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April 16, 2024

Employee Wellbeing in the Workplace: From Burnout to Thriving

Employee wellbeing for a work-from-home staff member

There are so many new descriptions for how employees feel about work these days that it’s hard to keep up. Sadly, many workforce experts, polling firms, and other leaders define the current mood as unfavorable.

Burnout, languishing, hopelessness, and quiet quitting have been highlighted, depending on where you look. It’s as if we’ve all agreed that we’re dealing with a collectively checked-out workforce.

What’s driving all the negativity? Some have described it as employees feeling a constant crisis. There are a whole range of issues, including the lingering disruption brought on by a global pandemic, economic pressures, social and political unrest, uncertainty about the world economy, and violence in the Middle East, Russia, and Ukraine.

There’s also confusion about the value of all the flexibility created since the pandemic. Some employees, while still appreciating flex time and work-from-home options, still worry about a lack of connection to their team and leaders.

The good news is that many organizations are working hard to reverse the trends – often with an increased focus on employee wellbeing. Many leaders are beginning to recognize that for employees to thrive again, they need to feel heard and supported by managers who are empathetic and invested in their success.

New Research on Employee and Manager Wellbeing Indicates Employees Are Not Okay

New research conducted by The Grossman Group in partnership with The Harris Poll explored the factors that lead to burnout and thriving. The constant pace of change and a variety of new demands are contributing to widespread burnout among employees and managers today.

More than 75% of employees and 63% of managers report feeling burned out or ambivalent in their current position. Yet managers don’t recognize just how overwhelmed their employees feel, with 89% saying their employees are thriving compared to the actual number of 24%. That’s more than a 3-to-1 discrepancy.

The research finds the biggest driver of burnout for both groups is “a great deal of constant change.” Other factors include unnecessary work from senior leadership, employees frequently having to shift focus throughout the day, and high turnover rates that often lead to even more work for those left behind.

The research underscores what many workplace experts have already observed about the workforce. While the descriptors vary – burned out, checked out, ambivalent, languishing, quiet quitting – they all point to employees wanting and needing more from leadership.

Meanwhile, managers struggle to respond to this major shift in employee needs and expectations and deserve more support.

Managers have been asked to lead employees through this permacrisis with empathy. Yet, they still face greater responsibilities and heightened productivity pressure, often with fewer resources and smaller teams. This is happening without the personal support and flexibility they need to thrive.

To learn more about the research and discover what’s needed to build a thriving culture, download our new whitepaper, Burned Out & Checked Out: What Employees and Managers Need to Thrive.

White Paper - Burned Out & Checked Out: What Employees and Managers Need to Thrive

What is Employee Wellbeing?

Employee wellbeing is the state of being happy and healthy at work, characterized by emotional and physical wellness, a feeling of belonging and acceptance, and a sense of fulfillment with the work you do and the culture you’re a part of.

This general description of wellbeing starts with Webster’s dictionary definition: "the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.” When that sense of wellbeing is applied to the workplace, employees are naturally motivated and proud to be part of their organization.

It also generally means that the organization’s leadership is committed to emotional and physical wellness and makes an ongoing effort to hear and support employees' needs. Workplace wellbeing doesn’t just happen – it’s the result of an organization’s overall culture – one in which employees feel genuinely supported, fairly compensated, and comfortable being themselves at work.

Why is Wellbeing Important?

When employees aren’t happy and healthy at work, there are obvious negative impacts on employees and the business. Among the top impacts are disengagement, high turnover, and lower productivity.

Gallup’s 2023 State of the Global Workplace report is just one indicator of the negative impacts. Gallup estimates that low engagement – one of the most significant outcomes of poor wellbeing – costs the global economy $8.8 trillion, 9% of global GDP.

Further, the report surveyed employees finding that they felt having a job they hate was worse than being unemployed. Naturally, those unhappy employees report trickle-down effects, too. Their job dissatisfaction impacts relationships with family and friends and makes it much harder to thrive overall.

There are three significant downsides organizations see when employee wellbeing is neglected:

1. Disengagement

Less than one-fourth of employees globally are engaged at work, according to Gallup research. That’s a disturbing statistic, but there has been some good news recently. According to Gallup’s most recent research, the percentage of engaged full- and part-time employees working for an employer rose from 2021 to 2022, rising to 23%.

Still, the high overall disengagement is a natural concern many employers are working hard to reverse. Gallup has found many employers have seen good results from their efforts, with some organizations tripling the 23% engagement rate.

2. High Turnover

When employee wellbeing is low, employees naturally think about leaving – and turnover comes with a high price for employers. According to many workforce retention experts, high turnover often leads to poor morale for the larger team as more workers reflect on why so many are leaving.

In addition to reputational damage, there can be workload stress, with the remaining employees feeling overwhelmed as they pick up the slack. The cost of recruiting, training, and onboarding replacement workers is also high. According to PeopleKeep, the average cost of replacing an hourly employee is $1,500. For workers in technical positions, it can be as high as 100 to 150% of the departing employee’s salary. Naturally, for C-level positions, the cost can be even higher.

3. Lower Productivity

Disengaged employees don’t feel connected to a sense of purpose or even a base level of enthusiasm for their work. That leads them to what some call a “quiet quitting” mentality when they’re just putting in the basic effort to get through the workday.

Gallup’s recent wellbeing report estimated the global cost of lost productivity (including turnover costs) to be $322 billion. This results, in part, from employees taking more sick days, putting forth less effort, feeling burned out, and deciding to exit the company.

What are the Benefits of Wellbeing at Work

In my decades of advising leaders at top companies, I’ve become increasingly convinced that employee wellbeing is a huge driver of company success. This appreciation partly motivated my latest book, Heart First. Heart First leadership is about leaders being more human and understanding that nothing important gets done without genuine relationships, buy-in, trust, and support from their full team.

Naturally, the concept has existed for decades, but the pandemic and the dramatic period of societal and organizational change that followed brought the idea into clearer focus.

The Impact of a Heart First Approach on Employee Wellbeing

I define Heart First leadership as championing empathy, humanity, and authenticity to build stronger, more trusting relationships, and a thriving, purpose-driven organization.

After all, employee wellbeing doesn’t come without genuine effort from leaders, and that work has to involve the leader developing a relationship of trust and respect with their teams.

Wellbeing is Tied to A Sense of Belonging for Employees

Leaders who embrace employee wellbeing will tell you it is a key factor in greater engagement, retention, and business results.

I often discuss this as the process of creating a psychologically safe culture where people feel invited to take risks and speak their truths. This kind of culture is especially important in today’s business environment. Without a level of calculated risks, there’s little opportunity for creative solutions that drive innovation and breakthroughs. Further, suppose people of different cultures, backgrounds, sexual orientations, and ethnicities don’t feel they are respected and appreciated for who they are. In that case, you can’t build a truly connected and engaged team – and a team that feels emotionally and physically “well.”

The Role of the Leader in Promoting Employee Wellbeing at Work

Like everything in the workplace, strong leadership greatly impacts overall employee wellness. Gallup’s Global Workforce Report made this point forcefully, noting that poor management “leads to lost customers and lost profits, but it also leads to miserable lives.”

Gallup reported that nearly 6 in 10 employees quietly quit but would likely become more engaged with workplace changes. Gallup advises that the best step is to give those employees a better manager who’s well-trained in supporting employee wellbeing.

We couldn’t agree more and have spent decades working with managers to improve their communication and leadership skills with their teams.

When employees see that their leaders genuinely care about them, they feel invited to be their best selves and bring a greater sense of purpose and meaning to their teams. Employees then feel more inspired to achieve more for themselves and their organizations.

How to Have Conversations With Your People About Wellbeing

We know from prior research that managers have the greatest impact on moving employees to action and getting employees fully engaged.

Knowing that employees are suffering a burnout epidemic, managers must step in with the most productive techniques for promoting wellbeing.

The following quick guide walks managers through the tried-and-true practices they can employ in ongoing conversations about wellbeing with their teams.

11 Tips for Ongoing Manager Conversations on Employee Wellbeing

1. Start by creating a positive work environment.

On a routine basis, managers should emphasize the importance of employee wellbeing and their commitment to ensuring that employees feel valued and respected. Managers can achieve this by regularly promoting work-life balance, such as flexible work hours or remote work options when possible. They should also offer opportunities for professional development and foster a genuine culture of appreciation.

2. When a crisis occurs, take the time to discuss the topic with all employees, whether they’ve been personally impacted or not.

For instance, during the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, many leaders missed a huge opportunity to check in with employees who were truly hurting and unable to focus and do their best work. Instead, it’s important to take the time to check in, ask how employees are doing, and offer empathy and a human approach. This is not about taking a political stance on any particular issue. Instead, it is just about showing employees you care about their health and wellbeing. All leaders have various options available to communicate to employees during a crisis, including issuing a statement. However, our research finds that the most effective way to show support is for managers to follow up company statements with a personal meeting.

3. Give employees an opportunity to share what their strengths are and what kind of work they most enjoy.

From there, work to find opportunities for employees to apply those skills in their daily work lives. Research demonstrates that when employees have at least some of their work time set aside for work they’re most excited about, they’re much more engaged and productive overall.

4. Allow opportunities for employees to set their own overall goals.

When appropriate, employees can also share some of the ways they’ll meet those goals. This helps to empower employees to find more personalized solutions to getting the work done in the best way.

5. Set up a one-on-one (or team meeting for much larger teams) to discuss wellbeing as a separate topic.

During this meeting, managers can address some of their personal commitments to wellbeing, the overall strategy of the organization to wellbeing, and various resources and activities the company provides to foster an employee-first culture. Ongoing personal conversations about wellbeing should follow this meeting. Remember: a one-and-done never works to move the needle on any important topic.

6. Incorporate personal storytelling.

Sharing personal reflections on their own challenges with wellbeing. These stories can help to humanize the managers and demonstrate just how committed they are to wellbeing personally and for the full team. From there, managers can encourage employees to prioritize what self-care techniques work best for them, such as breaks, exercise, stress management techniques, and use of vacation time.

7. Reward and recognize employees for great work.

One great tip for managers is to take time during regular team huddles to call out excellence when they’ve observed it from a team member. This gives the employee a vote of confidence and helps their overall sense of belonging and purpose. Managers can also personally acknowledge the work via phone, email, or written letter.

8. Regularly revisit work-life balance.

While there will be times when teams need to dig in and work longer, managers should be clear that they don’t want employees to burn out. As part of this discussion, promote the importance of taking breaks and vacations and asking for what employees need when the balance feels off.

9. Prioritize mental health and the resources available.

Managers should emphasize that employees must feel comfortable coming to them with any mental health challenges they face. Let them know that you, as a manager, work in a judge-free zone regarding mental health and are committed to ensuring they get the help they need. Point the team to the resources and support that’s available. Include specific phone numbers, websites, or other resources employees can tap into, such as employee assistance programs or counseling services.

10. Focus on a sense of belonging.

In a team meeting and on a personal level, managers should share that the goal is to build a more robust culture in which employees feel accepted and respected for who they are. The importance of the company’s diversity and inclusion policies should be discussed. It should be clear that the company is dedicated to the idea. Diversity needs to be defined as a source of strength for the organization.

11. Listen closely to what employees share and advocate for change when needed.

Managers can ask employees directly: “What’s working well when it comes to our support of your wellbeing, and what could be done better?” They then collect that feedback and do what they can to support those needs personally. If there are larger concerns, managers need to advocate for changes at the corporate level.

When managers use these tips, they empower their team members and improve their motivation. They also become better leaders who demonstrate their commitment to their employees and inspire them to action.

You can learn more about our top tips for managers by downloading the complete guide here:

Quick Guide: 11 Tips for Manager Conversations on Employee Well‑Being

Other Special Challenges with Wellbeing and How Managers Can Help

As we discussed, the feeling of a permacrisis in our world is taking a toll on employees today.

Writing for Fortune, workforce experts Jennifer Moss and Jen Fisher highlighted a “hopelessness epidemic” that many employees feel. Moss is the author of Unlocking Happiness at Work and The Burnout Epidemic, and Fisher is Deloitte’s U.S. human sustainability leader and leading voice on the intersection of work, wellbeing, and purpose.

Highlights of the key strategies for managers to combat this from Moss and Fisher include:

  • Reskilling and upskilling: Provide workers with new skills so they can feel a greater sense of hope that they can meet the future demands of work.
  • Respect change fatigue: Recognize that burnout rates are high and ensure your change adds immediate value. If it doesn’t, maybe it can wait. If the change is coming from above, be empathetic, ask for feedback throughout the process, and act on any changes you can based on that feedback.
  • Allow for recovery: When employees feel overwhelmed, they can fall into a true cycle of hopelessness. “When workloads are unmanageable, people start to question the point of their efforts. They disengage. They’re less productive. And then their workload becomes even more unmanageable, creating a vicious cycle,” Moss and Fisher wrote. “Rest is a prerequisite for productivity. Leaders must model the behavior, so employees feel like rest is supported.”

How to Recognize the Signs of Burnout and Poor Wellbeing

When employees are burned out, there are six major signs they’ll often demonstrate, including:

  1. Complaints of fatigue and lack of energy; repeated requests for deadline extensions
  2. Higher rates of absenteeism, and calling off work for sickness or family issues
  3. Lack of productivity – work output decreases
  4. Lack of participation in group meetings and events
  5. Increase in concerns from coworkers that the employee seems off and isn’t contributing to the same extent or is failing to carry their share of the workload
  6. Signs of stress or anxiety in the employee, including lack of concentration, lashing out at others, and comments that they’re feeling overwhelmed

Conducting wellbeing check-ins with employees is one of the best ways to show them you care about how they’re doing both inside and outside of work. Discover how with the help of this guide:

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What Wellbeing Looks Like for Employees Today

In addition to looking for signs of burnout and stress, employers should “know their audience” in a more general sense. When employers take time to ask their employees what’s on their minds, how they’re feeling about the business, and what needs or concerns they may have, leaders can prevent problems from building. Knowing your audience involves being human and empathetic. It’s the key to promoting a better culture and overall employee wellbeing.

A Persona of Today’s Employee

Based on our interactions with clients, we have developed an employee persona that reflects some of the most common concerns and needs of employees today.

Some of the highlights of what typical employees are feeling include:

  • I Have a Story to Share. My story is about who I am, what I hope to accomplish, and what truly matters to me when it comes to work and life. My colleagues, too, have a story. Each of our stories is different because our life and work experiences are different. Our culture is different. Our heritage is different. What makes us special is different.

    To stay engaged, I need you to fully understand and empathize with my story. I’m looking for a leader who is committed to being an advocate for me so that I can broaden my experience and reach my career goals. I want to be assured that indeed I do matter, that my work has purpose, and that my leadership and my team care about me.”
  • I Need a Work Experience that is Meaningful, Personal, and Flexible. I’ll produce better work and outcomes when I’m feeling more engaged. I need you to be flexible as my needs change. Value the work more than the number of hours I put in, or whether I’m sitting in the company chair at the company office.

    Connect me to work projects that interest me. Give me incentives that matter to me as an individual. Help me see how my work – and the work of our organization – has real purpose and value. Help me grow and continue learning. Recognize my results. Give me feedback – both good and bad. I respond best when your feedback is tangible, specific, and constructive.”
  • Support My Physical and Emotional Wellbeing. That includes helping me manage work-related stress before I need to ask. I also want to know that my wellbeing is considered and respected at all times. I also need to always feel safe when I come to work.”

Moving from Burnout to Thriving: Best Practices for Promoting Wellbeing

For many years, many workplace wellness programs primarily focused on physical wellness. Companies adopted programs to encourage workers to exercise, including yoga classes at lunch, walking meetings, gym membership discounts, and the like.

More recently, wellness experts are promoting a more “whole person” approach to wellness as the ultimate in best practice.

For example, workplace wellbeing expert Steven Van Yoder wrote about a best practices study of wellness programs that his firm, the Returns on Wellbeing Institute, recently conducted to examine the most effective programs.

“Our research into best practices showed that many wellness programs prioritize physical health by encouraging employees to exercise, reduce body mass index, and lower their blood pressure. Yet research shows that wellness programs can achieve better outcomes when they take a more inclusive approach to wellbeing that goes beyond physical fitness,” Van Yoder wrote in HR Executive.

“Our interviews with leading wellness programs found that most took a whole-person approach that addressed physical, mental, and financial wellbeing.”

The Returns on Wellbeing report, published in 2022, recommended several whole-person approaches to wellness that have proven effective for leading companies.

They include:

  • Leadership support for overall wellness involves leadership teams committing to wellness as a corporate priority. They can demonstrate this commitment by speaking about workplace wellness in communications, participating in community events, and sharing personal stories about their own wellbeing challenges.
  • Focus on workplace culture. Conduct employee wellbeing surveys and use more frequent pulse-type surveys and listening tours.
  • Strategic planning. Develop a coordinated, systemic, and comprehensive strategic plan for wellness. Include accountabilities for employee wellbeing outcomes.
  • Incorporate financial wellbeing and living wages into your wellbeing plans. Employers should ensure that employees are paid a living wage and design benefits packages that allow workers to meet their basic financial needs.
  • Prioritize corporate purpose. With many more employees asking their leaders to speak out on societal issues that matter to them and demonstrate concern for creating a better world, the company’s purpose is taking on more importance. “Purpose should be part of employee wellbeing initiatives, and employers should take steps to help employees live their purpose at work. When employees feel that their personal purpose is aligned with their employer’s purpose, it can boost employee engagement and loyalty and foster a greater willingness to recommend the company to others,” Van Yoder wrote.

How Purpose Statements and Employee Recognition Programs Impact Overall Wellness

At The Grossman Group, we’ve seen the particular importance of all the practices referenced in the Returns on Wellbeing report. We’ve also seen a greater emphasis on employee recognition programs as a way to effectively promote wellness and help employees see just how much their work matters for the organization's overall success.

Further, many more of our clients devote more time and resources to developing purpose and vision statements that help connect employees to a greater sense of purpose. The purpose statements are also designed to help employees have more line-of-sight into how their role contributes to the overall mission and goals of the larger organization.

I often share the story of two bricklayers who were hard at work. When asked what they were doing, the first bricklayer said: “I’m building a wall.” The second one said, “I’m building a castle.”

Both bricklayers are doing the same task, yet their mindsets and feelings about the work are different.

In the big picture, leaders should work to help employees feel like they’re building a castle, not just a wall. This approach has significant benefits for wellbeing and company success. Under this approach, employees know that their work matters the most. Employees want to know that they’re contributing to the larger whole, which helps drive engagement.

The Role of Communication in Improving Employee Wellbeing

One of the best tools all leaders have in promoting employee wellbeing is effective communication. Employees trust leaders when they feel that the leader is genuinely looking out for them. In addition to communicating about wellness in company communications and in personal conversations, one of the best ways for leaders to ensure that employees feel supported is to work on their listening skills.

When employees feel their needs are heard, acknowledged, and addressed, they’re more likely to feel part of an inclusive team that welcomes their unique experiences and provides a safe place to share their perspectives openly. As mentioned, our new manager guide discusses communication tips for leaders to support employee wellbeing. Here’s an additional list that narrows in on better employee listening. These tips help all leaders – no matter their level – connect with their teams. They are also great for employees as they provide guidance on listening better to colleagues.

Key Tips for Better Listening:

  • Approach each dialogue with the goal to learn something. Think of the person as someone who can teach you.
  • Stop talking and focus closely on the speaker. Suppress the urge to think about what you will say next or to multitask.
  • Open and guide the conversation. Ask open-ended questions such as: How do you envision success here? What might help you succeed? Are there specific things I can do to support you?
  • Summarize what you hear and ask questions to check your understanding.
  • Encourage with positive feedback. If you see that an employee is having trouble expressing a point of view, encourage them with a smile, nod, or a positive question to show your interest.
  • Listen for total meaning. Look for nonverbal cues and body language to seek true understanding.
  • Pay attention to your responses. Keep an open mind and respect the other person’s point of view, even if you disagree.

The Bottom Line

There’s no question that employees today need a boost. Employee wellbeing is now recognized as critical for employee culture and overall organizational success.

As we’ve discussed here, focusing on overall employee wellbeing is well worth it. As many exemplary companies have already seen, the payoffs are significant – a workforce that feels more excited to come to work every day, with a sense of purpose and a feeling of true belonging and acceptance. There’s no better way to build a stronger culture than to commit to wellbeing as a top priority.

How might addressing employee wellbeing positively impact performance at your organization?

—David Grossman

Our new research, conducted with The Harris Poll, proves widespread burnout is real. Download the report, Burned Out & Checked Out: What Employees and Managers Need to Thrive, to uncover the biggest drivers of burnout, and how to build a culture that thrives.

White Paper - Burned Out & Checked Out: What Employees and Managers Need to Thrive

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