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Developing a Healthy Strategy for Happier, More Productive Teams

Many approaches to improving wellness in the workplace take relatively little money, but the rewards can be significant. A company that offers a caring, positive environment is a company that will likely have happier employees, greater productivity, and a better competitive position.
10/09/2015 08:24am ET | Updated October 9, 2016
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In the quest for efficiency, employee wellness is something that often gets overlooked. And at first thought, it might not seem like a company's responsibility to keep employees healthy and happy. After all, the bottom line is primarily concerned with keeping costs low and productivity high.

But, a variety of research is suggesting a different conclusion -- that policies and corporate cultures in support of healthy habits and wellness result in a workforce that gets more done, proves more loyal, and actually reduces overall costs.

How Your Team's Well-Being Affects Your Bottom-Line

Think about the last time you were sick or feeling sluggish, frustrated with your work, felt like you weren't appreciated, or felt like your job was negatively impacting your health or personal life. Were you motivated to work harder? Did you feel distracted? Try to avoid your co-workers? Did you ultimately feel satisfied with your situation?

Although we can recognize these things in ourselves, it can be easy for a leader to forget how the fundamental things like health and happiness can influence their team's ability and motivation to work and perform well in their jobs.

Well-being takes into account both the physical health and mental health of a person as well as life satisfaction. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people with higher well-being have less illness, live longer, and are more effective at work and in their communities -- and both hereditary and environmental factors like workplaces play a role in an individual's well-being.

For companies, the concept of well-being is immensely important in the long run, with several studies showing that the mental and physical health of employees impacts efficiency, cost and efficacy in a variety of ways.

Absenteeism and Presenteeism

Missed workdays are the bane of many in management, as they not only cost money, they cost time. Research conducted by consulting firm Mercer suggest that employee absences impact workplaces by adding workload and disrupting the work of others, increasing stress, lowering morale and reducing quality of work output.

A report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) estimates that paid time off accounts for a little over 20 percent of payroll (not factoring in unpaid absences), based on outright costs as well as things coworker and supervisor productivity losses.

Reducing paid and unpaid absences is a key focus of management. Some of the strategies suggested by the SHRM report to manage absences include defining clear policies, implementing wellness programs, monitoring hours, and offering flexibility. Wellness is important as the two most common reasons for short-term absences are brief illnesses, like colds and flus, and stress.

It's estimated that the flu costs American companies 111 million workdays and over $7 billion in expenses, while the common cold costs 150 million workdays (about 40 percent of total missed work time in the U.S.).

While absenteeism is costly, it's also typically counterproductive to have sick people come into work, as they can infect others and likely aren't working at their full capacity anyways. So how to reduce absences from the common illnesses then? Aside from keeping the environment sanitary and encouraging handwashing, one solution may be encouraging your team to get adequate sleep.

A recently published study from the journal SLEEP tracked participants' rest for a week, then exposed them to the common cold and a five-day quarantine. After controlling for other factors, they found that people who slept less than six hours on average were four times more likely to get sick.

By the study's conclusion, 39 percent of of short sleepers got sick compared to just 18 percent of people who averaged more than six hours of sleep. Illnesses like the common cold tend to spread easily in work environments, so this dramatic difference in immunity could have significant implications for a sleep-deprived workforce.

Aside from boosting people's immune systems, a well-rested staff also generally performs better. A survey of 7,400 employed people found insomnia in about 23 percent of the sample, and that those with insomnia were more likely to report "presenteeism", defined as attending work but with reduced performance. Study authors estimate that insomnia-induced presenteeism costs nearly eight days of lost work performance per individual, and represents a loss of over $63 billion to U.S. companies.

Another large study found that people with insomnia showed higher levels of physical and mental impairment, more absenteeism and presenteeism, and lower productivity compared to people without insomnia.

Stress also plays a significant role in absenteeism and presenteeism, and is estimated to be directly responsible for about 12 percent of workplace absences in the U.S. In many ways, stress is a normal part of work and life, however when stress levels are high, it can lead to emotional burnout and even depression. In a Monster.com survey of over 7,000 workers, 61 percent attributed workplace stress as the cause of an illness and 46 percent said they'd missed work time to due to job-related stress. Stress is known to contribute to higher risk of illness and to sleep problems as well, meaning it can compound and worsen both physical and mental well-being.

Engagement and Turnover

Employee engagement is an important measure, as it looks at how committed people are to their organization's values and success and to their jobs.

Ongoing Gallup polls suggest that less than one-third of U.S. workers are considered engaged, while half are not engaged and the remainder are "actively" unengaged. However, smaller and locally-owned businesses have happier, more loyal employees compared to large companies, making it a potentially important area of focus for entrepreneurs and startups.

People that are unengaged or unsatisfied with their jobs are more likely to have the intent to leave their job. The rate at which employees leave their jobs is known as turnover. Turnover is important in business, as replacing employees proves costly, and high turnover can signal problems within the business, such as ineffective hiring, training or management practices. High turnover can also cause problems with customer service, morale and productivity.

A Cornell research review of over 80 studies found that higher turnover negatively affected things like customer satisfaction, efficiency and errors, sales and absenteeism. Factors like intensive electronic monitoring and job routinization were associated with higher turnover. Factors like internal mobility, training, promotion rates and positive attitudes toward the job and team were associated with lower turnover.

The previously mentioned Monser.com poll also found that 42 percent of American respondents left a job due to stress, and 35 percent had at least contemplated leaving to due a stressful environment. In a large European study, researchers found that higher stress levels were generally associated with increased intention to quit in the next year. The things most likely to contribute to stress include pay, commute, workload, and coworkers, according to Nielsen research.

Well-being is ultimately important to keeping people satisfied with their jobs and committed. Factors like having some control, flexibility, and room to grow all tend to make people happier at work.

Having good relationships with immediate supervisors and coworkers may be the most influential engagement factors however, according to surveys by SHRM and the Human Capital Institute.

Efficiency, Productivity and Accuracy

Employee well-being also proves significant to how much work people get done and how well they perform.

Happiness, both on with the job and related to personal situations, can influence productivity. One study from University of Warwick researchers looked at four experimental situations, including one with a focus on life events, finding that happier people consistently performed better than less happy people.

Sleep quality is another significant factor in workplace productivity. When researchers conducted a phone survey of nearly 5,000 people, they found that people with insomnia symptoms for at least 12 months were significantly more likely to be involved in costly workplace accidents (costing over $500) or errors. Insomnia-related accidents were costlier on average compared to other accidents.

Overall, researchers estimate that insomnia is responsible for 7.2 percent of all workplace errors and accidents, and for 23.7 percent of the total costs of errors - an estimated cost of $31 billion overall, making it the most costly of all other chronic health conditions and of particular interest for businesses.

So how much are people sleeping? The 2008 Sleep in America survey from the National Sleep Foundation polled 1,000 full-time workers on their sleep and work to find out. On average, employed people reported sleeping 6.7 hours on work nights and 7.4 hours on non-work days.

Those who slept less than six hours were more likely to say they avoided social interactions with coworkers, and people with poor sleep quality were more likely to report difficulty concentrating and impatience. Nearly one-third of respondents felt extreme sleepiness or fell asleep at work in past month, and about a quarter reported difficulty falling asleep a few nights a week.

From the sample in the NSF survey, 37 percent were identified as at risk for a sleep disorder, and people in the at risk group reported more problems with work performance and absenteeism. Insomnia symptoms in particular were tied with increased reports of cognitive and mood problems, missed work, and doubled incidence of workplace accidents. Sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome symptoms were also linked with increased impairments and decreased productivity.

How people feel about their workplace may also in turn affect sleep. One large review of studies on the effect of workplace environments on sleep found consistent evidence that work factors can influence rest. Better sleep was associated with environments where workers felt they had social support, control and organizational justice. More sleep disturbances were associated with environments where workers experienced high demand jobs, strain, bullying, or an imbalance of effort and rewards.

Implementing Workplace Strategies for Better, Healthier Teams

Taking into consideration the influence of mental and physical health as well as sleep can be helpful when developing management strategies and wellness programs for workplaces of any size. The CDC says that companies supporting employee health have less absenteeism and presenteeism, reduced costs, better morale, better retention, and better commitment.

Based on research above, here are a few potential ways workplaces can help their teams be healthier and happier.

Allow for Some Flexibility.

When people have freedom to adjust hours when needed or to set a schedule that works for them, studies show that turnover is reduced and employees not only miss work less, they are more satisfied and even sleep better at night, too.

Flexibility can refer to a variety of things, including the ability to adjust hours, flexible break times, some control over shifts and scheduling, the ability to telecommute, or working from alternate locations. Managers worried about telecommuting may want to reconsider, as some research suggest it may actually improve productivity.

Spruce up the office.

The work environment can play a role in people's moods and even their sleep. While not possible in all locations, letting as much natural sunlight in as possible can help support healthy circadian rhythms, supported by a study that showed office workers with the most exposure to natural light slept best at night.

Research has also found that green plants indoors may offer a small boost for attention span and attention restoration. Another potential boost may come from offering sit-stand desks, which have been shown to reduce discomfort and to have either no effect or a positive effect on productivity.

Make Physical Exercise Accessible.

Physical exercise is important for overall health in a couple ways. First, it helps prevent chronic illnesses like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. Second, it helps alleviate stress and improve mood. Exercise has also been shown to promote better sleep over time, with results on par with medications for insomnia treatment.

It may not be feasible to have onsite facilities for most companies, but things like encouraging lunch walking groups or partially subsidizing gym memberships could be a better fit. The CDC offers helpful resources and guides on implementing fitness programs in the workplace.

Promote Healthy Sleep Habits.

Research has shown that when people are taught better sleep habits, they are more likely to implement them in their routines. Having a sleep specialist come speak to the office or integrating training on sleep hygiene into existing workplace health programs can be a simple way to encourage better habits.

A recent Swedish study surveyed 4,800 people at two different times on both their sleep and work characteristics. They found that people who weren't sleeping well during the initial survey were more likely to perceive higher stress and work demands, less control and less social support during the followup survey. And likewise, people who initially reported higher work demands in the first survey were also more likely to report disturbed sleep later. Combined with previously mentioned effects of sleep on workplace outcomes, it proves important and relevant for managers.

Allow for napping.

Sleeping on the job is generally frowned upon, but napping can actually have real benefits for workers and employers. Studies have found that after a brief midday nap, people are more creative, less prone to frustration and impulsivity, and have better moods.

If you have a small room that's unused, a designated nap room is a great perk. Nap pods can work for larger offices, or smaller spaces might allow naps at desks or unused conference rooms during break times. Laying out clear rules can allow people to receive the benefits of napping without abusing the perk.

Offer decaf and healthy foods.

Caffeine is a significant sleep stealer, and the office coffee pot is major source for many people. Offering decaffeinated coffee, herbal teas, water, or other beverage options, especially after lunch time, may be helpful in getting people to moderate their intake of caffeine.

Research has also shown that eating healthy during the day improves job performance, as well as absenteeism. Workplace health programs are identified by the World Health Organization as effective at promoting a range of healthy behaviors. From training on nutrition to catering healthier meals and offering fresh fruits and vegetables in the breakroom, there a variety of ways workplaces can support better nutrition.

Be conscious of corporate culture and burnout.

A 2015 survey by Deloitte says that culture and engagement ranks as the most important issue facing companies around the world. They suggest that defining culture at the top levels of management, being flexible, and speaking to modern employees' passions and motivations are the key considerations in developing engaging cultures.

Some studies have also found that social responsibility aspects of workplace culture can influence happiness. For example, one study found that offering people the ability to donate to a charity increased productivity, and another found that prosocial bonuses in form of donations to charities led to happier and more satisfied employees.

Taking inventory of employees' attitudes and concerns from time to time can be a good way to catch problems like burnout early and correct course. This could involve surveys, occasional meetings or interviews, or keeping managers tuned into their staff's needs.

Many approaches to improving wellness in the workplace take relatively little money, but the rewards can be significant. A company that offers a caring, positive environment is a company that will likely have happier employees, greater productivity, and a better competitive position.

What does your workplace do to promote health, or what changes do you think would be most effective at improving your team's well-being?

Firas Kittaneh is the CEO of Amerisleep, an eco-friendly luxury mattress company. Firas writes more posts on the Amerisleep blog about getting better sleep, healthy living and being eco-friendly. Follow him on Twitter.