Are You Making Your Employees Sick?

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Stress may be hard to quantify, but the negative effects it can have on a person’s health are undeniable. Symptoms related to being overstressed include headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, upset stomach, insomnia, anxiety, irritability, drug/alcohol abuse, and a wide range of other physical and mental health issues. If your company embraces a high-stress culture, you might be doing actual physical damage to your workers.

In fact, 36 percent of workers say their job has a negative impact on their physical health, according to a survey of 3,600 employees around the world conducted by O.C. Tanner. Thirty-eight percent of respondents also claimed their jobs made it difficult to be happy in other aspects of their life, and 52 percent felt confident that their employer cared more about productivity and the bottom line than employee well-being.

“Clearly, profitability and productivity are important key performance indicators and are critical to business success,” says Gary Beckstrand, vice president of the O.C. Tanner Institute and author of Appreciate: Celebrating People, Influencing Greatness. “However, if that’s the only message employees hear from senior leadership, employee engagement and the sense of overall well-being suffers.”

Employees are often confident their work results matter to the organization, but they’re less certain their employers value them as people. To achieve sustained success, Beckstrand says, organizations must ensure they emphasize results while clearly communicating they care about the people delivering those results.

Why Should I Focus on Employee Well-Being?

Countless factors contribute to employee stress, including low wages, excessive workloads, no opportunities for advancement, lack of autonomy at work, and more. It’s crucial that employers create well-rounded wellness programs to address these and other issues driving high employee stress levels.

“Well-being initiatives that include elements that address financial, physical, emotional, and social wellness can go a long way to mitigating stress and helping employees deal with inevitable periodic stress within the workplace,” Beckstrand says. “Organizations that focus on overall culture improvement will stand a better chance to minimize the causes of stress.”

According to the O.C. Tanner study, the following six culture elements can improve productivity, employee engagement, and workplace well-being:

  1. Purpose
  2. Opportunity
  3. Success
  4. Appreciation
  5. Well-being
  6. Leadership

“Companies that connect their employees to the company’s overall purpose; help employees develop through challenging work and special projects; recognize employee’s work; and help leaders clearly define expectations, share leadership with team members, and build a sense of camaraderie will deal with many of the core elements of stress, establishing a workplace culture where people thrive,” Beckstrand says.

Maybe If I Ignore It, the Stress Will Go Away

Corporate leaders often prefer to kick the employee wellness can down the road, either to deal with it later or in hopes that it will resolve itself. Unfortunately for them, ignoring the problem is probably the worst thing that can be done.

“Ignoring a problem is never the right solution, unless leadership is fine with the same or worse results,” Beckstrand says. “Developing and clearly communicating a corporate well-being strategy … goes a long way toward addressing change and helping employees feel that the company cares about them. The best programs are the ones where employees are directly involved in the assessment and development process. Including employees in the work itself is a win-win for the organization.”

While there are broad wellness initiatives that can be applied to most organizations, individual companies must implement programs that address the issues occurring within their own walls. If you want to know what has your employees pulling out their hair, there’s a simple way to find out: Ask.

“The first step is to get feedback from employees,” Beckstrand says. “This can be done with a culture assessment survey and focus groups. Keep in mind that you must be committed to taking action based on your findings to maintain any trust with employees.”

Beckstrand also recommends establishing a “well-being task force” comprising both front-line employees and leaders from across the organization. Once the assessment results are in, the task force can use them to inform a long-term vision and an overall strategy for making that vision a reality.

Are resources scarce? Not need to fret. As long as “employees clearly understand the big picture and the long-term path,” it’s fine to implement components of the strategy piecemeal over time, according to Beckstrand. Education is also a great place to start if your company cannot afford major monetary investment just yet.

“Sharing information is a very cost-effective method that can be followed up with well-being initiatives or programs that reward well-being behaviors,” Beckstrand notes.

Stress leads to illness. Illness leads to sick days. Sick days lead to decreased productivity. The math here is simple. Take care of your employees, and they will take care of you.

By Jason McDowell