September 23, 2011

Hidden Factors Influencing Well-Being in the Workplace

While everyone agrees a sick work environment is detrimental to your well-being, most people would have trouble articulating how, and how much.  Interestingly, findings from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index® (WBI) and the Healthways Well-Being Assessment™ (WBA) are starting to bring more clarity about the work environment a person is experiencing.  When we compare individual’s answers against their responses to other questions, we’re able to recognize the overall impact on well-being. Some of the factors are obvious, while others are subtler, or even hidden.

Let’s start with the more obvious.  In more restrictive work environments workers are less likely to exercise and eat right.  This is because leadership is less likely to establish a culture that is supportive of well-being. In this environment the building is less likely to be mindfully engineered to make the healthy choice the easy choice, and policies aren’t likely established to allow flexible time for exercise.  As the result, employees will feel less support for work/life balance.

Unfortunately, much of the negative impact of the work environment on well-being is less obvious.  Take Life Evaluation for example. We ask people to rate their current lives and how they think their lives will be in five years on a scale of one to ten. This allows us to gauge their level of optimism and hope.  The group that scores the best, we call them “thrivers,” are generally more skewed toward lower risk, and have less chronic illness.  We believe this is because they have their emotional and social houses in order, and thereby have more time, energy, and propensity to take good care of themselves.

Our data shows that the thrivers do better on 16 different social and emotional variables, or perhaps said in reverse, doing well on these variables is what allows them to “thrive.”  Of the 16 variables, 7 are impacted by a person’s experience in the work setting.  These include: job satisfaction, job overload, co-worker issues, technology, supervisor issues, training, and resources.  If the work culture does not support workers in these areas there will be a social and emotional impact that reduces the chances they will take care of themselves.  This results in more risk factors and higher disease prevalence, which adds to health-related costs and leads to deterioration in their work performance.  Thrivers have less activity impairment, less productivity loss, and higher presenteeism than their workforce peers.

We have information on many other factors too.  Here are a few highlights:

  • People who report poor work environments are more likely to have a high BMI.  In fact, poor work environment has almost as high a correlation to BMI as does low physical activity and poor eating habits.  In this sense, an aggravating boss can make you fat, because it causes stress, which can distract you from taking action on a healthy lifestyle.
  • 31 percent of people who report being in a poor work environment also report being angry “a majority of yesterday.”  To put this in perspective, that level of anger is on par with the poorest 100 hundred counties in the US, as well as the troubled countries of Sierra Leone and Haiti.  Anger is one of those emotional factors that keep people from living a healthy lifestyle.  Can you imagine trying to establish an effective worksite health management program in an environment where over 30 percent of the people are angry on any given day?
  • There is a negatively compounding link between poor work environment and chronic illness.  People with one to three chronic illnesses who report a poor work environment, also report having 6.6 more days a year of activity impairment than their counterparts in a positive work environment.  That number increases to 16.2 days for those with four or more chronic illnesses. (Note: About 54 percent of the workforce has at least one chronic illness.)
  • Even commuting to work has risk!  Statistics show that for every 15 minutes more people commute their anger and stress goes up, their rest and exercise goes down, their eating behaviors worsen, and they become more over-weight.

There are many interesting findings on how work environment affects well-being, these are only a few.  Is there anything you can add, even if it is just observational?  What would you do about it at your worksite?  I look forward to you responses.

Written by: Jennifer Rudloff

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