- Work can contribute to wellbeing in numerous ways
- Organizations that promote wellbeing are more likely to have flourishing employees AND better work outcomes
- There are many practices, interventions, and wellbeing resources that companies can use to enhance wellbeing
Work and Flourishing
When work is carried out well, it provides goods and services that help meet the needs, desires, and aspirations of human society. Work promotes our well-being. As has been noted by various thinkers throughout history, the very process of working can also be conducive to our flourishing: In addition to providing for our material needs, work can help us to use and develop our capacities and strengths; it can be a forum for relationships; and it can give us a sense of purpose.
Because work has the potential to contribute so much to our lives, it is important that it is structured well, so that it allows for opportunities to flourish. Individuals bear responsibility for this, but so do managers and organizations. The workplace can be structured in ways that are conducive to well-being or in ways that impede it.
A Business Case for Promoting Well-Being
Companies often have programs to promote health and wellness and are concerned about the physical health of their employees. This is important. But people care about more than that; they also want to be happy, to have a sense of meaning, to try to be a good person, and to have good relationships. People care about these things, and so should businesses.
Some of our prior analyses have indicated that while physical health does contribute to important work outcomes like job satisfaction, worker performance, and work engagement, so do other aspects of well-being. Our research in fact indicated that happiness and character strengths contribute to job satisfaction as much as does physical health. Happiness contributes about as much to work performance as does physical health, and social relationships contributes even more. A similar story pertains to the longitudinal associations between character strengths and subsequent work engagement, on which it has as large or larger effects than physical health, and character strengths are more important than physical health for preventing work injury. Our ongoing research with the Aetna employees, currently under review, has indicated similar effects of well-being on work outcomes.
While these longitudinal associations provide some evidence for causal effects, they are not necessarily definitive. However, our colleagues at the University of Oxford have provided even more compelling evidence for some of these effects in a study, using data from a clever natural experiment, which once again indicated effects of employee happiness on labor productivity and also on sales success. Meta-analyses have also suggested that employee well-being is related to lower turnover, though more rigorous longitudinal designs are still needed to definitively confirm.
Employee well-being is also longitudinally related to subsequently lower healthcare costs and considerably lower costs due to distraction. Employee well-being matters for work outcomes. Employee well-being should be advanced as a moral imperative in its own right, but enhancing employee well-being may also help businesses with their bottom line as well.
Promoting Well-Being in the Workplace
So how might well-being be promoted in the workplace? There are a variety of possible approaches, from top-down to bottom-up. First, organizations could start measuring and tracking well-being to understand what is going well and what is not; who needs help and in what ways; and how things are changing over time. We’ve carried out such assessments with a number of different organizations including Aetna, Levi, Kohler, Owens Corning, Eileen Fisher, Delta Airlines, and the World Bank as well as in numerous schools, universities, and clinical institutions. In addition to providing helpful information on what needs the most attention, the simple act of measurement within organizations can often alter the conversation and change priorities so that well-being becomes more central.
Second, organizations can work towards providing structures and schedules that are more conducive to work-family balance and to flourishing in all of life. Studies have indicated that programs to promote family-supportive supervisory behaviors and employee control over work location and schedule have important effects on employee wellbeing, including on adequacy of sleep, control over schedule, and better and more family time, and this is accomplished without reducing total work hours or increasing job demands. Similarly, one of our own studies at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard has indicated that creating a caring organizational climate, including respect and trust, leads both to better employee well-being but also better work outcomes, including lower distraction at work and increased productivity, engagement, and job satisfaction.
Third, individuals can carry out practices like job-crafting which aim at helping people to intentionally enhance their own efficiency at work, to enhance relationships, and to connect their own jobs with the purpose of the organization in order to find greater meaning. Such activities again contribute both to an individual’s sense of well-being and to work engagement.
Fourth, workplaces might broadly disseminate more general well-being activities that we know, from randomized trials, enhance flourishing. Such activities include, for example, gratitude exercises, or acts of kindness, or imagining one’s best possible self, or the use of character strengths, or forgiveness. We’ve summarized some of these activities in an evidence-based guide. These are activities that can be freely distributed and will enhance both well-being and, because well-being in life affects well-being at work and vice-versa, will likely also enhance work outcomes.
Relatedly, and finally, workplaces might provide opportunities for greater social connection at work, or for volunteering, or for alleviating financial struggles by helping restructure debt and by providing a living wage.
All of these are ways in which workplaces might enhance the well-being of their employees and thereby also contribute to the well-being and productivity of their organizations as well.
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