Earlier this month, the Times of London reported on research indicating that workers with bosses who micromanaged them were at higher risk of heart attacks and strokes. The findings will perhaps not be much of a surprise to many, but the study adds to the growing realization that individuals’ health is closely linked to their work and, in particular, how that work is done.
The report came just days before MindGym, an international behavioral sciences consultancy, joined forces with the Longevity Forum, a not-for-profit organization committed to helping as many people as possible live longer, healthier and more fulfilled lives, to launch research highlighting the impact workplace culture can have on society’s health and longevity. Arguing that workplaces need to transform themselves from being the “the cause of our wellbeing woes to the cure,” the report urges businesses to rebuild their approach to work around five psychological drivers of wellbeing. Its authors claim that this would be far more effective than the current approach of investing considerable sums in wellness perks and benefits that might treat the symptoms of stress but do not address the causes.
A similar argument is made by Edward J Beltran, CEO of the leadership development and training company Fierce and a Forbes contributor. In an email, he said: “Employees need to be heard by their employers. This is really the most important element in dealing with this problem. There must be a higher level of engagement directly between those within the workforce and their bosses.” He added that policies such as Employee Assistance Programs that involved using outside experts were particularly ineffective. “The EAP notoriously pushes the employee off to someone outside of the office that has no connections to the person’s work and no influence on it either. It’s an approach that dumps all of the responsibility on the employee while taking almost no responsibility by the actual company.”
Echoing to some degree the findings of the research by the academics at Harvard and Penn State universities that giving employees some control over their work improved their health, the MindGym’s five drivers are certainty, competence, autonomy, belonging and purpose. Its paper provides practical guidance for leaders, managers and employees to weave them into the flow of work as a preventative strategy against stress, burnout and long-term absences due to sickness.
What MindGym calls Wellworking works by focusing companies’ efforts on where they can have most impact, i.e. what it is like to work there; diagnosing the root causes of stress and related issues and providing tailored solutions for leaders, managers and others.
As the much-criticised EAPs and other initiatives show, organizations are far from oblivious to the issue. Businesses spend tens of billions of dollars a year on employee wellbeing. But it is the effectiveness of the spend that is at issue. The report says: “Most companies could cut all of their current investment in wellbeing initiatives and the overwhelming majority of their employees’ physical and mental health would be unchanged.” It says that this is because existing programs, in addition to focusing on the symptoms of stress rather than its causes, tend to look at employees’ lives outside work, which employers cannot do much about, rather than life at work, which they can; offer various one-size-fits-all solutions rather than tailored remedies and give the most to those who need it least (with a particular bias towards the fit and flourishing).
The fact that the research was delivered during Longevity Week, which is running until tomorrow with several events designed to highlight the Longevity Forum’s aims, is indicative of the importance of this issue to society as a whole and not just to embattled workers. Given that long-term sickness that has become a fact of life as economies around the world struggle to come to terms with the effects of Covid-19 in terms of attitudes to work and where and how it is done, it is vital that organizations spend their money and time wisely. With AI already looming on the horizon, enterprises that can offer work that has meaning and purpose and is done in a human way must surely have the edge over less enlightened ones.
As Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, puts it in her foreword to the report: “What matters is creating a positive, learning-oriented culture that supports people in delivering value, creates conditions for meaningful interactions that build energising relationships and ensures that every employee has the resources they need to do their job.” Get this right and you just might go a long way to solving the enduring productivity problem.
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