For employee well-being, it all starts with leaders

Research indicates that top execs have the greatest impact on worker satisfaction and health, from modeling a healthy work/life balance to prioritizing employee health in the workplace.

By Ted Kitterman      @tedkitkat      
How leaders set the wellness tone

If you have a workplace wellness issue, you have a leadership issue.

That’s the takeaway from a series of studies including a Department of Defense project known as the Oregon Military Employee Sleep & Health (MESH) Study.  In reviewing the impact of stress and sleep-related health issues for full-time National Guard members, the study analyzed the relationship between leaders and their subordinates and the impact that dynamic had on individual health.

The study found that “supervisor support is critical to improving overall sleep health amongst employees,” as well as identifying key behaviors that supported employee sleep health: family-supportive supervisor leadership and sleep leadership.

In laymen’s terms, leaders that encouraged subordinates to catch up on missed sleep, clock out and maintain a healthy work schedule, and support flexibility to meet family obligations, were more likely to see healthy sleep behaviors in their workers.

Dr. Leslie Hammer, a psychologist and professor at the University of Oregon and one of the main researchers behind the study, defined family supportive leadership to Mashable.

Mashable writes:

“Hammer has conducted research in diverse settings like information technology workplaces, grocery stores, nursing homes and the military. Often, she and her colleagues teach supervisors an approach she pioneered known as family supportive supervisor behaviors. These strategies hinge on empathy skills that increase emotional support, logistical resources for flexible schedules, and creative management tactics that focus on adapting to challenges, like the temporary or long-term absence of an employee.”

It starts at the top

Perhaps more than any other ingredient, leadership is the most likely element to have a measurable impact on worker wellness.

That’s a stark message for wellness leaders to deliver to top brass who are looking for wellness solutions after almost two years of pandemic crisis. However, it’s a message that is supported by more than one workplace health authority.

Mashable continues:

“If starting at the top sounds foolishly idealistic, it’s actually what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommend. The two federal agencies promote “Total Worker Health” approaches to employee safety and well-being. That means starting by eliminating workplace conditions that cause or contribute to illness, injury or poor well-being, then replacing those practices with safer ones, followed by redesigning the work environment to optimize safety, health and well-being. The last step is to encourage personal behavior change.”

“Few business leaders ever want to admit they’re the problem, or that their supervisors lack empathy skills, or that their business model may harm employee well-being despite being financially successful. Fear of failure and the enormity of looking inward are what stand in the way of “total worker health” becoming the norm rather than the exception.”

What leaders can do

If a leader is willing to accept responsibility for the well-being crisis facing their organization, what actions are available?

Research has consistently pointed to three factors that create a healthy workplace for employees: decreasing the demands of work; increasing employee control over where, how and when they will work; and improving social support.

Yet, the research has been less than conclusive on efforts such as resiliency workshops, mental heath trainings and one-off interventions. Experts call for more rigorous support—and leaders should think hard about how their claims to support employee wellness in one arena are undermined by actions elsewhere.

Gallup offers 10 tips for leaders to improve well-being in the workplace, from demonstrating a consistent, shared definition of what workplace well-being means to leading by example in creating healthy work behaviors. ADP’s Wellness Matters Leadership Toolkit also emphasizes leading through example, advising leaders to share their own wellness strategies and prioritize self-care and boundaries.

Leaders can also commit to “total health” of the employee, which was defined for Harvard Business Review:

“A healthy company culture is built intentionally. It is first and foremost about creating a way of life in the workplace that integrates a total health model into every aspect of business practice, from company policies to everyday work activities. By “total health” we mean a culture that’s supportive of career, emotional, financial, physical and social well-being–not just an occasional road race. Examples include offering flexible work schedules, giving workers latitude in decision-making, setting reasonable health goals, providing social support, enforcing health-promoting policies and establishing a healthy physical environment (healthy food offerings, staircases instead of elevators, walking trails in and outside buildings and treadmill workstations).”

And many leaders will need you to make a robust business case for your efforts. That requires wellness leaders to have a deep understanding of the organization’s long- and short-term strategic goals and be able to tie their efforts to those outcomes. For wellness leaders getting started, SHRM has created a handy fact sheet to help make the case.

Making the case to top leaders

For wellness pros looking to start a conversation with their leaders about a failure to adequately support workplace wellness, the sieve model could be a useful tool.

As shared by MIT Sloan Management Review, the sieve model shows how direct and targeted intervention, such as counseling, only works for a company that has already made investments in culture and job design.

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While many leaders might be tempted to jump to bespoke solutions to address the mental health crisis workers face across the country, the research shows that upstream solutions can preempt these crises. For leaders looking for cost-effective solutions, an ounce of prevention is surely worth a pound of cure.

And in the end, it’s that cost-benefit analysis that is most likely to sway cost-conscious executives.