The management saga of this week was CEO Jason Fried’s announcement of controversial changes at Basecamp, including banning political discussion on the tech company’s internal messaging system. “No more paternalistic benefits,” was the second item on Fried’s list, as he ended perks such as fitness and wellness allowances, writing that “it's not Basecamp's place to encourage certain behaviors—regardless of good intention.” (Basecamp is offering staff a cash payment for this year’s value of the benefits it’s discontinuing.)
Wellbeing at Work, a book due out next week by Gallup CEO Jim Clifton and chief workplace scientist Jim Harter, can be read as a manifesto for the opposite approach to employee wellness. It summons research suggesting that companies should engage in promoting behaviors such as exercise and adequate sleep, and even goes so far as making “your wellbeing” a core part of employee reviews.
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Since reading 12: The Elements of Great Managing, a book that Harter coauthored in 2006, I’ve appreciated Gallup’s ability to offer specific management advice based on its interviews with millions of workers. Among the fresh insights from that book was that having a “best friend” at work was a predictor of better employee performance.
For this new book, Gallup identified five statistical factors that contributed to whether an individual was thriving in life: career wellbeing, social wellbeing, financial wellbeing, physical wellbeing, and community wellbeing. Clifton and Harter say that career wellbeing is the most important, and the foundation for the other four: “Thriving in what you do every day makes for stronger relationships, a more secure financial life, good health, and greater community involvement.” (p. 35) They note that the pandemic has increased burnout and disconnection, reducing aspects of wellbeing at work.
So what do they recommend that organizations and individual managers do? Some advice that stands out:
- Train managers properly and remove bad ones. Managers are the single biggest factor in worker engagement and performance, and poor management is widespread. Clifton and Harter write: “Spending time with their manager is the worst part of their day for employees, according to an approach called National Time Accounting that asks people detailed questions about their time use throughout the day.” (p. 41)
- Make sure employees get feedback at least once a week. The aim is inspiration, not just correction. Setting clear goals with employees’ input leads to higher performance. “The combination of autonomy and meaningful feedback is the magic formula that produces the greatest benefit,” write Clifton and Harter.
- Establish a mentoring program. Workers with mentors have higher performance and lower turnover.
- Create opportunities for coworkers to get to know each other, and encourage in-person socializing once that is safe. Individuals are more likely to thrive in life and be engaged professionally if they have friends at work. In-person social time is even more effective than virtual connections at building human capital—an argument for encouraging socializing during the in-office parts of hybrid schedules. Include socializing as part of onboarding.
- Provide tools for financial wellness. Struggling around money is a major source of stress and distraction. Providing access to financial advisors and making employees opt out of 401k retirement plan participation are two tactics.
- Model healthy practices around sleep and exercise. Celebrate personal wellness.
- Support community volunteer service. Let teams choose how they want to engage.
Gallup cites four factors found in the companies with the highest employee engagement:
- The CEO and board initiated culture change.
- Managers were coaches and not just bosses.
- Companywide communication was effective.
- Managers were held responsible for engagement and performance.
To be sure…
- Gallup books too often feel like they’re marketing for other Gallup services. It’s unfortunate, as their research is rigorous, their access to employees around the world unique, and the takeaways useful. Wellbeing at Work concludes with a plug for Gallup’s CliftonStrengths assessments. (The book comes with an access code for the service, which usually costs $19.99 or more.) In addition, many of the takeaways from Wellbeing at Work—such as the value of having a best friend at work—will be familiar to readers of earlier Gallup books.
- There’s no specific discussion in the book of ways in which racial and gender bias can get in the way of a worker’s engagement and wellbeing at work—which is a weakness in its analysis.
Memorable facts and statistics:
- Just 20% of employees strongly agree that they like what they do every day.
- Companies with high workplace stressors may contribute to more than 120,000 deaths in the US annually.
- Gallup research has found that each additional hour of social time, up to six hours, per day—whether online, by phone, or in person—improves an individual’s mood.
- Only 22% of US employees strongly agree that the leaders have a clear direction for their company. Just 27% strongly believe in their company’s stated values. And only one-third trust their organization’s leaders.
- Two-thirds of people who change jobs change employers, rather than find a new job at their current company.
- The majority of engaged workers would require more than a 20% raise to leave their employer, while actively disengaged workers will quit for almost any raise.
- One study found that of workers paid above market value, just 21% realized that, while 45% thought they were paid at market and 35% wrongly believed they were paid below market.
- “Wellbeing actually recovers more rapidly from the death of a spouse than it does from a sustained period of unemployment.” (p. 90)
- “In Germany and the US, Gallup found that people with a bad manager had even worse wellbeing than those without jobs.” (p. 93)
The bottom line is that Wellbeing at Work, while it doesn’t break fresh new ground, clearly articulates why and how employers should make an effort to ensure that workers are thriving both in their jobs and in other key areas of their lives.
Clinton and Harter’s contention that a good job is a foundational element for people to thrive more broadly in their lives resonates especially in the wake of the widespread burnout of the past year. Work is where we spend much of our waking hours and it can positively or negatively affect our physical, social, and financial wellbeing—which places extra responsibility on organizational leaders for providing skilled management, clear goals, and purpose.
You can order Wellbeing at Work at Bookshop.org or Amazon. (We may make a commission when you buy a book.) All page numbers referenced above are for the hardcover edition.
You can read my earlier interview with Harter about employee engagement and burnout, and what individual contributors and managers can do about it.
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The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email. You can read all of our book briefings here.