Dr. Janet Ahn is an experienced experimental social psychologist, equipping some of the world’s largest companies to be ready for tomorrow. She currently serves as U.S. president and chief behavioral science officer of MindGym.
Tessa West is an associate professor of psychology at New York University and a leading expert in the science of interpersonal communication. Her book, Jerks at Work, provides a hands-on guide to tackling everyday problems with difficult people in the workplace.
With 7 in 10 employees globally struggling, most organizations are well aware of the problem they’re up against regarding employee well-being. They feel it in their turnover (pdf), engagement, and end-of-quarter numbers. Well-being is a front-and-center problem—one that companies have thrown plenty of money at, spending $50 bn on employee well-being in 2022, which is expected to rise to $100 bn by 2030. Yet with a recession looming, some companies are cutting back on mental health benefits.
Looking at the lack of progress we’ve made in the well-being space, it’s easy to understand why employers question spending. Our attempts to move the needle on employee well-being have failed, leading to almost no change in productivity, health behaviors, or complex health outcomes.
People who go through wellness programs are no more productive or healthy than those who don’t. The most significant predictor of improving well-being is already having a gym membership, which many employees gladly let their job pay for.
Perhaps our failure to move the needle on well-being should be no surprise. Most well-being solutions ask people to do things in addition to their work: they don’t ask people to change how they work. The people who take on extra yoga classes, meditate regularly, and are loyal to their sleep apps are typically those with the means (higher paychecks) and time (nannies and support teams) to do them. For these folks, well-being programs can make a difference.
Those overwhelmed at work and drowning in home responsibilities are left in the dust. In a recent study of frontline workers, almost a third of them indicated they were under intense pressure at work, and nearly three in four workers felt the pressure increasing at home. So there’s an excellent opportunity for companies to close the gap in well-being and mental health support at work.
Yoga and sleep apps are fine, but they don’t appeal to the people who need help the most. Instead, employers and leaders should provide solutions that work for everyone at work, from the well-rested employee up for a new challenge to the fragile thrivers. These employees appear to have the trappings of a successful powerhouse but, on the inside, have blood pressure levels in the danger zone.
The root causes of stress are not whether we have access to a sleep app or are involved in a fitness challenge. Stress at work happens when:
- Demands overwhelm resources
- Leaders exhibit unreasonable behavior
- Tensions build within the team
- Communication is unclear, or there is a lack of clarity on how to complete tasks
- Our work feels pointless, or we don’t feel valued
Well-being and employers support for it should focus on the small daily changes that make the most significant impact. Employers need an approach that targets everyone within the workforce—tackling the root causes of stress, anxiety, and stagnation at work instead of treating the symptoms.
Employers can tackle these stressors head-on by building behaviors around five science-backed well-being enablers in the workflow: certainty, competence, autonomy, belonging, and purpose. Of course, these concepts aren’t new and can seem quite nebulous. Still, hundreds of studies over multiple decades continue to point at these core ideas to eradicate workplace stress and anxiety.
Shifting the dial on these enablers will help prevent burnout (pdf) in your workforce, slowing the revolving door of talent and making a significant, tangible difference in engagement and performance. Companies can make a few simple tweaks to the flow of work—without blowing HR budgets and with highly effective results.
1. Quick certainty cure
- What: When suggesting a meeting, state the when and the why. For example, swap “Can we meet on Thursday?” for “Can we meet on Thursday to discuss your latest proposal?”
- Why: Uncertainty-based stress is one of the most significant sources of stress at work—especially if that uncertainty comes from above. Moving the needle on minor uncertainties like these takes very little work.
2. Competence kick
- What: Give people bite-sized goals with clear benchmarks.
- Why: Most people work best when they have clear action plans that stretch no further (pdf) than two weeks into the future. This is because we are better at predicting near-term roadblocks, whereas we tend to overestimate our capacity in the longer term.
3. Autonomy aid
- What: Make it clear to people what is out of their direct control—and give them power over the small things they can control.
- Why: Leaders tend to assume it’s obvious to employees (pdf) that they won’t have control over big issues like working hours or hybrid policies. Spelling it out preempts futile power struggles, allowing us to refocus on what employees can control.
4. Belonging booster
- What: Small, daily acts of inclusion are more important than big symbolic gestures.
- Why: Taking a stand on inclusion-related issues is trendy, but it can lead to a moral licensing effect: we’ve ticked the box, and now we can move on. The truth is grand gestures rarely do much to make individuals feel valued. Small daily acts of inclusion (pdf) will make an impact on an individual level and be remembered.
5. Purpose power-up
- What: Look for ways to create connections between colleagues.
- Why: Although most of us think we find purpose in our jobs, studies show it’s often the people we work with who boost our sense of purpose.
Behavioral science shows simple changes cost less and achieve far more for employee well-being than adding new wellness activities to busy work schedules.
It’s 2022, and there’s a recession coming. So let’s get more thoughtful about where we target our well-being budgets and invest in concrete actions which actually work.