Blog #34 – Well-being and the workplace
“The wellness-at-work movement is accelerating in the U.S. at a time when employers generally are desperate to cut costs, and you have to wonder why. Employers on average will spend 15% more per employee on wellness programs this year than last… As work becomes increasingly cognitive, fast-changing, and uncertain, we’re wearing people out in new ways.”
The above quotation is taken from a 2014 article published in Fortune Magazine. You are most likely familiar with the existence of Fortune; if not, it is one of the most widely-read and influential mainstream business magazines in the world, and therefore perhaps not the forum in which you would expect to read about the importance of well-being in the workplace.
The fact that such an outlet highlighted the ‘wellness-at-work movement’ underscores the extent to which such ideas are making their way into mainstream conversation. Once upon a time, business magazines concerned themselves almost exclusively with the bottom line, and the average employee might only be considered in the context of boosting productivity, as opposed to mental health and overall well-being.
It may be encouraging on one level that the topic of well-being has found its way to such a forum, but this is a double-edged sword. Yes, it is a positive development that the business community is becoming increasingly cognisant of the need to consider the well-being of the workforce, but, broadly speaking, this awareness has come in the wake of a society-wide belated recognition of the mental health issues that are prevalent in the workplace, both internationally and in this country.
Recent figures from the U.K. show that 175 million work days are lost on an annual basis due to sickness, costing the economy more than €100 billion. Also, mental health issues have been identified as the leading cause of sickness-related absence in western countries, with this figure estimated at 40% in some sources. On a related point, depression currently ranks as the third most common cause of burden of disease throughout the world, and the World Health Organisation expects it to become the leading cause by 2030.
Surveys in the U.S. show that up to 80% of employees experience stress in the workplaces, with concerns around workload, work-life balance, co-workers, and job security among the most common triggers.
The Economist’s 2014 Mental Health Integration Index examined the degree to which individuals with mental illness are integrated into society in 30 countries – the 28 E.U. nations, along with Norway and Switzerland. In this report, the authors flagged issues around workplace wellbeing in Ireland. They noted a lack of regulations here on workplace stress, and called for continued support for employees to help manage stress levels, maintain optimal wellbeing at work, and achieve a healthy work-life balance.
Psychologist Shawn Achor has helped to popularise the idea of ‘the happiness advantage’ in the workplace. Achor and others have caught the ear of business by, in part, framing their insights in the language of commerce. Instead of merely stating that companies have an obligation to attend to the mental health and well-being needs of their employees, they instead have highlighted the benefits that can accrue to business when employees are happier in their work and the work environment is a more positive space.
In 2011, Achor gave an entertaining and insightful Ted Talk on this topic, in which he emphasised the correlation that exists between happier workers and productivity. Essentially, the logic is that happier employees will be better performing employees, with this in turn highlighting the importance of positive working environments and effective management styles. The talk is freely available online and is worth checking out if you are interested in these ideas.
Sonya Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener addressed this topic in a 2005 paper published in Psychological Bulletin. In the title of the review article, they posed the question: Does happiness lead to success? In the context of the workplace, they reported that happy workers have several advantages over those who are less happy, stating they are “more likely to secure job interviews, to be evaluated more positively by supervisors once they obtain a job, to show superior performance and productivity, and to handle managerial jobs better,” while also being less susceptible to unwanted workplace behaviour and burnout.
The above points highlight the dual benefits that can accrue from placing an emphasis on workplace well-being, i.e., the overall business benefits, but so do the individuals working for that business. It is findings such as these that have helped to create more awareness within the business community of the benefits of cultivating well-being among the workforce. No doubt some businesses would feel an obligation to do their best for their workers, but all businesses will see merit in the idea of the benefits that can accrue in terms of actual work performance.
Next time, we will look at specific issues that come up, and also psychological interventions designed to boost well-being in the workplace.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.