Treat Your People Well

A holistic approach to well-being can pay big dividends for your operation.

There’s more to developing happy and engaged employees than just counting steps, calories and reps.

While many companies devote significant resources to employee fitness programs aimed at improving physical fitness, growing numbers of organizations are also starting to emphasize another equally important health aspect: their emotional and mental well-being.

By doing so, these organizations are laying a solid foundation for employees who are more engaged, less stressed, and more likely to stick around, says Alexander Lovell, manager of research and assessment at O.C. Tanner Institute (, a research firm that helps companies develop well-being and recognition programs.

“When people think about well-being programs, the common place they go to is physical health,” Lovell explains. “And that’s great — physical health is very important. But I’d argue for also taking a more holistic approach that incorporates many different dimensions of well-being … not just the physical, but the mental, social and emotional — even spiritual — so employees feel uplifted and healthy in every dimension of their lives.”

A well-being study performed by O.C. Tanner in 2017 revealed the need for such programs. The study was based on responses from 3,600 employees at companies with more than 500 employees and based in the U.S. and about a half-dozen other countries. Among its key findings:

  • 36 percent of employees say their job negatively affects their physical health.
  • 38 percent say their job hurts their ability to be happy in other aspects of their lives.
  • 52 percent feel that productivity mattered more to their company than people.
  • When asked to rate their overall health and well-being on a scale of one to 10 (with 10 as the best and zero the worst), the average score was 5.91.
  • On the other hand, organizations with comprehensive well-being programs recorded a:
  • 14 percent improvement in employees’ overall sense of well-being.
  • 17 percent increase in new ideas and innovation from employees.
  • 20 percent jump in employees that see a physician for a general physical checkup.

In addition, 83 percent of respondents that rated their overall health and well-being a 10 worked at companies with well-being programs. And effective well-being programs also can significantly improve corporate culture, leading to employees with a better sense of purpose about their jobs, higher levels of engagement and job satisfaction, and better perceptions of their managers and senior management, the study indicates.

Recognition is critical

Recognition of everything from employment anniversaries to personal achievements should play a central role in a well-being program. Why? Lovell says that when handled correctly, it increases social connections among employees and boosts their sense of well-being.

“A lot of things affect our health aside from physical factors,” he explains. “We have all this technology … and we’re more connected than ever before. Yet we’re increasingly lonely and don’t connect as well with people. I believe organizations can be a focal point for creating these connections between people.

“Gallup Polls show that (low) levels of employee engagement haven’t changed much in the last 15 years, despite billions of dollars in investments by organizations,” he adds. “My hypothesis is that organizations have focused on structural processes and organizational approaches instead of curating an employee environment and experience where they can thrive and choose to be engaged. Recognition programs can serve as a conduit to engagement.”

Recognition is a powerful tool because it can connect numerous employees at the same moment in unique and different ways. Getting a team together to celebrate a milestone — the completion of a complicated project or a work anniversary, for example — creates intangible bonds that transcend more structured efforts at engagement.

“Think of it this way,” Lovell suggests. “When we work, we connect with work and it’s generally very tactical. But if a recognition moment is done well, the employee can see directly how their work has contributed to something larger. It creates this connection that helps employees see things very differently and less tactically. It gives work more meaning.”

It’s also important to celebrate when employees achieve a more personal goal — say, running a marathon or meeting a weight-loss goal. Of course, managers need to assess situations like this to determine if an employee would feel comfortable with the recognition, as well as how many people should be part of the recognition beyond the employee’s immediate team. For instance, an overweight or introverted person might not relish the spotlight, he says.

“That’s where the importance of good leadership comes in,” Lovell emphasizes. “The onus is on the manager or leader to truly understand some of those nuances.”

Cost is a factor

One obstacle to implementing well-being programs is cost, along with difficulty in demonstrating a significant return on investment. But that’s not to say there isn’t a good return, Lovell notes, pointing to positive results in areas like increased engagement and reduced turnover. In fact, the O.C. Tanner study shows that an employee’s desire to leave a job decreases almost 23 percent when their appreciation and well-being scores rank above average.

“I’m not saying everyone in an organization has to have a friend and everyone has to participate,” Lovell notes. “But companies should look at removing some of the barriers that hinder well-being.” For example, it’s not necessarily expensive for companies to reimagine workplaces so that they promote collaboration, which in turn can help build connections among employees, he says.

O.C. Tanner offers a variety of programs that promote well-being, such as an email-based recognition program that lets employees recognize colleagues for great work and broadcasts the messages companywide; electronic yearbooks to celebrate employee anniversaries; and software that allows employees to track healthy behaviors and fitness goals, which also motivates them to do more.

“I believe that most employees want to do a good job and make contributions,” Lovell concludes. “And having well-being programs helps them bring their best to work every day and has a significant positive effect on them and their organization. That way organizations are not getting just good work, but great work. And that could lead to that next innovation that pushes a company forward.”


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