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Apr 3, 2015

Relying on a corporate wellness program as the main strategy for improving employee health is like throwing a drowning person a DVD on how to do the backstroke.

In both cases, the focus is on the wrong stage of the problem.

Most company executives recognize that addressing workplace stress, the direct and indirect cause of many health problems, must be part of any strategy to improve employee health and reduce health care cost.

Where managers can help

Respondents to Towers Watson’s 2014 Staying@Work survey (including senior managers in human resources) identified stress as the No. 1 risk to employee health. But rather than understanding and addressing the causes of stress, many organizations (especially large companies) rely on programmatic solutions. These programs typically require individuals to take charge of their own health.

According to a 2013 RAND study, between 70 and 80 percent of employers’ lifestyle management programs emphasize weight management, smoking cessation and fitness improvement. Only about half include a stress management component. And even the phrase “stress management” underscores the problem.

Companies that want to reduce health care expenses should concentrate on ways to reduce and transform stress rather than expect employees simply to deal with it better. That’s where managers come in.

Don’t alleviate it – transform it

Stress is ubiquitous – it’s the crabgrass of working life. Complete eradication of stressors from the work environment is an impractical goal.

Managers can, however, reduce pressures and introduce stress-buffering conditions into the workplace. By doing so, they can transform much of what employees experience as damaging stress (or distress) into to a more productive form (referred to as eustress).

This transformation not only reduces the unhealthy effects of workplace pressure, but also increases employee satisfaction and productivity. We use the term fulfillment for the outcome of positive stress.

A recent Towers Watson survey of managers, stress and work environment pinpointed the top six (6) things managers can do to build this sense of fulfillment:

  • Treat people with respect.
  • Assign tasks that are well-suited to each individual’s skills and abilities.
  • Be friendly and work to get along with others.
  • Support people fully in their jobs.
  • Ensure that employees have the freedom to decide how best to do their work.
  • Set reasonable deadlines for completion of tasks.

Hitting the “Sweet Spot”

When managers perform well on these six criteria, they do something that is the envy of every tennis player, golfer and baseball player – they hit the sweet spot.

Finding the sweet spot means striking the ball precisely where the racquet, club or bat imparts the greatest force with the least vibration. In the workplace, it means finding the right combination of energy and tension, support and independence, comfort and stretch.

In a fulfilling work environment, people do work that is inspiring and meaningful to both individual and organization. The time available to complete assignments may not be generous, but people have the time they need to perform well.

Work requires them not only to use their highest skills, but also provides opportunities for – indeed, requires – additional growth. People have the autonomy, and the responsibility, to decide the best way to approach a set of tasks. They are not expected to perform alone, however – they receive needed support (logistical, collaborative and social) from their managers and from their peers.

When managers build work environments with less damaging stress, people report experiencing significant reductions in stress-related inhibitors to productivity and health. In our manager and work environment survey referenced above, people said that in low-stress environments they are:

  • 30 percent less likely to have been absent from work four or more days in the last year;
  • 52 percent less likely to say that their health hinders their productivity some of the time or more often; and,
  • 6 percent less likely to come to work and underperform because of illness, boredom or emotional distractions.

Compelling economics

By some estimates, workers who report high stress incur health care costs 46 percent greater than those for non-stressed employees. Between 60 and 90 percent of doctor visits are attributable to stress-related illnesses and symptoms. These kinds of data suggest that a strong business case exists for doing something about workplace tension and pressure.

According to the RAND study, employers express overwhelming confidence that wellness programs reduce medical cost, absenteeism, and health-related losses in productivity. A well-conceived and executed wellness program can certainly improve employee psychological and physical health.

But, like the drowning person who benefits more from a life preserver than a swimming lesson, employees also need their organizations – and their managers – to focus on a different stage of the stress-and-health problem. Instead of assuming harmful stress is a workplace given, companies should equip managers to create fulfilling work environments.

Supervisors are key to a healthy workforce

In addition to urging employees to get to the gym, take the latest online resilience training course or learn to meditate, organizations should find ways to preempt the effects of workplace stressors.

Doing so requires company leaders to realize that the competence and performance of supervisors and managers is the key to achieving the economic benefits of a healthy workforce.

Thomas O. Davenport will be conducting a session titled “Stress, Health and Employee Productivity – Removing Speed Bumps on the Road to Better Performance” at TLNT’s High Performance Workplace Summit in Atlanta May 6-7. Sign up here to attend, and download this TLNT whitepaper to get a $300 discount

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