeing offers several compelling benefits:
Improved engagement: When wellbeing is a priority, employees feel more valued and supported, which means they’re more likely to be committed to their work – and the organization as a whole.
Increased productivity: More than 90% of business leaders say they saw improvements in both productivity and performance when they promoted wellness within their organizations. Not to mention the time and money saved from lower absenteeism.
Higher retention: It makes sense that employees who feel more engaged and supported are more likely to stick around. A two-year study concluded that overall wellbeing is one of the strongest predictors of future retention.
Healthier employees – and a higher stock price: Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that investing in a “culture of health” in the workplace has positive effects on both employee health and the company’s business performance.
In short, when employees feel like they’re cared about, they’re more likely to care about their work and their employer.
How to foster employee wellbeing in the workplace
It’s a safe assumption that no employer actively wants employees to be unwell. And yet, despite that understanding and the numerous benefits, employee wellbeing hasn’t ranked near the top of companies’ priority lists. In one 2021 study, only 26% of organizations had defined and adopted a worker wellbeing strategy.
There are likely many reasons why companies continue to take a passive or lackadaisical approach to wellbeing – with one being that it can be challenging to know where to start. Wellbeing itself feels both amorphous and unique to specific employees.
If you’ve previously done nothing but scratch your head when trying to identify ways to improve employee wellbeing, here are a few strategies to start your organization on the right path.
1. Understand your starting point
Much like with any other initiative, your best place to start is with a baseline. How do your workers currently feel about their level of wellbeing within your organization?
Our own wellbeing question set can help you take the temperature of your existing employees and understand the specific areas where they’d like to see improvements – whether it’s work-life balance, relationships with colleagues, or something else.
Starting your wellbeing strategy with a questionnaire helps you understand your starting point and take quick action on the areas that will be most meaningful to your workers. And proving that you’re not only collecting but actually implementing employee feedback improves wellbeing in and of itself.
2. Confirm the basics
When you think of wellbeing, it’s easy to think of feel-good perks like company yoga classes, meditation retreats, and nap rooms. However, those shouldn’t come at the expense of the basics. For employees to feel like they can thrive, they need:
- Safe and reasonable working conditions
- Adequate compensation and benefits
- Necessary tools and resources to do their jobs
While you might think those boxes are easily checked, many employers fall short. Only 32% of employees think they’re paid fairly, and perceptions of workplace safety are alarmingly low.
Even if you can’t afford to dole out major raises or overhaul your benefits package, honest and candid conversations with employees about these subjects will ensure they feel heard and understood – and potentially uncover other ways you can make them feel more supported.
3. Manage expectations and workloads
The conversation about burnout isn’t a new one. The World Health Organization classified it as an “occupational phenomenon” in 2019, and the focus on burnout has steadily increased as workers grapple with the fallout from the pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the shift to remote work.
Today, a whopping 42% of the global workforce is experiencing burnout, making it an issue that’s top of mind for most employers.
Workloads are one of the first places companies need to turn their attention. 38% of workers say they can’t cope with their workloads, and being saddled with those unrealistic demands and expectations adds fuel to the burnout fire.
It’s up to proactive managers to connect with employees to understand their current feelings about their workloads and balance out what they can – whether that involves hiring, outsourcing, delegating, reprioritizing, or automating.
4. Provide autonomy
Step back, micromanagers. While your intentions might be good, science says that people feel more motivated to perform when they feel like they have a certain level of independence and control over the work they’re doing.
McKinsey explains that this level of job control doesn’t just positively impact performance, but physical and mental health as well. Make sure your employees can easily access the resources and guidance they need, while also feeling empowered to take ownership over their responsibilities and contributions.
And autonomy doesn’t just apply to the work employees do – it also applies to when and where they do it. Flexible work arrangements are a major boost for most employees, with 34% of them saying flexible hours would help their mental health.
Plus, a little more schedule wiggle room means they have more time and implicit permission to tend to the other areas of their lives that impact their overall wellbeing – whether that’s an exercise class, a dentist appointment, or the ability to better balance their work with their family.
5. Offer management training
Employees aren’t the only ones dealing with the changes and increased demands of the working world – it’s a tough time to be a manager too.
Many have had to adjust to new work arrangements while feeling ill-equipped to do so, with 40% of managers admitting that they’re unprepared to lead remote teams. They’ve also had to navigate ongoing sociopolitical issues, leading to plenty of tough conversations. 65% of employees say they’ve discussed social and or political issues at work.
And managers are doing all of that while trying to meet their targets and keep rampant burnout at bay. Needless to say, your managers could use a little extra support, and providing it improves conditions for everybody. One study showed that leadership training didn’t just improve the manager’s outlook and abilities – it improved employees’ personal and job wellbeing too.
Think about it this way: When managers feel supported, they’re better equipped to support their employees. As the old saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup.
6. Create opportunities for social connection
Having social support and strong bonds with other people is crucial for wellbeing. As McKinsey states, “The evidence shows that social support – family and friends you can count on, as well as close relationships – can have a direct effect on health and buffers the effects of various psychosocial stresses, including workplace stress.”
Colleagues can be a reliable and powerful source of encouragement, advice, and even commiseration. Yet, with more prevalent remote and hybrid work arrangements, people feel increasingly isolated from their coworkers. In a recent report, 66% of employees said they lack strong connections with the people they work with.
For companies that want to foster better wellbeing, providing ample opportunity for social connection is a step in the right direction. Whether it’s scheduling frequent happy hours or staff outings, starting a few ERGs or interest groups, or even dedicating 10 minutes of each team meeting to friendly chatter, facilitating these bonds can help employees feel closer to the people they work with – and your organization as a whole.
Employee wellbeing wins
Employee wellbeing might sound like a bonus – a perk or selling point you can get to when you have adequate time and resources. But in reality, wellbeing at work is the backbone of all of the other things your organization is trying to achieve.
It’s time for employers to stop minimizing wellbeing and recognize the truth: For employees to perform well, they need to feel well.
Build a workplace where everyone can thrive