employee wellbeing discussion

Why Employee Well-being is Vital to Work Performance

Why Employee Well-being is Vital to Work Performance 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

There’s a lot of talk about employee well-being right now. 

Apparently, suffering through a global pandemic is enough to finally get us thinking about our well-being more seriously. The consequences of a lack of well-being have been laid bare over the last year.  

But employee well-being isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been lurking in the shadows, affecting work performance for as long as the notion of “work” has existed. 

Today, my goal is to caution you against dismissing the emphasis on employee well-being as only being related to the pandemic. Instead, we must recognize it as an opportunity to re-tool management to improve both productivity and engagement moving forward. 

What is Well-being? 

Twelve years ago, I was hired to lead the corporate human resources team for a regional bank. To their credit, they’d been investing in employee well-being programs for years before I arrived. They even had a full-time wellness coordinator on staff (uncommon then) who was on my team.

I’ll be honest that prior to taking that job, I’d never really understood wellness programs. The most I’d brushed up against wellness in past organizations was through periodic health fairs at the office that seemed out of place to me.

This was something different. They viewed wellness as an employee benefit, a way to help the employee get or stay healthy. And the employees seemed to embrace it. I was intrigued. 

Workplace wellness programs at the time included things like steps challenges, weight-loss competitions, and programs to help you quit smoking. They often incorporated an outsourced Employee Assistance Program (EAP) hotline, but it seemed few ever used it. 

Employee well-being was almost entirely focused on physical health. And physical health is an important issue. But as we’re coming to understand now, well-being is so much broader than that. 

Well-being at Its Core

Well-being at its most fundamental level is literal. It’s about “being well.” The work of well-being is taking intentional steps to feel better (or less unwell) in all areas of our lives.  

There are a lot of different definitions and models of well-being out there. I like the ones used by The Center for Spirituality and Healing and WELCOA personally, but what’s more important than a specific definition is that you recognize what well-being feels like and how it affects your life.

What helped me finally grasp the importance of well-being at work was to focus on my own experiences when I was either feeling really well or really unwell in my life and how that affected my ability to perform my job. 

The most obvious experience we’ve all shared of unwellness is being sick. When we are suffering from a cold, COVID, or any other illness, our ability to perform at our best in any area of our life is diminished. 

Well-being and Performance

When we are ill, our body rallies its energy to power our immune response, which directs it away from other things. I know that I can’t think or concentrate with any effectiveness when I’m sick. At best, it takes me twice or three times as long to get things done. 

When we are physically diminished for any reason, our work suffers. Hungover, tired, hungry, or any number of other issues can cause us not to be at our best. 

A lack of physical well-being is probably the easiest to see and notice, which I think is why most wellness programs have focused there in the past. But, being unwell can have many causes. 

As we’ve heard a lot recently, mental health is a significant contributor to well-being. This can manifest in a bunch of ways, from anxiety to depression. Mental health and mental illness are just as serious and often more harmful than issues with physical health. 

I’ve written about my own experiences with burnout and how it disrupted my ability to be at my best in any part of my life—let alone work. When we don’t care for our mental health, it can have dire impacts on work and every aspect of our life. 

Hopefully, you recognize your own experience in some of this and relate to the stark difference between how you show up in life and work when you are well versus unwell.  

Why Well-being Matters

Please don’t get the wrong idea; well-being isn’t just about avoiding pain or suffering. It’s about recognizing that we all have core human needs as human beings that need to be met for us to be happy, content, and able to be the best version of ourselves. 

Being “well” means your core needs are met in a way that allows you to make choices about how to invest your time, energy, and talent.

Being “well” means you’re operating as a whole person with your full potential at your disposal. 

“Well” is an aspiration. And, it’s one that I believe all humans share. When our well-being is in a good place, it feels great. 

Well-being has come to the forefront now because the past year has introduced multiple threats to our well-being that almost felt like a coordinated attack. 

Illness led the news, but our safety and financial security also came under attack simultaneously. Relationships were strained, and unhealthy habits revealed themselves as a temporary solution to our anxiety. 

Life piled on the well-being challenges one after the other as if it were a contest to see how much we could handle before we break. Some of us broke. Many are on the verge of breaking.

This is where far too many people find themselves today.  

As a manager or leader, this should be alarming to you. Because as we know from our own experiences when we aren’t well, we can’t do our best work. 

While this has always been true, the consequences of not supporting our employees’ well-being are starker and more catastrophic than ever before. 

If you want a high-performing team who will stay with you through good and bad times, supporting well-being needs to move to the top of your priority list and stay there. 

How to Support Employee Well-being

While I’m not going to offer you a comprehensive guide here for how to manage and lead for well-being, what I can do is share with you a few foundational steps you can take to get started in the right direction.

1. Give yourself permission to care. 

Well-meaning HR departments for years have told managers to maintain their distance from employees. We were advised not to get too close to people because you need to stay objective when managing people.  

And, while this advice is meant to ensure fairness and avoid favoritism, the unintended consequence is that managers have kept people at arms-length, believing that they really can’t engage with the employee in any way beyond what is “work-related.” 

As I outlined earlier, much of what affects our well-being and ability to perform our best at work happens in the part of our lives when we aren’t working. So, as a manager who wants to help people be at their best at work, you have to care about and be interested in your employees far beyond work.

This doesn’t mean you need to become best friends with each of your employees. But, you should give yourself permission to care about them and their lives outside of work.

When you start to care for your people beyond just their work output, you’ll start asking different questions and having different conversations. Showing your people that you care is a significant first step towards improving their well-being. 

Just knowing someone cares about you is incredibly powerful. You can give that gift to every person you manage.

2. Abandon the “work-life balance” myth. 

One thing that has traditionally got in the way of organizations meaningfully addressing employee well-being is the myth of work-life balance. 

The whole notion of balance assumes you have two separate things to put on opposite sides of a scale and adjust until the scale balances. The issue here: two separate things. 

Work isn’t something separate from life, it’s part of it. The concept of work-life balance only became a thing when employees started to realize how much work sucked for them and how much of a negative impact it was having on their lives. 

So, organizations started talking about “balancing” work and life as a solution to this issue. Rather than fix the root cause (work sucks and it’s killing us, sometimes literally), we created programs to help people think about the non-sucky parts of their life—that stuff that we don’t call “work.” 

Work is part of life. And life comes to work with people every day. There is no separation to balance. There is only a human being in the middle of it who has needs and aspirations. When we refuse the myth of work-life balance, we can finally start addressing the root issues holding people back.

3. Learn compassion.  

At the beginning of the year, I declared that the number one management imperative of 2021 was compassion. Compassion isn’t a concept commonly discussed in management or leadership training, but it may be the vital missing piece to truly embracing our role in supporting employee well-being. 

At the heart of compassion is an awareness of the suffering of others and a desire to help remove or address that suffering. It’s a simple idea with profoundly powerful implications when put into practice.  

Hopefully, we’ve all experienced compassion from others at some point in our lives. If you have, you remember that experience of someone recognizing that you were suffering or struggling and offering to help you get through it. 

For me, it was the compassion of my wife and another close friend last summer who both recognized I was struggling and offered me the support I needed to heal from my burnout. 

Compassion starts with permitting yourself to care (see #1 above) and seeing the employee beyond just what happens “at work” (see #2 above). From there, it’s going to be about cultivating skills for recognizing people’s needs and challenges with a commitment to address them.  

To dive deeper into the skill of compassion, I recommend reading this resource: How to Foster Compassion at Work Through Compassionate Leadership

Well-being is the Future of Work

This has been a chaotic and often painful chapter in the evolution of work. But we’re standing at the edge of a brand new chapter.

The silver lining in this pandemic is that it shattered the status quo of “how work should be done” to reveal something that’s always been true: 

It’s about the people. 

Embracing the work of well-being is ultimately a fundamental re-thinking of how we design and manage work. Employee well-being starts with designing based on what’s best for the humans who do the work—not the organization. 

Those who recognize and embrace this shift now will lead the way forward and show what’s truly possible. And I believe they will be in a position to thrive wildly in the future. 

 

 

Related Reading:

Wellness 2.0

Why Wellness Programs Matter

How (and Why) to Check in With Your Employees Now More Than Ever

Sending My Kids Back to School Broke Me

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