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Why Leaders Must Address the Employee Wellbeing Deficit

Why Leaders Must Address the Employee Wellbeing Deficit

Story Highlights

  • Employee stress reached a new high in 2021
  • Employee wellbeing is crucial to organizational health
  • Measuring wellbeing can help leaders better address it

Thirty-three percent of the world's employees are thriving, according to the latest State of the Global Workplace report. This marks a one-percentage-point rise in global life evaluations from 2020 and the fourth straight year of improvement.

But although the global percentage of thriving employees has been rising slightly in recent years, negative emotions have been on the rise too.

In 2020, the world's employees saw an increase in negative emotions (stress, worry, anger and sadness). In 2021, worry, anger and sadness did not return to prepandemic levels, and stress continued to climb to a new high -- 44% of employees said they experienced stress during a lot of the previous day.

If you're employed, you're probably not surprised. The last two years have been stressful as the world dealt with social isolation, economic shocks, education disruptions and health problems -- including long-term illness and death. Even in regions where COVID-19 has retreated, countries have been dealing with supply and labor shortages related to the pandemic.

Both life evaluation and daily emotions play a role in overall employee wellbeing. So how should we understand the relationship between them? How do overall life evaluations improve as negative emotions remain high?

  1. These are not always the same people. Although life improved for some workers, it got worse for others. The pandemic did not affect everyone equally, and in many ways, it deepened social inequalities. Moreover, global averages obscure stark regional differences. Australia and New Zealand saw a six-point increase in thriving from 2020 to 2021, while Europe saw a five-point decrease.

  2. Our lives can be good and bad in different ways at the same time. Psychology makes a distinction between the "experiencing self" and the "reflective self." The experiencing self has moment-to-moment encounters with daily life (e.g., the pleasure of sipping a morning coffee or the annoyance of a traffic jam on the way to work). The reflective self steps back from the day-to-day to consider life overall: Am I getting what I want out of life? Does my future look bright?

    Different things often affect daily experiences and life evaluation. For example, personal interactions and the status of our to-do list may affect our daily emotions, while income and social status may influence our life evaluation.

  3. People put the pandemic into perspective. Gallup's survey asks respondents how they think their life will be five years from now. Although many employees experienced hard times daily, they may have seen the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.


Advice for Leaders

Some leaders may feel like things are back to normal, but Gallup's data suggest that the emotional side of work has not healed. Under the surface, people are stressed and anxious: Four out of 10 employees say they experienced worry during a lot of the day yesterday.

Although these emotions don't normally show up on a spreadsheet, they remain organizational risks. If leaders aren't paying attention to their employees' wellbeing, they are likely to be blindsided by top performer burnout and high quit rates.

Here's how leaders can change their approach:

  • Think beyond wellness. Most large organizations have physical wellness programs. But those programs don't always take mental health and social relationships -- important influencers of physical health -- into account. In addition, physical wellness fails to capture the broader dimensions of overall wellbeing: social, financial, career and community wellbeing.

    Some corporations have adopted fewer hours or remote work to improve employee wellbeing. While these adoptions may provide some benefit, they don't provide positive support for overall wellbeing. That's an area in which all companies can grow.

  • Put wellbeing on your data dashboard. Wellbeing can be measured in a scientifically valid way, and it can be correlated with performance outcomes. When leaders have a finger on the pulse of their employees' wellbeing, they can identify potential hot spots, discover best practices and validate that wellbeing initiatives are actually making a difference.

  • Make employee care a permanent part of your culture. Employee engagement in the U.S. rose at the start of the pandemic, when employers decided to communicate, listen, and offer support and flexibility to workers. Since then, the percentage of employees who feel that their employer cares about their wellbeing has plummeted. The consequences reach beyond the absence of warm feelings -- they include lower engagement, higher burnout and more employees looking for new job opportunities elsewhere.

In contrast, Gallup's research has found that teams that are most likely to feel their organization cares about their wellbeing achieve higher customer engagement, profitability and productivity, lower turnover, and fewer safety incidents.

Of all the lessons learned from the pandemic, this one should be near the top of the list: Employee wellbeing is crucial to organizational health. Organizations can't function effectively -- let alone, adapt, compete and win -- with struggling and suffering workers. Employee wellbeing is a risk and an opportunity that leaders can't afford to ignore.

Create an organization where your people can thrive.


Ryan Pendell is a Senior Workplace Science Editor at Gallup.

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