Taking Responsibility for Poor Wellbeing

Evidence suggests that our overall physical wellbeing is directly influenced by our careers, finances, social lives and community involvement. And like diet and exercise, we have some control over all these areas. Should employers share in this responsibility?

In “Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements,” Tom Rath and Jim Harter provide an understanding of what makes a life worthwhile. According to the authors—both Gallup researchers on workplace leadership and management—wellbeing isn’t only about happiness.

Wellbeing is also not only about financial wealth, career success or physical health. In fact, focusing on any one of these in isolation may very well end in frustration and provide a sense of failure.

Instead the authors present a holistic view on how the interconnections among five areas that make up wellbeing can help shape the way people evaluate their lives. These five elements are career, social, financial, physical and community.

According to a recent Gallup Study by Harter and Sangeeta Agrawal, also a senior researcher at Gallup, there is also a huge price to pay for poor wellbeing.

The researchers measured overall wellbeing and monitored the change in disease burden for specific chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression, heart disease, diabetes, sleep disorder/insomnia, and anxiety.

They categorized individuals’ overall wellbeing as “thriving” (strong, consistent and progressing), “struggling” (moderate or inconsistent), or “suffering” (at high risk). One-third of struggling or suffering adults reported an increase in their disease burden. Comparatively, one in five thriving adults reported an increase in disease burden. The data suggests that adults with struggling or suffering wellbeing were 64% more likely than adults with thriving wellbeing to have one or more new disease conditions diagnosed in the past year.

The 64% figure is significant not only because of the physical cost but also the financial costs associated with these conditions. The researchers reported a distinct difference in the cost of disease burden when comparing these two groups. Thriving adults averaged an annual disease burden cost of $4,929 per person compared to $6,763 per person averaged by struggling and suffering adults. This represents a 37% cost difference, with struggling and suffering adults averaging $1,834 more in disease burden costs per person than those in the thriving group.

“A high percentage of healthcare costs are due to things we can all directly affect—our diet, exercise, weight, and other habits,” says Harter. “But many other aspects of our lives can influence our long-term physical health, including our careers, social lives, finances, and communities.”

Harter says employers are well-positioned to help people improve their short-term and long-term wellbeing in all dimensions. Employers have natural social networks, cultural expectations, and an infrastructure to provide wellbeing resources. He further suggests employers can take the lead in creating awareness and long-term change through education, measurement and positive defaults.

Employers can begin by building an engaging work environment, which includes fortifying the organization with great managers and offering employees support and structure to reach higher levels of wellbeing in all dimensions. Employee wellbeing may then be a logical extension to employee engagement.

“While organizations probably shouldn’t approach wellbeing from a paternalistic perspective,” says Harter, “they can offer opportunities that improve the odds that their employees will do what is best for themselves and make clear that thriving wellbeing is an expectation within the organization.”

Because employees and employers pay the financial consequences of poor wellbeing, it makes sense to invest time and money to provide resources that help employees improve all dimensions of their wellbeing.

Harter says he believes organizations can offer employees options to learn financial management skills through relevant programs and classes. And he thinks organizations can take an active role in connecting employees to community involvement opportunities that fit their strengths and interests.

“It’s important that organizations work on prevention and early intervention by understanding that the wellbeing elements are interdependent,” Harter says. “Prevention doesn’t just involve motivating people to take part in exercise programs and make healthy food choices. It involves thinking about how these good habits interact with all the other wellbeing elements. As with engagement, the most progressive organizations will realize that their job is to improve people’s lives as they improve their performance.”

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