In today’s corporate environments, there’s an increasing recognition of the complexity of inter-related factors that drive productivity and success. However, focusing on these sophisticated models of organisational behaviour runs the risk of overlooking some of the basics, like the inter-related health and happiness of your people.
In a recent report by the US’s Global Wellness Institute, The Future of Wellness at Work, it’s estimated that the total economic cost of unwell workers is possibly approaching 10-15% of global production. In the United States alone, which has the most extensive available data, it’s estimated that the costs of work injuries, illnesses, chronic disease, stress and employee disengagement total more than $2.2 trillion each year or 12 percent of GDP.
“It’s a staggering figure,” said Melinda Fell, Managing Director of Melinda Fell Consulting, an Australian executive search and coaching company.
“It’s interesting that the US research included employee disengagement too. It’s often not even recognised in many workplaces, yet the effect of even one disengaged employee can be significant, rippling through workgroups, lowering both morale and productivity.”
Ms Fell explained that disengaged people are a hidden cost to business and are often symptomatic of employers who don’t adopt a holistic approach to managing their people – or of individuals who can range from those neglecting their work-life balance to those suffering from mental illness.
“These are not necessarily people who are unsuccessful in their careers,” she said, “personally, they can be high achievers, but their own success can come at a cost to those working around them and the organisation that employs them.” With one in five Australians reported to have a mental health issue at some point of time during their lives, it’s not unrealistic to imagine that the two factors – mental health and employee disengagement – are related in some instances.
“It’s certainly not impossible,” Melinda said, “smart employers are looking at every facet of their people and implementing strategies to optimise productivity and engagement on both individual and company levels.”
“After all,” she concluded, “when organisations spend huge amounts to increase productivity by a few percent, they really should also be looking at factors like this with potential double figure bottom-line impacts.”
Further, a white paper on findings from a GWI/Everyday Health survey of full-time employees ‘Unlocking the Power of Company Caring,’ gauges how employees feel about many aspects of their workplace culture and wellness programs.
The overwhelming finding: to understand what has the most powerful impact on employee wellness you must look well beyond the wellness “program.” Instead, the pivotal factor was whether an employee identified their company as “caring about their health/wellness,” and when they did, their overall health, stress levels and job engagement improved significantly.
Global Wellness Institute Chairman & CEO Susie Ellis says, “Caring companies tackle not just ‘tangibles’ like healthy food and workspaces, they address emotional, relational, organizational, intellectual and financial ‘wellness’ at work (whether it’s giving workers more work flexibility or encouraging socializing and friendships).”
The Global Worker Unwell
Most of the world’s 3.4 billion workers are unwell. They live with serious economic insecurity: 74% make less than $13/day; 45% are in low-skill/manual jobs; 77% are in part-time or unstable jobs. They’re aging at an historic rate: 18% of the workforce will be over 55 by 2030. They’re unhealthy: 52% are overweight/obese, and 76% report they’re struggling with their wellbeing.
Wellness Programs Reach Less Than One in Ten Workers Worldwide
Only 9% of the global workforce has access to some form of wellness program at work. The breakdown in penetration: North America 52% of employees, Europe 23%, Middle East/North Africa 7%, Latin America/Caribbean 5%, Asia 5% and Sub-Saharan Africa 1%.
The U.S., where companies pay for employee healthcare, is by far the largest market and innovator, but as chronic disease skyrockets globally, and healthcare costs (paid via taxes) spike in markets like Europe, the GWI predicts significant growth in global workplace wellness spending in the next decade.
Cost of Worker Unwellness? Unsustainable
Worldwide, the cost of unwell workers represents 10-15% of global economic output. The GWI estimates that in the U.S., when you tally the cost of employees’ chronic disease ($1.1 trillion), work-related injuries/illnesses ($250 billion), work-related stress ($300 billion) and the cost of work disengagement ($550 billion) that an unhealthy workforce costs the nation $2.2 trillion a year, or a staggering 12% of GDP.
Work to Change Radically: From Information to “Wisdom” Economy
The GWI report forecasts the many ways that work will change in the future. Hierarchical management structures will be replaced by models giving employees greater autonomy and accountability. Long-term, stable jobs (at set locations/hours) will give way to an increasingly virtual and “free agent” workforce.
As older workers retire, the workforce will be intensely multigenerational: by 2020 teens and employees over 70 will work side-by-side. The most profound shift: the Information Age will be succeeded by a “Wisdom” or “Human” Age: as robots and Artificial Intelligence co-opt many work tasks, qualities not replicable by machines (collaboration, creativity, empathy, constant learning, etc.) will be in high demand. And these qualities demand the highest level of mental and physical wellness.
Wellness Programs: Little Impact and Low Engagement
Fifty-four percent of full-time American workers have a workplace wellness program, but only 40% of employees with programs say they actually improve their health/wellness; nearly one-third don’t use them; and 10% don’t even know if one is available.
And the impact of programs is marginal across age groups: for Gen X and Boomer workers, 58% of those with a program rate their health/wellness high, vs. 42% without one. Millennials report that the presence of a workplace wellness program makes zero difference: 50% rate their health/wellness high with and without a program.
Cynicism about Wellness Programs Abounds
Only 25% of employees believe that their company offers a wellness program because they care about workers’ health and wellbeing. Fifty-eight percent believe their program exists only to cut company health costs, while another 17% believe it’s in place to make employees work harder/be more productive. So, 3 in 4 employees are now cynical, perceiving wellness programs as companies “caring” more about their bottom-line than employee health.
“Caring” and Healthy Workspaces
Eighty-three percent of employees at caring companies (vs. 48% at uncaring) report they have comfortable workspaces. And workers at caring companies are significantly less likely to report that lack of break time/space (15% vs. 48% for uncaring) – fresh air (17% vs. 45%) – or private space (19% vs. 38%) are detractors from their health and productivity.
Caring companies are also significantly more likely to offer healthy workspace elements: like providing nap/meditation spaces (33% vs. 13%), standing treadmill desks (23% vs. 11%), or places for moms to breastfeed (38% vs. 18%).