A head for business - the importance of employee wellbeing

Profile picture for user jmilne By Janine Milne October 18, 2016
Engagement and wellbeing are a winning combination to unlock performance and productivity.

Different brain hemispheres © denisismagilov - Fotolia.com
Happiness has become a boardroom issue.

You don’t have to go very far back in history before a comment like that would have met with at minimum a raised eyebrow and derisive snort. It probably still does in some quarters.

But a growing raft of evidence from psychology, behavioral science and neuroscience points to a link between employees’ psychological wellbeing and engagement at work with performance and productivity.

And the message is percolating through to business. Consider what happened at Salesforce’s recent Dreamforce jamboree in San Francisco, where the tech event included monks hosting a mindfulness session. Chief executive Marc Benioff is also creating mindfulness and meditation zones in all the Salesforce offices around the world, so employees can get away from the ‘noise’ of doing business.

While not strictly happiness (you could have some very happy individuals with very low productivity), wellbeing and engagement both individually and particularly working in tandem affect the bottom line.

According to Professor Ivan Robertson, founding director of wellbeing and business psychologists, Robertson Cooper, and an Emeritus professor at the University of Manchester:

If you add the wellbeing component to engagement the size of that relationship with performance increases. You get a stronger link between engagement and wellbeing and performance related outcomes, than you do for engagement, or for wellbeing alone.

According to Robertson, there are two main components to psychological wellbeing, one, as you would imagine, is feeling good, but the other important element is to live a good life with purpose. Robertson expands:

That turns out to be pretty helpful if you can transport that to the work context, because if you can identify the thing people do that interests them and they care about, then you can get a sense of both aspects of wellbeing.

It’s about performance

There’s evidence that cardiovascular disease (heart attack, stroke), the metabolism (diabetes and obesity) and the immune system are all impacted by psychological wellbeing. That’s regardless of any behaviors such as diet or exercise, although they obviously have an impact.

But there’s also a direct impact on work performance too. Research has shown that there are “strong levels of relationship”, says Robertson, between levels of wellbeing and levels of both individual and organizational performance.

Recognizing this link to organizational performance has put a whole different spin on wellbeing, notes Robertson:

It moves wellbeing from being an employee benefit if you like, from something that is a benefit to the employee, to something that is a benefit to the organization and is an investment for the organization, not a cost. And I really think that is an important concept. You have to move away from seeing wellbeing as a cost.

Turning to engagement, the first real issue is, what does it actually mean? Robertson notes:

If I asked five different people I would get five different definitions. There is no established clear well understood definition of what we call engagement.

Most research, however, coalesces around the key ideas of discretionary effort, commitment, attachment, sense of purpose and organizational citizenship. In other words, says Robertson:

If you’re clear about what you’re doing, you’re going to be more committed, you’re going to put in more discretionary effort and you’re going to be attached more strongly.

Employers can help encourage this behavior through the way they manage their staff and structure the jobs.

Stress is a key factor that can derail engagement, both by giving people too much to do and also too little. The key is to keep that balance, says Robertson:

You feel at your best when you’ve just achieved something significant. You’ve tackled something that’s a challenge and you rose to it and achieved it. You need some degree of control over how you meet those demands and you need adequate support and resources to help you. So a high demand job when you don’t have what you need to deliver is not healthy.

He adds:

Demands, control, resources and support are absolutely vital and once you start to look at people’s roles through that lens, you start to see why some people are not engaging.

Managers and leaders can have a significant impact ensuring that that their team have those four elements in the jobs. In particular, they need to ensure that they challenge those who are disengaged and support those who are stressed. That’s easier said than done, acknowledges Robertson:

Almost every manager is a bit lopsided. Some people are really good at challenging and not so great at offering support and some are really supporting but not so great when it comes to challenging people.

The business case

Ivan Robertson
Professor Ivan Robertson

What tends to happen in reality is that those managers themselves are not provided with the training and support they need, says Robertson:

It’s not very helpful for managers to say: ‘we’ve decided in this business that engagement and wellbeing are really important, so at the bottom of your list of what you need to do, add those two. We might provide some survey results later to tell how well you’re doing and if you go down that’s bad news.’ I don’t think that helps managers. They need to understand the business case and think about how do we help people to perform more effectively.

Long hours and long commutes both have a detrimental effect on engagement and wellbeing. No surprises there perhaps. But the scale of the effect probably is. Robertson points to research that says that people who work 11 hours or more regularly are 250% more likely to suffer from psychological issues such as depression.

Every extra minute spent commuting, reduces wellness. Building in flexibility helps alleviate the pressure, particularly when that flexibility is over the time and hours worked, rather than being able to choose the location.

While of course there are personality and outside forces that impact wellness and engagement, there’s a hell of a lot of things that are employers can control and influence.

My take

The digital workplace and home both giveth and taketh away when it comes to impacting our psychological wellbeing and engagement.

On the one hand it gives us better tools to automate the boring parts of our jobs and more ways of connecting and communicating with people.

On the other this connectedness can be intrusive and invasive on our private lives and raise our stress levels.

Image credit - Different brain hemispheres © denisismagilov - Fotolia.com

Disclosure - Salesforce is a diginomica premier partner at time of writing.