This is Your Brain on Stress

This article originally appeared in Employee Benefits News by Henry Albrecht. These days, employee engagement is all the rage – perhaps not surprising since Gallup reports that companies with engaged employees outperform those without them by 202%. Gallup defines engagement as “involved in and enthusiastic about work and the workplace.” At the same time, wellness companies have typically defined engagement as “participation in health management programs,” rather than overall employee engagement. You could say that traditional focus on health risk- and cost-reduction programs makes sense with health insurance costs at $10,000 per employee and rising. But while you can’t improve the health of your workforce without baseline measures and programs, a myopic health-risk-only strategy is a recipe for employee rejection, cultural conflict and poor results. As this very magazine recently pointed out, if risk-reduction is all you offer in the way of an employee well-being program, you’re only getting the physical piece of the well-being pie. In fact, programs that focus on health risks without acknowledging the pivotal role of social connections, emotional energy, job performance, culture and well-being tend to be perceived as antagonistic – even disingenuous in a way that undermines trust. If you haven’t taken broader social and cultural factors and emotional health into account in your well-being program, consider the facts. Stress-related issues in the workplace have been on the rise for almost 20 years – and every year, mental illness and substance abuse cost employers an estimated $80 to $100 billion in indirect costs alone. The American Psychological Association notes that chronic stress can lead to depression and, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression costs American companies $44 billion in lost productivity. With all of this in mind, today’s most sophisticated well-being programs are based on a holistic approach that incorporates not just physical health, but also emotional and organizational health, in nuanced and company-specific ways. We’ve seen the success of these programs at Limeade and wanted to know more, so we surveyed a sample of our user base (160,000 people) to understand what drives engagement. And we found that positive emotional well-being and work meaning have a much greater impact on employee engagement than physical risks and health. Here are the top engagement influencers:

  • Managing stress, anxiety and depression
  • Feeling that work has purpose
  • Skills and abilities fit well with the job
  • Paid fairly
  • Organization’s leaders inspire employees to give 100%
  • Ability and authority to fix things that aren’t going as desired
  • Good biometric health

Of course, all of this doesn’t mean you should chuck your health risk assessment and stop encouraging physical fitness and preventive care. It still rings true that healthier employees are engaged and productive – and that improvements in employee health reduce health care costs and improve quality of life. Instead, broaden the scope of your assessments and programs to address employees’ overall well-being, much of which is driven by what happens in the workplace. Create a positive culture. Make sure people aren’t overworked. Give employees the leeway and trust to do what they need to do to stay engaged and perform, like flexible work hours or working from home. Make sure your leaders are models of engagement – that they find meaning in their work, are visible, engaged and energized (tip: much of that requires physical and emotional health.) And put mechanisms in place to regularly check in with employees. Find out how they feel about their work, pay and level of authority to make things happen. At Limeade, we do one-page, quarterly performance reviews, weekly 1:1 meetings and weekly pulse surveys. These allow us to keep our finger on engagement and assess happiness, burnout and frustration in real time. Incorporating emotional health into your well-being program is the smartest way to assess and improve business (including health) risk, without alienating employees. Keep in mind that it’s not just about stress, but also a sense of meaning in work, resilience, energy level, openness and optimism, belief in one’s abilities (what psychologists would call self-efficacy), self-acceptance and more. Above all, creating a well-being program that fits your culture and rewards you with healthy, highly engaged and high-performing employees is, in fact, its own reward.