How workplace culture props up wellbeing initiatives, and vice versa

More employers recognize that employees’ physical and emotional wellbeing affects job performance. That’s one reason why 41 percent offer a wellness program and an additional 29 percent expect to adopt this benefit by 2019, according to a 2017 Gallagher survey.

What employers may not realize is how significantly their culture and work environment can influence wellbeing outcomes — for better or worse.

Workplace-induced stress has been linked to depression, diabetes, absenteeism, disability and employee turnover. Medical research also shows a relationship between chronic stress and opioid misuse. These findings help explain why it’s important for employers to have both effective wellbeing initiatives and a workplace culture that doesn’t inadvertently undermine these initiatives or employers’ larger objectives.

Smart Business spoke with Joe Roberts, area vice president, Benefits & HR Consulting, Gallagher, about how to empower a healthy workforce.

Realistically, what can employers do to help employees better manage stress?

It’s not possible to eliminate stress entirely, but employers can equip employees to manage stress and the challenges that cause it in wiser, more agile ways. Helping them develop resilience is one key opportunity.

How does improved resilience translate to healthier employees?

Resilience in a work-life integration context means the ability to withstand, grow and adapt, while weathering personal, professional and societal stressors.

Research from the American Heart Association shows that resilience among employees is associated with reduced stress, greater job satisfaction, work happiness, organizational commitment and employee engagement. The benefits of resilience, however, extend beyond the individual. Individual resilience helps build organizational resilience, making it easier to withstand the inevitable ups and downs of striving to achieve organizational goals.

What role do managers play in this equation?

Managers can make or break workplace culture. Equipping them to help build a better employee experience is one of the biggest challenges employers encounter. Many managers have technical expertise but aren’t experienced in guiding and supporting others’ performance. Yet, creating proficient people managers is critical.

Managers impact whether employees perceive their work environment as positive, and how those employees experience that environment can affect their physical health. For instance, research has found stressful working conditions may contribute to injuries. At least one study suggests a negative work environment can also contribute to poor health outcomes because of increased stress.

How can employers give managers the skills to better support the people under them?

Several methods can help managers grow in their roles and actively contribute to a positive, supportive work environment.

On a large, collaborative scale, focus groups, engagement surveys and similar opportunities for direct and indirect dialogue allow employees to have a voice in decisions that affect them. Management that solicits feedback — and takes it into account when making decisions — shows respect for the wants and needs of the workforce. Employers also gain an outlet for ideas.

Tactics that center on the individual employee include defining clear performance goals, giving timely and constructive feedback, communicating in a way that fosters trust and confidence, and supporting employees in developing and pursuing a career path.

A 2017 Gallagher benchmarking survey of mid-sized and large employers shows that top-performing employers use these tactics more often than their same-size peers.

Certainly, many factors affect the ability of employers — and their workforce managers — to build a sustainably engaging culture and productive work environment that drives the business results they’d like. But a reliable, guiding principle for developing a resilient workforce empowered by that culture is: Do whatever is possible to take care of the employees that take care of the business. It’s a no-lose proposition, because the culture that helps employees thrive helps the business thrive, too.

Insights Employee Benefits is brought to you by Gallagher