Workplace Wellness | Moving Beyond Employee Health towards Employee Well-Being

“A happy worker is a productive worker” might sound like an overly simplistic maxim, but that does not make it invalid. Various business theoreticians, coaches, educators, “experts” and authors have explored the concept of employee wellness, realized its complexity and potential, and linked it to corporate sustainability and long-term success. Since the scope of workplace wellness (and general well-being) is so vast, employers are often left puzzled when deciding where to start and which areas to tackle.

Saw a habit, reap a character

In his seminal work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey discussed not only personal achievement, but character building as well. The influential Dr. Covey argued passionately that one needs to preserve and enhance oneself first, and that personal renewal takes time and dedication. It is also essential to the implementation of the other proposed habits (Covey, 1989). In other words, looking after your physical, social/emotional, mental and spiritual well-being (Covey’s four “self-renewal” areas) is his crucial 7th habit in the architected algorithm of business and personal success.

The concept of self-renewal goes well beyond simply “not being ill”. It is about finding the equilibrium that will enable one to live well, handle challenges (resilience), and produce great results (productivity).

Employees’ basic needs

Tony Schwartz, the chief executive of The Energy Project, a consulting firm, echoes some of Dr. Covey’s beliefs, too. His work involves propagating systemic investment in employees, beyond just paying them a salary, and meeting the complex needs of the workforce that will in turn perform better. Mr. Schwartz elaborates on Covey’s work by identifying four basic needs that should be met if a company wants its workers to be more satisfied and more productive:

  • Renewal (physical needs)
  • Value (emotional needs)
  • Focus (mental needs)
  • Purpose (spiritual needs)

In short, if workers are supported to reenergize (e.g. take regular breaks), feel valued and appreciated, are able to focus on the task at hand, and believe there is a higher purpose to what they are doing (something bigger than them), they will perform significantly better, as demonstrated in a study conducted by The Energy Project for the Harvard Business Review (Schwartz & Porath, 2014).

Moving towards a definition of wellness

A more holistic approach towards workplace wellness might be catching on, but a uniform definition of wellness has yet to emerge, which can make certain initiatives and programs seem trivial. For example, while some might consider giving employees intermittent breaks to be a way of promoting balance and personal renewal, critics might argue the value and significance of such in-direct strategies for business success.

Twenty years ago, Anspaugh, Hunter and Molsley (1995) captured the wellness’ multi-dimensional character and the implications for contemporary wellness programs when they coined the following definition of wellness:

A composite of physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, occupational, and social health; health promotion is the means to achieve wellness. Difficulty functioning in any of these areas has a negative impact on the others. For this reason, a comprehensive worksite health promotion program needs to address each of these issues (p. 206).

The notion that wellness expands beyond the absence of illness and disease is far from a new idea. Even earlier, in 1976, Dr. Bill Hettler talked of a six dimensional wellness model; the physical component being just one of six parts of his wellness wheel (National Wellness Institute). Nonetheless, some dimensions of Hettler’s model often stay ignored, and the more bio-medical view still takes the lead, sometimes obstructing progressive approaches to health, wellness and overall success by giving priority to the reductionist corporeal view.

What stands in the way of launching ‘holistic wellness’ strategies?

Often, habits and deeply ingrained patterns of (corporate) behavior stand in the way of meeting employee needs such as those described and researched by Covey, Schwartz and their colleagues. Despite a growing evidence base that supports employee satisfaction as a component of well-being, in many companies, old paradigms persist (Schwartz & Porath, 2014). However, employers seem to be increasingly recognizing the complex needs of their workers. In fact, it could simply be that the complexity of these needs makes the task of satisfying them more daunting.

Addressing the physical aspects of well-being appears to be somewhat the easiest jumping-off point, and many wellness programs focus on these (alone) perhaps because they are easy to quantify. A broader shift in corporate mind-set that would consider other (less tangible) needs is less common.  

Are we sometimes limiting ourselves to the physical dimensions of health when designing and promoting wellness programs? Is that the reason that workers’ performance and participation doesn’t improve as much as we in the industry would hope? In order to embrace everything wellness stands for, more energy needs to be dedicated to exploring different areas of general employee satisfaction. Ideas such as promoting healthy work relationships, providing a sense of belonging and value, listening, and encouraging life balance are important -especially to millennials (Harter, Schmidt, & Keyes, 2002, Towers Watson 2012 Global Workforce Study). In many ways, meeting employees’ needs – physical and non-corporeal – is what workplace wellness represents, and when executed well, it is bound to result in both a happier workplace and improved productivity.