What wellness vendors sell, and what employers buy, often contrasts with what employees want. Over the course of my career, I’ve heard directly from more than 100,000 employees via surveys and face-to-face interactions, and this is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned.
Using an unscientific approach, I’ve summarized some of the differences below. In the context of my observations regarding “Wellness promotes…,” I use “wellness” to refer to the wellness industry, including vendors, employers (purchasers), consultants, and thought leaders.
Employees Ask For…
Metabolic Syndrome interventions
Fight the always-on culture
Less expensive health insurance
Communicating Company “Values”
Observing Company Values in Action
Safety and Security
Supportive Work Environments
Employees can’t always get what they want, of course. Besides, often, they do: In the realms of financial wellness and work/life, some employers are accommodating employees by offering companywide minimum wage increases, student loan repayment assistance, and paid family leave.
And often, the two aren’t mutually exclusive: An employer can promote what they think employees need and provide what employees ask for.
Assess Your Assessment
If you’re not hearing from employees the items in the “Employees Ask For…” category, you may be dealing with a unique population of employees. Or maybe it’s time to assess your assessments.
For example, when employees are asked about the source of their job stress, many cite “role” issues, like:
They’re not clear about what’s expected of them
Different bosses give them contradictory direction
Their work role interferes with their personal-life role, and/or vice versa.
But a conventional wellness needs assessment won’t ask about the source of stress. It just asks how important stress management is to the employee, or whether they prefer resilience programs over mindfulness programs. Using a wellness needs assessment that’s old-school or not thoroughly thought-out, you’ll overlook what employees really want or need, especially if your organization
Doesn’t host listening sessions to collect deeper, qualitative data, and/or…
Fails to leverage other sources of wellness needs data, such as employee engagement surveys, turnover stats, training and development data, disability claims, and so forth.
Needs assessment has always been viewed as an essential step in the employee wellbeing process. How’s yours going?
Does your wellness strategy provide employees with what they are asking for?
When skillfully incorporated into a broader strategy, external recognition for wellness programs has the potential to be a win-win, serving both the employer and the employees.
In keeping with my recent theme of providing practical tools and tips for wellness managers who do the hard work of creating and operating employee wellness programs in complex corporate environments, I’m pleased to share this post I wrote for one of my clients.
I’m pleased to provide these practical tips for wellness vendor management, one of the most demanding roles of employee wellness managers. Some of these — six tips for implementation and oversight, eight for selection and contracting — may be more relevant to larger corporations, but many are applicable to a spectrum of organizations and a variety of non-wellness vendors. They can help make a manager’s job easier, while eliciting higher levels of performance from vendors. Continue reading »
I agree with the position paper, Behaviour-Based Safety Programs, recently published by The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF). An employer’s primary role in employee wellbeing is to protect employees from Continue reading »
A new year, a new opportunity for an employee benefits trade publication to randomly drop into an article a chart that makes less sense than a child’s finger-painting. (For legit. A finger-painting can’t be wrong. The chart is blatantly wrong.) Continue reading »
Science For Work summarizes research-based evidence that can guide business management decisions, with emphasis on industrial and organizational psychology. Their recent post, Why You Should Consider Fairness When Designing Your Change Management Process, exemplifies the well-researched, practical, and engaging content this non-profit organization provides. The topic, organizational justice, can be difficult to comprehend by well-being professionals for whom organizational behavior is uncharted territory. But Science for Work does a fine job breaking it down. See their infographic (below) followed by my two cents, then head on over to ScienceForWork.com to learn more.Continue reading »
California mandates that publicly traded companies based in the state have a minimum of one woman on their boards of directors by the end of 2019. If the new regulation survives anticipated legal challenges, representation will increase: By the end of July 2021, companies have to have at least 2 women on boards of 5 members; at least 3 women on larger boards.
If states can require corporations to place women on their boards, how far are we from Continue reading »
In 2018 aHuffington Post article,Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong, went viral, debunking myths about obesity and weight loss. It argued that the “war against obesity” has really been a war against obese people, fostering a culture that encourages fat shaming and alienates overweight people.
2 Slices of Bacon Daily Shortens Life by a Decade?
Ioannidis illustrates his point by describing the real-life implications were we to assume studies of individual foods are legit:
…eating 12 hazelnuts daily would prolong life by 12 years (ie, 1 year per hazelnut), drinking 3 cups of coffee daily would achieve a gain of 12 years, and eating a single mandarin orange daily would add 5 years of life. Conversely, consuming 1 egg daily would reduce life expectancy by 6 years, and eating 2 slices of bacon daily would shorten life by a decade, an effect worse than smoking. Could these results possibly be true?
Ioannidis blames researchers’ failure to properly account for confounding factors:
Relatively uncommon chemicals within food…may be influential. Risk-conferring nutritional combinations may vary by an individual’s genetic background, metabolic profile, age, or environmental exposures. Disentangling the potential influence on health outcomes of a single dietary component from these other variables is challenging, if not impossible.
He also blames selective publication of studies that proclaim a correlation between a food and a health outcome over studies that show no correlation. And he throws shade on nutrition advocates…
Expert-driven guidelines shaped by advocates dictate what primary studiesshouldreport.
Ioannidis didn’t even dig into the type of academic misconduct described in the first story on my Top 10 list, Mindless Cheating.
The Good News
But there’s a valuable learning — making this Number 9 on my list of Top 10 Wellness Stories of the year — we can take from all these stories. The lessons from Ioannidis’ article and Huffpo’s obesity article are essentially the same.
Pursuit of continuous improvement in the promotion of employee well-being demands skepticism.
We have to maintain idealism to believe we can do better. My New Year’s resolution is to cultivate even more optimism in the pursuit of measurable progress, knowledge, and improvement.
No amount of exercise will make a difference if you sit 8 hours a day.
The risks of trying to get all your exercise into one day per week outweigh the potential benefits.
Benefits of physical activity like better sleep, reduced anxiety, improved cognition, reduced blood pressure, and improved insulin sensitivity take weeks or even months to appear. You can’t expect immediate results.
If you answered “True” to any of these statements, and they are typical of the kind of advice your wellness program participants receive, it’s probably time to update your knowledge. Check out the 2nd edition of Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Its release is 8th on my list of Top 10 Wellness Stories of 2018.
Did you miss the full list of Top 10 Wellness Stories? They are:
We’re often advised not to compare our lives to what we see from our friends on Facebook and Instagram. The theory goes: People tend to expose on social media only the best, happiest facets of their lives, and comparing our own ordinary existence to the world-traveling, fancy-food-eating filtered glimpses we get of Continue reading »
This is the 5th in my Top 10 Wellness Stories of 2018.
Not long ago, I attended a panel discussion in which an audience member asked the panelists what their organizations were doing to address mental health. No one had anything to say other than, “We offer an EAP.” A wave of ick swept over the room as the tragedy of this truth dawned upon us — the panelists and the audience.
These readily make clear that countries like Canada, European Union members, and Australia are far ahead of the US in their action planning, and I’ve previously written about Japan’s aggressive approach.
Will the US learn from other countries and develop an evidence-based agenda to address mental health in the workplace (and beyond)?
I’m optimistic and predict that evidence-based solutions prevail.
Worldwide, a yearning for civility blossomed in 2018, and workplaces were no exception.
In addition toChristine Porath’spresentation at SHRM, civility surfaced on the agenda of major wellness conferences, and a prominent midwest health care system launched, withsome fanfare, an introductory “Choose Civility” e-course. Continue reading »
I’ve writtenad nauseamabout the University of Illinois Workplace Wellness Study, so allow me to just explain why I’m optimistic about where it’s heading.
This evaluation of an employer’s fledgling wellness program gave wellness critics a rationale to declare employee wellness a failure. The evaluation data, which showed almost no positive outcomes during the program’s startup, is only preliminary anddoesn’t say what critics say it says.
Even if you’ve never heard of Brian Wansink, you’ve probably been affected by his research.His studies,cited more than 20,000 times, are about how our environment shapes how we think about food, and what we end up consuming. He’s one of the reasons Big Food companies started offering smaller snack packaging, in 100 calorie portions. —Vox
Wansink led many headline-grabbing studies of eating behavior, showing, for example, that people eat less when food is served on smaller plates and that pre-ordering lunch leads to healthier choices. His work unleashed many employers’ nutritional wellness strategies, especially “making the healthy choice the easy choice.” Continue reading »
If a job has high Motivating Potential, the jobholders are more likely to feel their work is meaningful, to exhibit high levels of motivation, performance, and job satisfaction. If a job has low Motivating Potential, jobholders are more likely to exhibit negative outcomes, like absenteeism, turnover, and sluggish performance.
A New York Timesarticle recently revealed that the company has protected, arguably even rewarded, executives accused of sexual misconduct. It described one exec who “often berated subordinates as stupid or incompetent.” The company “did little to curb that behavior.”
A screenshot the exec’s ex-wife included in a lawsuit, according to the Times, showed an email he sent to another woman: “You will be happy being taken care of,” he wrote. “Being owned is kinda like you are my property, and I can loan you to other people.”
In our quest for a psychological-safety poster child, we may need to conduct a better search.
Pay attention to the science-backed workplace mental health frameworks that are taking shape outside the US, like those in Canada, Europe, and Australia.
In the US, the messaging of vendors and consultants tends to drown out science. Last year, for example, data from a meta-analysis — which included more than 120,000 research subjects — showed that job strain (the combination of high demands and low control at work) may lead to clinically diagnosed depression. This is consistent with a lot of other research that points us toward employer strategies for the primary prevention of mental health problems. But psychosocial risk and primary prevention are missing-in-action when we look at mental health resources made available by US employee wellness professional organizations and their vendors/consultant partners, .
Mental health crises — just like physical health crises — are mission critical, but this doesn’t mean we can’t prevent them before they happen and, what’s more, aspire to create workplace environments in which employee well-being flourishes.
Canada’s “Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace” is a compelling example of a social strategy to promote mental health in all its stages — emphasizing primary prevention. Find out more about Canada’s Standard and other science-backed workplace mental health strategies on the Jozito mental health resources hub.
Does your Employee Assistance Program proactively address workplace mental health? Are they reaching out and screening employees — like those out on disability, or who have recently given birth, or are dealing with grief, or who have a chronic disease — who are at risk for mental health problems?
In 2013, Carol Harnett and Fran Melmed interviewed Bob Merberg for their CoHealth CheckUp podcast (which is no longer in production). They asked him to discuss a “great idea that didn’t work out.” In this 2-minute answer, he talks about a positive psychology intervention designed to help employees cultivate happiness.
Mental Health First Aid at Work – operated in the US by the National Council for Behavioral Health – is a training program that teaches employees how to identify and support a co-worker (or anyone) who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use concern or crisis. Continue reading »
This free e-course from Canada explains psychosocial risk factors, using interactive workplace scenarios and videos that help learners understand the application of their new knowledge to mental health at work. Continue reading »
Especially useful for tips on how managers can identify and respond to signs that an employee is struggling and how to reduce stigma around mental health problems, The People Managers’ Guide to Mental Health is a production of CIPD (UK’s organization of human resources professionals) and the UK charity, Mind. Continue reading »
ICU (as in, “Identify, Connect, Understand,” and “I see you”) is an awareness campaign designed to reduce the stigma associated with mental health and foster a workplace culture that supports emotional health.”
A unique website from the Health in Construction Leadership Group, seeking to raise awareness by addressing the stigma of poor mental health and improving positive mental well-being in the construction industry. Continue reading »
Canada’s voluntary Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace exemplifies a nationwide strategy to promote the psychosocial wellbeing of workers, with emphasis on primary prevention. Continue reading »
A lot of questions remain about if and how these programs work. We have observed results for only the first year of our intervention. We are continuing to collect data to evaluate effects in the second and third years.
The University of Illinois study rolls on as the researchers demonstrate they are eager to uncover the truth and not just confirm over-simplified pre-existing notions about whether wellnessworksordoesn’t work. Notice that they called their paper, “What Do Workplace Wellness Programs Do?” rather than using a title that declares the issue put to rest, like, say, “Workplace Wellness Doesn’t Work.”
Ultimately, they may very well find that the Illinois programdoesn’tyield the desired outcomes (potentially a real kick in the pants for Aetna, one of the researchers’ “collaborators”). Or that it does. If we knew for sure, there’d be no point in the study.
Personally, I’ve never had any reason to believe a wellness program would reduce an employer’s health care costs. But,so far, there isn’t anything in this study I’d cite to support that opinion.
Randomized Controlled Trials vs. Observational Studies
One of the most interesting things about the study is its design. It’s a randomized controlled trial (RCT) — a rare sighting in the world of wellness — and the researchers compared their findings to what they would’ve concluded if their data came from a an observational study (the kind that almost all our healthy lifestyle guidance is based on — from “physical activity is good for you” to “don’t inhale too much asbestos”), potentially explaining, as Aaron Carroll argues in his column, why some wellness studies show that wellnessdoeswork. Or, as one of the Illinois study’s principal investigators wrote to me in a private correspondence, “Methodology matters.”
Even when methods are about as good as can be, we probably should never trust a single study with high confidence…Take, for example, the randomized controlled trial (RCT). It’s reasonably considered the gold standard of social science methods. When you read the results of a well-conducted RCT, does that mean you can take them and run with it? Not so fast. They may not apply outside the population studied.
The Illinois Wellness study is and will continue to be important. It has the potential to deliver actionable insights into the value of incentives; the profile of employees who tend to engage in wellness programs; the types of programs that are and aren’t effective; and, ultimately, the behavioral, health, financial, and productivity outcomes we can expect from comparable programs.
For the university, theiThriveprogram is a good start — more thoroughly thought-out than most new programs. (Thanks to the study’s transparency, a large employer seeking to launch a wellness program could use the study’s published material to develop a program template — though I’d recommend skipping the incentives and the screenings, and adding longer-range plans for a more comprehensive strategy.) But that’s what it is — a start.
In a non-study situation, smart leaders of a “comprehensive” program, seeing that Year 1 activities had no effect on anything, would undertake a quality improvement process and make adjustments accordingly. After all, if there aren’t any behavior changes in Year 1 — and environment, culture, and work design aren’t even on the radar — there’s no reason to expect health, financial, or productivity improvements in the following years.
I admire the researchers’ refraining from sensational conclusions based on their Year 1 data. Now, it’s up to thought leaders with a media platform, and up to us — those responsible for applying research findings to our programs — to exercise the same restraint.
This was a randomized controlled study of an employee wellness program. To date, the study results have shown no improvement in health behaviors, health care costs, or productivity. To date.
You can read the full study paper published on the Bureau of Economic Research website. But if you’re not one to wade through a swamp of statistics, check out the study’s very own website for info, updates, and bar charts galore.
Does Feeling Valued Count?
Rather than cherry-picking the facts, allow me to just suggest questions to consider as you learn more about this study:
What does “doesn’t work” mean, anyway? Work to do what?
The study found that the number of program participants who believed their employer was committed to their health and safety increased significantly as an effect of the intervention. Is this important?
In the study paper, how many times do the researchers make the claim that has captured the imagination of Dr. Carroll and many others in the business and health care media, that “wellness doesn’t work”? (You can cheat by using your browser’s “Find” function. Or take a guess. It’s somewhere between -1 and +1.)
Was the study published in a peer-reviewed journal?
How many employers, and how many different kinds of wellness strategies, were included in this study of the University of Illinois wellness program (called iThrive)?
Let’s say you’re running a program for a global manufacturing company or a tech start-up. How comparable is your employee population to the employees at University of Illinois?
A Comprehensive Wellness Program
iThrive is said to be a “comprehensive” wellness program. In my mind, a comprehensive wellness program might include some behavioral programs, cultural strategies, environmental strategies, and, most importantly, organizational strategies that promote healthy work.
Is this a comprehensive program? You be the judge. The core activies and strategies of iThrive:
Biometric health screenings
Health risk assessments
Participation in “one of several activities in the fall and then again in the spring.” Activities included classes on chronic disease management; weight management; tai chi; physical fitness; financial wellness; healthy workplace habits; a tobacco cessation hotline; and an online, self-paced wellness challenge.”
A “Post-Intervention” Time Warp?
Screenings were conducted from August 15 to September 16, 2016.
Health risk assessment was conducted from September 8 to October 4.
Fall wellness activities were held October 10 to December 16.
Spring wellness activities were held January 30 to April 25, 2017.
“Post-intervention” healthcare utilization was measured for the period August 1, 2016 through July 31, 2017.
Thinking carefully about this timeline, what changes in healthcare utilization patterns would you expect during the first year of the program?
Keep these questions in mind. And I hope you’ll pose a lot more of your own when you read about future findings from this and other studies.
We all need to educate ourselves and stretch our creative muscles regarding blockchain and, maybe, cryptocurrency. It’s a bummer blockchain is so hard to understand, but that’s no reason to dismiss it.
Blockchain will be used to store medical records and also to accelerate the advancement of medical research. Cryptocurrency could be incorporated into employees’ Total Rewards packages. And, if the will is there, it may be used to advance more participatory workplace practices — representing real progress for employee wellbeing.
Civil, an application of blockchain and cryptocurrency, is focused on democratizing journalism (not workplaces or employment — though they do say their own employees have “equity/token opportunity”). Still, Civil’s model, in which currency represents not nothing — the accusation commonly and rightly leveled against, say, Bitcoin — but influence.
Imagine influence issued as an employee benefit. At first blush, it may seem unlikely — but not if viewed as a future iteration of employee ownership, co-ops, or even stock options and other equity awards.
You’ve probably read dozens of Blockchain-for-Dummies explainers and still don’t get it. Here’s one I’ve found helpful:
There’s been a lot of talk lately about how to take wellness past well-being and into the future. Specifically, how can we expand beyond physical health and, as wellness professionals, deliver maximum value to our organizations.
Check out the milestone 100th episode of Jen Arnold‘s Redesigning Wellness podcast.
As a result of all the interviews she’s conducted, combined with her own experience and insight, Jen has her finger on the pulse of employee wellness more than just about anyone.
In this solo episode, Jen — with her characteristic candor — systematically lays out a case for a new vision of wellness and previews exciting opportunities she’s creating for wellness professionals who want to make good things happen.
Listen to “Celebrating 100 Episodes” on the Redesigning Wellness podcast wherever you usually get podcasts, or stream it here…
Right down to the way it uses the word “organic,” the article aligns with my recent post about the importance of a work environment that encourages employees to craft their own “fun at work,” rather than simply having fun activities prescribed:
And the best cultural markers are those that aren’t imposed on employees—mandatory game night or spin classes!—but are those that are formulated by employees. These create a shared sense of continuity, which creates the foundations for trust and support and strengthens the bonds between people. Organizational culture is rooted in the ways companies encourage these organic interactions but also in how they support their employees themselves.
Big thanks to the folks at Lumity, Inc. for inviting me to present the webinar “Wellness, Wellbeing, and Workforce Sustainability: 3 Routes to Employee Wellness and Optimal Performance.” If you missed it, check out the recording.
In this orderly mash-up, I present about 40 years of work in 33 minutes (plus Q&A). It has something for everyone — from the HR generalist who’s been assigned to wellness but may not know much about it, to veteran managers of comprehensive programs trying to figure out what does and doesn’t work. I cover
the premise of health risk costs and risk reduction;
the distinctions between wellness and wellbeing;
ROI vs. VOI;
typical wellness program components;
work, stress, and health;
Without being overly prescriptive, I offer my own interpretations of evidence and practices, some of which you’ll find immediately applicable and some of which will irk you to no end. This link, exclusively for my blog readers, takes you directly to the recording.
Viewed through the lens of job crafting, “Banana Time: Job Satisfaction and Informal Interaction,” a classic in the annals of organizational studies, offers clues about how to foster real “fun at work” that can boost employee wellbeing and, with any luck, improve business results.
If you were absent the day they assignedBanana Timein Industrial Sociology class, I highly recommend this unique article. Sociologist Donald Roy’s story, embedding himself in a small group of die press operators, was published in 1959 and is unlike anything else you’ve read in a journal. At times it’s humorous, sarcastic, and self-deprecating. And it’s always empathetic.
Roy didn’t set out specifically to explore fun at work. He primarily was studying how laborers coped with tedious work. He also sought to “penetrate the mysteries of the small group,” recognizing there might be a relationship between surviving monotony — and it’s “twin brother,” fatigue — and the human relations that take place among co-workers.
Roy describes the isolation he and his small cadre of co-workers experienced:
…This was truly a situation of laissez-faire management. There was no interference from staff experts, no hounding by time-study engineers or personnel men hot on the scent of efficiency or good human relations. Nor were there any signs of industrial democracy in the form of safety, recreational, or production committees.
Roy cites forerunners who described humans’irrepressible impulse to engage in play, which can help “the worker findsomemeaning in any activity assigned to him.”
Short-Range Production Goals with Achievement Rewards
He shares his experience of this impulse, in the initial days before he interacted with the three other die press operators — “clicker operators,” as Roy called them — in his work area. Hecognitively craftedwhat he called “the game of work”:
‘As soon as I finish a thousand of the green ones, I’ll click some brown ones.’ And, with success in attaining the objective of working with brown materials, a new goal of ‘I’ll get to do the white ones’ might be set. Or the new goal might involve switching dies.
“Thus,” Roy writes, “the game of work might be described as a continuous sequence of short-range production goals with achievement rewards in the form of activity change.”
Ultimately, he acknowledges, “These games were not as interesting in the experiencing as they might seem to be from the telling.”
After his first week, however, Roy realizes that another game — one played daily by his co-workers — is taking place.
Looking Forward to Banana Time
First, he notices a regular pattern of horseplay and teasing. In one example, one of the clicker operators, Ike, would steal a banana from the lunchbox of another, Sammy:
Ike would gulp it down by himself after surreptitiously extracting it from Sammy’s lunch box, kept on a shelf behind Sammy’s work station. Each morning, after making the snatch, Ike would call out, “Banana time!” and proceed to down his prize while Sammy made futile protests and denunciations. The banana was one which Sammy brought for his own consumption at lunch time; he never did get to eat his banana, but kept bringing one for his lunch. At first this daily theft startled and amazed me. Then I grew to look forward to the daily seizure and the verbal interaction which followed.
Roy describes a variety of “time” activities the workers wove into their daily work routine. Many revolved around refreshments, such as peach time, a daily mid-morning ritual in which Sammy shared two peaches with the other press operators. There were also coffee time, Coke time, and many other “times,” including, of course, quitting time.
(SorryFamily Guyfans… No peanut butter and jelly time!)
Team Job Crafting
These playful activities, initiated organically (that is, intrinsically) within the group, are a form ofteam job crafting. They met specific employee needs like social support and relief from monotony, and were enjoyed by everyone whochoseto engage. Contrast organic, worker-crafted fun with activities planned by management or by a fun-at-work committee.
Roy observed other kinds of social interaction, as well, and the influence they all had on what we now call the employee experience:
The interaction was there, in constant flow. It captured attention and held interest to make the long day pass. The 12 hours of “click, —move die, click, — move die” became as easy to endure as 8 hours of varied activity. The “beast of boredom” was gentled to the harmlessness of a kitten.
Seven Lessons for Workplace Leaders
It may feel like a stretch, at first, to apply Roy’s 1959 die press operator experience to the modern workplace, but it suggests no less than seven insights relevant to most modern work situations:
Workers engage in playfulness to remain stimulated.
Fun delays or cloaks fatigue.
Workers use gamification to findmeaningin their work.
Playful rituals during the workday are used to mark time and support short-term intrinsic motivation.
Workplace fun often revolves around food and beverages.
Playing with others is more meaningful than playing alone.
Informal interaction between members of a work group is important for job satisfaction.
As for management goals, Roy posed one possibility: “Leavening the boredom of individualized work routines with a concurrent flow of group festivities had a negative effect on turnover.”
He observed that the more he played the less tired he felt, which may have positive implications for productivity, but Roy neither measured productivity nor speculated about it.
One of Roy’s most important observations, in my opinion, is that, given the opportunity,workers craft their own fun,especially via social interaction.
Job Crafting, Gamification, and Play
Arnold Bakker and Marianne van Woerkom, in last year’s article “Flow at Work: a Self-Determination Perspective,” posit that job crafting and “designing work to be playful” are two strategies workers use to satisfy basic needs, which leads to improved job performance. They cite (as Roy did) a well accepted theory that humans have a “natural tendency” for play. And they point to research suggesting that fun at work “leads to higher job satisfaction, morale, pride in work, creativity, service quality, as well as lower burnout and absenteeism.”
Echoing Roy’s experience of cognitive game-playingbeforehe discovered Banana Time (Remember? “As soon as I finish a thousand green ones, I’ll click some brown ones”), Bakker and van Woerkom share testimonials from people who gamified their work, such as one HR manager who said:
When I need to work on a boring, bureaucratic task, I gamify it by building additional tasks into the boring task. One option is to fill out the form using the fewest words possible yet covering all the content that must be addressed. This makes it a writing challenge and so, more interesting.
Bakker and van Woerkom conclude,
Proactively creating conditions at work that foster play – to which we will refer to as “playful work design” could therefore be an effective strategy to increase flow at work.
(Flowat work, the author’s explain, is “a short-term peak experience characterized by absorption, work enjoyment, and intrinsic work motivation.”)
Beyond “Fun” Activities at Work
Bakker and van Woerkom focus onindividualgamification, which Roy found to be “not as interesting in the experiencing as it might seem to be from the telling,” rather than socially interactive play. Nevertheless, their research affirms Roy’s finding 50 years ago:workers will find ways to craft fun into their work.And the authors encourage leaders to create conditions that encourage workers to do so.
For today’s manager, the lesson is clear: Ping-pong tables, office scooters, outings, office parades, and dress-up-as-whatever days in the office are all well-and-good, but more important is an environment that supports employeescrafting their ownfun. (The foremost benefit of social outings, office parties, and other gatherings — especially when accompanied by autonomy designed into the work — may be to provide opportunities to interact in ways that foster future fun and relational job crafting.)
When all is said and done, as we contemplate Roy’s insights, as well as the theories advanced by Bakker and van Woerkom, we may conclude that trying to provide funatwork needn’t be nearly as high a priority as enabling the funofwork.
Thank you to Dmitrijs Kravcenko and team, who introduced me to Donald Roy andBanana Timevia their remarkable podcast “Talking About Organizations.” Check it out. Start with the first episode, or jump right in withtheir discussion ofBanana Time.
It’s easy to imagine how a white collar employee like a project manager or a data scientist might engage in job crafting. But what about, say, a machine operator or a restaurant server? Do they have enough flexibility to refashion the tasks, relationships, and other building blocks of work to more effectively match their strengths and needs?
Crafting any job presents challenges. But it can be successful across the full spectrum of occupations. Research I’ve previously described, as a matter of fact, included a wide variety of jobs: Silicon Valley tech workers, teachers, hospital housekeepers, chemical plant workers, police officers, and nurses, to name a few.
Less Flexibility May Mean More Job Crafting
Job crafting pioneers Justin Berg, Jane Dutton, and Amy Wrzesniewski tell us — in Job Crafting and Meaningful Work — why it can be easier for employees in highly structured, lower-status jobs to engage in crafting compared to those with more flexibility:
Since their jobs included tasks that had clear means and ends established (e.g., “you should service this machine using the following steps,” or “you must enter these data in this way”), it was easier for them to see the “white space” in their jobs—i.e., where they could fit in new tasks or relationships or drop tasks and relationships that were not very important.
Berg and company go on to describe, in contrast, the challenges of crafting a flexible, typically white-collar, job:
Lack of structure, combined with the continuous pressure to pursue their end goals, seemed to make it more difficult for [“higher-rank employees”] to recognize opportunities to craft their jobs. In other words, to color outside the lines of a job, one needs lines there in the first place.
We talk a lot about the importance of autonomy for employee wellbeing — and for job crafting, specifically. But more autonomy or less, at either extreme, may be suboptimal. The sweet spot lies somewhere in between.
The article argues that Maslow never conceptualized the pyramid commonly used to illustrate his Hierarchy of Needs. The figure was developed by a consultant seeking to simplify Maslow’s theory for corporate clients, and it distorted Maslow’s work in the process.
Maslow’s theory aside, we can find a broader learning here. The phrases “some consultant,” “distorted,” and “overly simplistic,” remind me that consultants and other practitioners do, indeed, habitually oversimplify and distort theories of employee wellbeing.
In the employee benefits and wellness spheres, a couple of examples of oversimplification come to mind:
Consultants and other practitioners increasingly cite Self-Determination Theory, which says that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are prerequisites for human flourishing. But many present the theory as a simple explanation of behavioral motivation and are hard-pressed to explain what relatedness is or how it fits in.
Behavioral economics is a trendy framework consistently misrepresented. Wellness consultants have described it as a theory of intrinsic motivation. Behavioral economists, however, will assert that there is no such thing as intrinsic motivation. If behavioral economics had to be bucketed as one or the other, it could only be considered — with its warm embrace of incentives and other manipulative techniques — a framework for extrinsic motivation.
Scholars resent such oversimplification. But I’d be cautious about one-sidedly indicting consultants.
Perhaps scholars should endeavor to communicate their theories and findings in a manner more accessible to lay practitioners. Were relatedness and competence really the best terms to communicate what’s intended in Self-Determination Theory? Indeed, delve into the details of Self-Determination Theory, and you’re likely to find it nearly incomprehensible to non-psychologists. The theory picked up steam outside psychology circles mostly after Daniel Pink simplified it in his bestseller, Drive.
Similarly, behavioral economics has repeatedly been distorted by TED-talk superstars who have little or no training in either behavior, economics, or any combination of the two.
We wellness professionals would benefit by reading fewer bestsellers and more journal articles. I might also suggest that scholars — in order to learn how to reach an audience of practitioners with minimal distortion before TED talkers and bestselling authors pull the rug out from under them — study fewer journal articles and more bestsellers.
Perhaps a consultant would not have created Maslow’s pyramid, and it would not have taken hold to the extent it has, if Maslow or another scholar had more effectively illustrated his ideas.
[Hat tip to Kuldeep Singh, who shared the “Who Built Maslow’s Pyramid” article on LinkedIn, and Rob Briner, who shared the video in the lively discussion that ensued. This blog post is adapted from comments I contributed to that discussion.]
In 2015, Japan passed a law requiring businesses with 50 or more employees to offer workers an annual assessment — the “Stress Check” — which measures risk of stress and other mental health concerns based on three domains:
Psychosocial and other stressors in the work environment, including job demands, job control (autonomy), work intensity, and sense of purpose.
Mental and physical symptoms of stresslike irritability, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, musculoskeletal discomfort, difficulty sleeping.
Social support, including connection with supervisors, co-workers, and loved ones.
The Japanese government recommends their 57-question assessment tool, theBrief Job Stress Questionnaire(BJSQ). Take a look at the English versionhere. Employers can use alternative questionnaires, but they’re required to include the same domains — workplace stressors, symptoms, and support.
The law — designed to helppreventstress in response to an epidemic of stress-related death and disease — mandates that
Employees are given the results of their Stress Check.
Employees found to be at high-risk for potentially harmful stress are referred to a physician.
Employers modify stressful work conditions (such as schedules, work location, or responsibilities) in collaboration with high-risk employees’ physicians.
Stress Check process (click to enlarge)
The law encourages employers to improve the workplace environment based on analysis of their group’s data. Specific interventions aren’t prescribed, although models and case studies are available.
The law prohibits release of employees’ data to employers without the employee’s permission, and it prohibits discrimination based on Stress Check participation or results. Though employers are required to offer the Stress Check, workers aren’t required to participate.
No one’s advocating a program like this outside Japan, but it should evoke dialog among wellbeing professionals and enlighten how we view job stress.
Japan — likemuch of Europe,Canada, and the US’sNIOSH— recognizes that job stress is rooted in workplace risk factors: lack of autonomy, role ambiguity, job insecurity, lack of social support, excessive demands, harsh environments, inadequate rewards, work/life conflict, and unfair treatment.
The Stress Check questionnaire draws on a growing body ofevidenceshowing that it does, indeed, identify people who are at high risk of mental health-related disability.
As for intervention… There’s a lot of experimentation to be done before we can definitively say what works. To date, evidence supports organizational change more than personal interventions to prevent worker stress.
Recently, a small initialstudyfailed to demonstrate positive outcomes for either the questionnaire alone or for workplace interventions alone. However, the researchers reported:
Combining the annual stress survey with improvement in the psychosocial work environment can effectively reduce psychological distress.
Like it or hate it, the Stress Check program is innovative. We’re reminded that innovation is not always technology driven. We need innovators to follow Japan’s example and take a fresh look at our job stress paradigms.
Oodles of studies that include workers with diverse jobs in various countries show that JD-R job crafting is an employee-forward way to improve person-job fit — a win-win for employees and employers. It leads to improved wellbeing, stronger work engagement, better adaptability to change, and more productive job performance.
But when it comes to pulling their job demands and resources into an ideal level of balance — ie. JD-R job crafting — workers often aren’t aware of the possibility, and some aren’t confident in their ability to do it. Then again, some employers haven’t yet come to appreciate job crafting or don’t know how to inspire it.
These are among the reasons we, especially those of us trained and experienced in operationalizing workplace wellbeing programs, want to know how to structure JD-R job crafting interventions and what kinds of interventions work.
In a previous post, I reported studies of what I dubbed “Job Crafting Classic,” the original model proposed by Wrzesniewski, Dutton, and Berg.
Here, let’s navigate the more rugged terrain of the JD-R job crafting landscape. The following are studies of JD-R job crafting interventions — almost every study I could find. Almost all are based on a “quasi-experimental” design, meaning that — consistent with most studies of workplace interventions — neither the participant group nor the control group was selected randomly. They’re mostly pre- and post-test study designs, meaning measurements — of things like job crafting behaviors, work engagement, levels of demands and resources, and job performance — were measured before the intervention and after.
This is a relatively detailed overview, with links to the original studies in case you want more detail. If you’re in a rush, there’s an abbreviated version on LinkedIn.
4-Week Job Crafting Intervention for Police District Employees
Van den Heuvel et al paved the way with phased intervention for employees of a police district. The first stage was a one-day workshop that taught participants about JD-R job crafting; had them assess the current state of their demands and resources; and raised their awareness of opportunities to find more meaning and satisfaction in their jobs via crafting. The workshop concluded with creation of a job crafting plan. This was followed by four weeks of independent work on their plan, which included two or three goals per week. At the end of the study period, a half-day “reflection session” was held.
The study included 39 employees in a Dutch police district and 47 employees in a control group.
Outcomes: Increased wellbeing; increased self-efficacy (confidence in one’s ability to effect their situation); greater access to developmental opportunities.(The same team recently published another study (in Dutch)of a similar intervention — with only one goal per week and more participant interaction between each other and with the trainers — with 83 civil servants. They found increases in job crafting behaviors, increases in access to job resources, and improved wellbeing, compared to controls).
The researchers found the findings of their police district study, generally, to be “not significant.” But they concluded,
The job crafting intervention seems to have potential to enable employees to proactively build a motivating work environment and to improve their own well‐being.
Van den Heuvel, Machteld, Evangelia Demerouti, and Maria CW Peeters. “The job crafting intervention: Effects on job resources, self‐efficacy, and affective well‐being.” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 88.3 (2015): 511-532. This pilot intervention was originally described with additional detail in Van den Heuvel, Machteld, Evangelia Demerouti, and Maria Peeters. “Succesvol job craften door middel van een groepstraining.” Scherp in werk 5 (2012): 27-49. [Dutch], worth noting because it may be the first published study of a JD-R job crafting intervention.
Simplified Job Crafting Intervention for Medical Specialists and Nurses
Intervention: Gordon et al tested a fine-tuned version of the 4-week intervention (above). They explained: “As the eﬀects found by Van den Heuvel and colleagues were rather weak, we modiﬁed their intervention in several respects. Adjustments were made to the intervention to increase individuals’ understanding and application of job crafting behaviors into their daily work…”
The intervention started with a three-hour workshop in which participants learned about JD-R job crafting — seeking resources, seeking challenges, and reducing demands. It encouraged participants to learn from their own or others’ real–life experiences by sharing stories of how their proactive behavior changed their thoughts, feelings, or relationships at work. The workshops were customized to support the employer and its workers during a period of organizational change. At the end of the workshop, participants created individual job crafting plans to follow for next three weeks.
The team conducted one study with 119 medical specialists and another with 58 nurses. The interventions were customized for each group based on the needs of the organization and the employees during a period of organizational change.
Outcomes: Overall, the participants experienced increases in their job crafting behaviors, improved wellbeing, and better performance compared to controls. The medical specialists improved adaptive performance — that is, their ability to effectively modify behavior in response to changes at work. Consistent with other JD-R research, reducing demands did not clearly lead to positive outcomes — a dynamic that’s not yet fully understood.
The interventions led to “medium to large” increases in job crafting behavior and wellbeing.
The researchers concluded that the intervention was…
…a promising job redesign intervention strategy that individual employees can use to improve their well-being and job performance… Individual and organizational interests … can be integrated by adopting the theoretical framework of the ‘job demands-resources model.’
Blending The Job Crafting Exercise and JD-R Interventions for Healthcare Workers
Van Wingerden published several studies of job crafting interventions in recent years. She and her team published a relatively early study of a JD-R job crafting intervention, delivering a hybrid of the style of interventions described above and the Michigan Job Crafting Exercise™. The subjects were 67 healthcare workers who diagnose, identify, and treat hearing-impaired patients.
The intervention led to increased work engagement and improved job performance in the participants. Van Wingerden continued to use this “hybrid” (my word) intervention, weaving the JD-R model into the Job Crafting Exercise framework, in other studies.
Comparing Resource Interventions and Job Crafting Interventions for Special Education Teachers
Van Wingerden et al compared different interventions for primary school special education teachers at multiple sites: 26 participants took part in an intervention geared exclusively to increasing personal resources (specifically, psychological capital… hope, optimism, self-efficacy, and resilience); 32 participated in a complete job crafting intervention; 26 participated in a combined personal resources and job crafting intervention. 18 study subjects were assigned to a control group.
The study found…
The personal resources intervention improved work engagement
Job crafting intervention can, in contrast to Van den Heuval’s study above, increase employees’ job crafting behavior.
An intervention combining personal resources and job crafting leads to improved performance, but not increased work engagement.
The researchers concluded that job crafters probably should focus on increasing resources if they seek to boost work engagement. They suggested that, in addition to interventions, senior managers could do more to support employees’ balance of demands and resources, especially by expanding available resources.
Van Wingerden took it a step further in a study of 75 teachers, in which she and her team evaluated the sustainability of outcomes one year after completion of a JD-R job crafting intervention, in addition to the measurements they took shortly after the intervention’s conclusion.
They found that
Participants exhibited significantly increased job crafting behaviors one week after the intervention was completed and 1 year later.
Feedback, professional development, and self-efficacy resources had increased at the conclusion and one year after the job crafting intervention.
Significant performance improvements weren’t found at the conclusion of the study, but were found one year after the intervention. The researchers explained this lag by suggesting that participants increased their challenge job demands during the intervention, which could result in a short-term suppression of performance improvement but long-term growth.
The job crafting intervention may be a promising tool to facilitate a resourceful work environment which enables employees to achieve their personal and organizational goals.
(This study, which focused on reducing hindering demands, did not lead to increased work engagement — a recurring finding in JD-R studies. A study Van Wingerden led and published in 2017, Fostering Employee Well-Being Via a Job Crafting Intervention, however, found that an intervention focused on increasing challenge demands did lead to increased work engagement.)
Broad Study on Effects of Job Crafting Opportunities
Finally, Van Wingerden and Poell published a study in 2017 that, based on questionnaire responses of 2,090 Dutch employees from various walks of life, supports the value of job crafting interventions: “Results indicated that individuals who experience a high level of opportunities to craft reported higher levels of job crafting behavior. In turn, perceived opportunities to craft and job crafting behavior related to higher levels of work engagement and subsequently performance.” [Emphasis added.] Interventions are one means of creating “opportunities” to craft jobs.
The research team advised:
Managers who positively influence employees’ perceived opportunities to craft before offering job crafting interventions, in the organization, can create optimal conditions that may in fact strengthen intervention effects.
“Awareness” Intervention in Chemical Plant Workers
Tims et al surveyed chemical plant workers regarding their levels of demands, resources, work engagement, job satisfaction, and burnout. Surveys were sent at the outset and at the conclusion of a 2-month study period, with another survey specific to job crafting sent midway. All participants received standardized feedback that scored their levels of job demands and resources, with examples illustrating how demands and resources can be crafted by employees. 288 workers completed all three surveys and were, therefore, included in the analysis.
(This study generally isn’t described as an intervention, but it obviously is one — more of an “awareness” campaign rather than a behavioral intervention, but an intervention all the same. In health promotion terms, it’s comparable to, say, assessing someone’s level of physical activity and, if it’s low, providing boilerplate feedback on the risk of sedentary lifestyle and strategies people use to add physical activity into their life. The fact we aren’t telling them what they have to do or that they have to do anything at all doesn’t mean it’s not an intervention. In fact, it would be a fairly typical health intervention.)
Access to different types of resources had increased for respondents who reported, at the midway point, that they craft resources. This was positively related to increased engagement and job satisfaction, and decreased burnout. Those who said they craft job demands did not necessarily experience a change in job demands, but crafting challenge demands was linked to increases in wellbeing. This is consistent with findings in other studies that suggest, perhaps counter-intuitively, that positive outcomes may be rooted in the empowerment to engage in job crafting, if not with actual changes in resources and, especially, demands.
These researchers offered this caution:
Our results do not suggest that employees should be held responsible for their work environment and well-being. Rather, they suggest that management interventions should focus more on the effects of job demands on employee well-being because employees seem to change their job demands less often than their job resources.
These results obviously suggest that employees can optimize their own well-being when allowed to. Therefore, organizations should not only facilitate employee well-being by providing sufficient job resources and an optimal level of job demands, but they should also offer opportunities for employee job crafting.
Harvard Meta-Analysis: Job Crafting is Associated Positively with Work Engagement, but Interventions…
Harvard’s Frederick and VanderWeele conducted a meta-analysis on job crafting. A pre-print of the study is available on a limited basis. The researchers searched for studies of various outcomes, but only found enough studies of sufficient quality to examine work engagement as an outcome.
Their analysis showed that job crafting is positively associated with work engagement, but they weren’t able to say the same thing about interventions, specifically.
Thestudies ofinterventions,rather than just jobcraftingbehaviors, thatwe did identifyfound no effect of the intervention (Van den Heuvel et al., 2015; Van Wingerden et al., 2015).
Presumably, they mean “no effect” on work engagement. Frederick and VanderWheele acknowledge that the intervention studies may not have had sufficiently large subject pools to demonstrate such an effect. Take note, however:
The authors don’t mention Van Wingerden’s 2016 and 2017 studies (above) — perhaps they were published after the meta-analysis was conducted — that did demonstrate increasedimprovements in work engagement.
The analysis didn’t include Tims et al’s “Impact of Job Crafting…”stealth intervention from 2012 (above), understandably since the authors didn’t describe it as an intervention. But it was an intervention and it did lead to greater work engagement.
If you’ve paid close attention, you may notice a few red flags about these studies: small populations (n), apparently homogenous demographics, limited number of studies, and a concentrated group of researchers. In a future post, I’ll offer my assessment of these studies — strictly from my perspective as an American employee-wellbeing practitioner — and (spoiler alert!) I’ll share why job crafting is, by far, the most exciting thing to happen to employee wellbeing in a long time.
We wellness professionals are aninterventionist lot.Once we see that job crafting “in the wild” enhances wellbeing, reduces burnout, boosts performance, and eases adaptation to change, we want to know how we can make it happen.
And if we’re going to offer job crafting programs… We want to know what what works, based on evidence..
Let’s look at interventions based on two branches of job crafting:
What I callJob Crafting Classic —as I described inI Have Seen the Future of Employee Wellbeing. It’s Name is Job Crafting— in which workers modify the tasks of their job, the personal interactions they have, and their perception of the job in order to experience a greater sense of meaning and purpose, and to increase work engagement, satisfaction, resilience, and thriving.
In a controlled study at a large tech company, employees were happier and more effective in their jobs 6 weeks after completing the Job Crafting Exercise™. This quick video Job Crafting Classic intervention and some outcomes…
As far as I can tell, outcomes from this particular intervention, which was spearheaded by Amy Wrysznewksi, Jane Dutton, and Justin Berg, weren’t published in a peer-reviewed journal.
A Japanese studydelivered a variation of The Job Crafting Exercise to 54 manufacturing managers and 25 psychiatric hospital workers. The intervention led to improved levels of work engagement, reduced stress, and an increase injob crafting behavior.
Increasing job crafting behavior — Wrzesniewski et al describe a job-craftingmindset— is important. The intention of these programs is not to have participants modify their jobs at the intervention workshop and then go about their merry way; it’s to have them re-envision their jobs as malleable and to develop their skills and their sense of empowerment…so they can establish andcontinuouslyimprove their person-job fit.
Interventions and evidence forJD-RJob Crafting are a different story — one that will be told in Part II.
On a snowy winter day, as I listened on a conference call with a client, I watched through the window of my cozy home office as the curbside recycling truck lurched to a halt.
A burly guy jumped off the truck, where he’d been clinging in the blasting snow and arctic wind. In his orange reflector-striped parker, snow-dusted cap, and humongo gloves, he lifted my recycling bin out of the snow bank where it’d been half-buried by the city plow and in one swift move heaved the clinking and clanking contents into the backend of the truck.
He tossed the emptied bin onto my snow-covered driveway and stepped back onto the rear of the truck as it grinded away. With its amber caution lights flashing and sparkling in the icicles that hung off its rim like a damaged chandelier, the truck — its passenger clutching the back and ducking his head out of the wind — vanished into the whiteout.
“What kind of wellbeing program would appeal to this guy?” I thought. “What would be useful to him?”
On my conference call, the client was chatting about placing fruit-infused water stations in break rooms.
Would the recycling worker want a fitness challenge to track his steps? Would he like a health coach to call that evening to “nudge” him to eat fewer carbs? A work-life balance lunch-and-learn?
In the latest iteration of employee wellbeing, where all the buzz is about purpose, authentic self, mindfulness, and gratitude, would the recycling worker pick up what we’re throwing out there?
I don’t know what this individual worker wants and I won’t make assumptions. I haven’t spoken to him yet, but, like you, I chat with blue collar employees, manual laborers, and lower-wage workers every day. Some I meet in the course of my daily business, some are friends, some are family members. And I do ask what they want and how their workplace can support their wellbeing.
The above was originally the preamble to my LinkedIn post, “How My Dad Proved Steve Jobs Wrong About Loving What You Do…”, but I cut it because of length, relevance, and tone. Still, I’d love to hear from you. How can we serve employees in job classes like this recycling worker? How can we best support their wellbeing?
Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman’s classic 1984 book,Stress, Appraisal, and Coping, defineddifferent kinds of stressors: challenges and hindrances. Jeffery LePine and his team at University of Floridaexpanded on thisand found that challenge demands are linked to improved job performance; hindrance demands lead to impaired work engagement and performance.
Opportunities and Obstacles
We’ll get to some examples, but for now know that:
Challenge demandscost energy but are viewed by workers as opportunities to grow, improve, advance, achieve.
Hindrance demandscost energy and are perceived as unnecessary obstacles, thwarting personal growth, wellbeing, and achievement.
(By the way, there also are different types of resources — for example, job resources and personal resources. Job resources include things like performance feedback, training, and autonomy; personal resources include self-efficacy (confidence in your ability to have an effect) and optimism. For a more detailed and expert analysis of different types of demands and resources, see Maria Tims and Arnold Bakker’s article, “Job Crafting: Towards a New Model of Job Redesign.”)
Demands-Resources Job Crafting
In job crafting with the JD-R model, employees
Seek challenge demands
Reduce hindrance demands
Some of what researchers point to as resources — like performance feedback and training — are sometimes viewed by employees as hindrances. And occasionally there’s a fine line between a resource like autonomy and a hindrance demand like role ambiguity.
In previous posts about the transition from wellness to wellbeing, I neglected to address the studies of wellbeing — including many attempts to define it — that were done before corporate America appropriated the term.
As legendary occupational psychologist Sir Cary Cooper says, “Define wellbeing? We can’t even agree on how to spell it Hyphen or no hyphen?” (I’ve paraphrased Sir Cary.)
“Wellness programs focus on physical health while well-being addresses ‘all things that are stressors in an employee’s life.’”
So far, so good.
Then they wrote:
“ Improving employee health was the most frequently mentioned (82%) reason for offering well-being programs, followed by: decrease medical premiums and claim costs…”
If those two quotes don’t have you scratching your head, you’re reading too fast. Please back up and keep rereading until you’re appropriately distressed.)
Gallup’s Essential Elements of Wellbeing
In recent years, Gallup describes wellbeing, based on their massive surveys, as consisting of (these are verbatim):
Purpose*: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life
Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
Community: liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community
Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily
In 2010, Gallup’s Tom Rath and James Harter published “Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements.” The book served up the same five elements that Gallup advocates today, except the book used the label “Career,” whereas Gallup now calls the same element “Purpose.” Hmmm.
Gallup, with their partner Healthways (which eventually was acquired by Sharecare — creating the Gallup-Sharecare pair) argues that employers should address all five elements of wellbeing. For a price, they offer consulting services to help.
Employers faithfully adopted the five elements, depicting their wellbeing program goals with circles perfectly divided into equal parts — each representing one of the five elements — sometimes shoehorning in another element or two, like “emotional,” “environmental,” or “spiritual.”
But employers have not been well-served by their simplistic pie diagrams, which are used as virtual checklists to perfunctorily confirm that each element is addressed…
A fragmented effort to address what is in wellbeing, rather than a cohesive strategy to support what wellbeing is, may be one reason why, in practice, nothing but the name has changed.
Since his groundbreaking review, “Subjective Wellbeing,” first appeared in 1984, psychologist Ed Diener has probably published more wellbeing research than anyone. Though Diener evaluated the elements of what he calls “subjective wellbeing,” he defined it not by its elements but by the experience. To Diener, wellbeing is…
“…how people evaluate their lives — both at the moment and for longer periods… These evaluations include people’s emotional reactions to events, their moods, and judgments they form about their life satisfaction, fulfillment, and satisfaction with domains such as marriage and work. Thus, subjective wellbeing concerns the study of what lay people might call happiness or satisfaction.”
“Happiness or satisfaction.” Isn’t that what we always knew wellbeing to be, before we picked it apart?
I Feel Good!
With the various definitions of wellbeing circulating helter skelter, Uncle Sam (in the form of the CDC) played peacekeeper:
“There is no consensus around a single definition of well-being, but there is general agreement that at minimum, well-being includes the presence of positive emotions and moods (e.g., contentment, happiness), the absence of negative emotions (e.g., depression, anxiety), satisfaction with life, fulfillment and positive functioning. In simple terms, well-being can be described as judging life positively and feeling good.”
Rath and Harter’s description of wellbeing and other definitions of wellbeing emphasizes how you get there — the road to wellbeing. Diener and other psychologists emphasize how you are when you arrive.
Wellbeing and Burnout
Diener mentioned marriage and work, referring to domain-specific wellbeing. Here’s where that comes into play…
In job crafting research — as with a lot of organizational development research — “wellbeing” often is measured in the work domain only. Work wellbeing doesn’t just mean job satisfaction; it goes deeper to how employees are.
How do you measure how employees are at work?
For perspective, consider the symptoms of burnout:
A feeling of not making a difference
It’s not unreasonable to say that the opposite of burnout is work wellbeing — having energy, purpose, and optimism at work. This is why burnout metrics have, sometimes, been used to measure work wellbeing.
Focusing on work wellbeing — which, on the surface, seems to be just one domain — may be heresy to employee wellness leaders looking to check off their list each element of wellbeing.
But employee wellbeing programs risk getting in their own way if they try to do too much. Would it make sense to help employees thrive at work — the domain over which employers have most control — before trying to get them to thrive in, say, relationships, community, or even physical health?
On one hand, focusing on work wellbeing seems to contradict arguments against checking the elements off one-by-one. On the other hand, if the elements are interdependent, bolstering work wellbeing helps support the other elements. And if the others are supported at the appropriate time and place, work wellbeing will benefit.
To understand what job crafting has to do with employee health and wellbeing, it’s important to understanding the inner workings of job stress and motivation.
In a previous post — “I’ve Seen the Future of Employee Wellbeing: It’s Name Is Job Crafting” — I explained how, in 2001, Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton proposed that employees tweak their job tasks, workplace social connections, and perspective about their role to gain a greater sense of purpose and meaning, potentially leading to better job performance.
Around that same time, in the Netherlands, Evangelia Demerouti, Arnold Bakker, and othersintroduced their model of Job Demands-Resources(JD-R), which has since been fine-tuned and validated as relevant to a full range of occupations and outcomes in countless studies around the world.
If you’re familiar with job stress research, you know that job stress has causes, and shouldn’t be dismissed as a choice employees make.
Forget trendy notions that “stress is good.” It’s wishful thinking based on cherry-picked evidence. If stress is so great, why aren’t employees demanding more of it?
Forty years of research has shown thatharmful job stress is a result of jobs that have low levels of autonomy and high demands.
Job Demands and Autonomy Are Linked to Health Problems
Over the years, jobautonomy(or control) has been defined different ways, but can be broadly understood as limited flexibility (for example, with the tasks of the job) and limited decisional latitude, meaning the employee isn’t permitted or encouraged to make decisions in their work or about their work.
Jobdemandsoriginally meant the psychological intensity of work, but ultimately can be understood to include workload, time pressure, and physical demands.
Robert Karasekintroduced the theory of demands and control in 1979. He and others have shown that jobs in which workers consistently encounter high job demands with low job control — the combination of which is called jobstrain— are linked to a variety of health issues, especially high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, as well as depression, anxiety, burnout, and metabolic disorders. Reducing job strain can improve productivity.
Karasek later learned thatsocial support “buffers” the negative effects of high-strain jobs. Social support originally meant supervisors’ and co-workers’ support for performing job tasks, but can be understood in all of the many ways it’s been defined: Having a sense of “belongingness” at work; having co-workers who are empathetic and confidantes; having supervisors who take a genuine interest in the personal and professional lives of team members; and having a best friend at work.
In sum, high demands and low control are an unhealthy combo.(High demands andhighcontrol are not necessarily bad.)
Effort-Reward Imbalance Is Linked to Health Problems
Unhealthy job stress has been framed in other ways. Germany’sJohannes Siegrist foundthat work in which the required effortis disproportionately high compared to the jobrewards— effort-reward imbalance — leads to the same kinds of health problems that result from job strain. “Rewards,” here, doesn’t just mean financial compensation, but also career opportunities and level of esteem within the organization.
The effort-reward imbalance model reminds me of an encounter I once had with a business analyst who transferred to another department because she didn’t feel valued in the department she was hired into. When I asked her, “What would have made you feel more valued?” her answer was not “better pay” or “someone saying ‘good job’”…
“I just wanted someone to listen to my ideas,” she told me.
A worker who doesn’t feel valued (i.e. esteemed) by being “listened to” is likely to have a higher level of disengagement and health impairment. This offers a glimpse into how management style, job design, organizational culture, performance, turnover, health, and wellbeing are all interconnected.
Overtime, Job Insecurity, Injustice, and More…
Several other causes of job stress have been identified, and most of them can in some way fit into the demand-control and/or the effort-reward imbalance model:
• chronic overtime
• job insecurity
• work-life conflict
• role ambiguity (not being clear of what’s expected, receiving contradictory direction, duplication with other workers’ roles, or not understanding how the work fits into the overall organization — all of which are among the most common complaints I’ve heard from employees who report high job stress).
• organizational injustice (being treated unfairly, which at the extreme includes bullying and harassment)
• lower levels of status within the organization
• sustaining high levels of vigilance (e.g. first responders, air traffic controllers, etc.)
Back to Bakker
The overlaps between and the nuances of these job stress theories makes them difficult to understand and apply. That’s where Bakker and Demerouti’s Job Demands-Resources model comes in. While building on the existing theories and expanding upon them, it also provides a simpler way of making sense of job stress and motivation. I consider it a comprehensible and practical unifyingtheory.
JD-R posits that all job traits can be categorized as either demands or resources.
• Demandsrequire sustained effort from employees. They’re an expenditure of personal energy.
• Resourceshelp fuel progress toward work-related goals. They’re restorative, buffering the effects of job demands —and activating personal development.
I interpret JD-R to mean that Karasek’s “demands,” Siegrest’s “efforts,” as well as role ambiguity, job insecurity, injustice, tedium, and work-life conflict aredemands.
Job autonomy, social support, rewards, recognition, feedback, task variety, and training are examples ofresources.
Side note: If you’re familiar withEdward Deci and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory— popularized in the Daniel Pink bestseller,Drive— which tells us that motivation and flourishing depend onautonomy,competence, andrelatedness(i.e. social connection), you may recognize that job resources generally can be matched to the components of self-determination.
• Demandsregulate job stress.
• Resourcesregulate job motivation and engagement.
• And the two forces may act upon each other.
That’s enough theory for now. What I’ve come to appreciate about JD-R is how, according to research by Bakker and others, it serves as a foundation for a practical application: job crafting.
JD-R takes job crafting beyond meaning and purpose — which has received most of the public attention — and ties it directly into health and wellbeing.
I’ll spell this out further in a future post, and also draw the important distinction between positive and negative job demands. I’ll share what research shows about the effectiveness of job crafting interventions for improving employee wellbeing, work engagement, absenteeism, performance, and productivity. And I’ll offer evidence-based tips on how you can prime your organization for job crafting.
If you can find some downtime (or some treadmill time?), listen to “Dealing With Burnout” the Wisconsin Public Radio Morning Show. One of the guests wasMonique Valcour PhD CPCC, who has a gift for articulating, in super-practical terms, the connection between work and wellbeing. Monique explains what burnout really is, and delivers keen insight when the first caller makes a reference to the role of autonomy in addressing his own burnout. She talks about burnout as an “interpersonal phenomenon” and notes the supportive effects of mindfulness and emotional intelligence. And she provides practical tips for workplace leaders.
By the way, not only is it essential for us wellness professionals to address the burnout that occurs amongst employees, but I’m observing that it’s increasingly common within HR, Employee Benefits, and Employee Wellness teams. So if you don’t feel the need to learn about burnout for your organization, learn about it as an act of compassion for yourself.
I’ve had the pleasure of co-presenting with Rajiv on several occasions, and the conversations always take a turn toward the unexpected. I elaborate on my latest passion, job crafting, and how it may surpass other popular solutions for health-related job stress, burnout, and disengagement.
Rajiv brings his unique perspective as a community-minded entrepreneur, physician, and vendor. I’m always enriched by our conversations, and I think you will be, too.
The foundation of employee wellbeing isn’t employee behavior — it’s workplace exposure. Exposure to things like…
the physical environment,
the psychosocial environment,
the policies of the organization,
the work itself.
Designing jobs to optimize these exposures is a direct path to creating healthier work.
The employer that values employee wellbeing will design jobs that offer
well defined roles,
plenty of personal and professional support.
As the business world crams countless sections into its wellbeing pie charts, it persistently omits the core: For a sustainable workforce, healthy work comes first.
What Is Job Crafting?
In job crafting, employees tweak any combination of…
their workplace interactions,
the way they view their jobs.
One of the most commonly cited examples comes from Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton, who first coined the phrase job crafting in 2001. In their study of hospital housekeepers, some workers distinguished themselves by envisioning their role as part of the care team, taking the initiative to chip in where they could to make the environment more patient-friendly — adjusting a picture on the wall of a patient’s room, delivering a glass of water, or spending more time interacting with patients and visitors.
The researchers wrote,
When hospital cleaners integrate themselves into patient care functions, they are able to see their work as being about healing people and to see themselves as a key part of this process, thus enhancing work meaning and creating a more positive work identity.
A variety of workers studied, from machine operators to engineers to sales professionals, have been found to experience greater job satisfaction, better performance, less burnout, and enhanced wellbeing by bringing more meaning to their jobs via self-initiated or intervention-based job crafting.
I’ve come to see job crafting as the workforce sustainability intervention many of us have sought: An evidence-based, employee-centric methodology that can enhance employee wellbeing in a manner aligned with employers’ priorities.
Job crafting is not the solution, but it may be the keystone for employers that have their house in order. It’s one answer to the question, “Okay, we value autonomy, employee engagement, a supportive environment, and the rest… But what do we do about it?”
Job crafting is a tool — not a substitute — for good management.
If you may be interested in hosting a job-crafting beta workshop later in the coming year, touch base via the Jozito.com contact form.
Our major wellness conferences will connect their attendees with nonprofit (or under-resourced) employers in their host cities to model wellbeing interventions for employees who otherwise might not have access.
Last year, online media had a field day when a survey showed that one third of respondents who owned a “wearable” activity tracker stopped using their device within six months. The firm that conducted the survey referred to this as “the dirty secret of wearables.” But it’s premature to judge this disengagement rate, and there’s no secret to keep. Sixty-six percent adherence for wearables after six months may, in fact, be something to celebrate.
Is It Time to Disengage from Disengagement Rates?
We haven’t identified universally accepted goals for activity trackers (by “trackers,” we’re talking here about devices like Fitbits, Jawbone Ups, and the like). Is the purpose to increase activity? To lose weight? To (perish the thought) have fun? Without goals, there’s little we can say about effectiveness or the significance of disengagement rates.
The assumption behind the negative publicity for disengagement rates implies that users should wear their trackers indefinitely. But…Says who? Many consumers wearing a tracker for the first time will see, within a few days, that they aren’t as active as they thought. This may be a first step to modifying behavior, even if they ultimately rely on non-tracker strategies to make changes, and even if those strategies take place at a later date.
Business Insider writer Erin Brodwin recently published an article called, I Tried Fitbit for a Month, and Taking It Off Was the Best Decision I’ve Made. Judging from the title, we might think that Brodwin’s story is a testimonial to the transience of tracker engagement (or that she needs to make better decisions in her life). And it may be. But this observation she makes near the end of the piece may exemplify unexamined potential of wearables:
I still do some of the healthier things I learned to do with my Fitbit, like taking the stairs at work and going for a walk when I take a phone call.
In Brodwin’s case, sustainability of her Fitbit use would have been the wrong metric if her goal was to increase physical activity.
Do One Third of Users Disengage with Wearables after Six Months? Or Do Two Thirds Continue?
What benchmark are we using to judge sustainability of engagement with wearables? Do we compare it to the 20% of patients that drop out of psychotherapy early? Or to the attrition rate for Crossfit, physical therapy, yoga, walking groups, Weight Watchers, or gym attendance? What about mindfulness, our panacea du jour? What percentage of mindfulness practitioners sustain their efforts for more than six months?
I don’t have credible citations for disengagement rates on any of these potential benchmarks, because hardly anyone’s even asking the question. But, by most accounts, a 66% adherence rate after six months compares favorably to…well, just about anything that requires effort.
Previous research on pedometers and early-day accelerometer devices has shown they can be useful tools for increasing physical activity…when they’re integrated with a sound behavioral program. And this was the optimistic conclusion of the “dirty secret” survey — that use of wearables can be sustainable when integrated with behavioral approaches.
Through my job, I’ve overseen the distribution of thousands of pedometers and hundreds of modern tracking devices to people engaged in top-tier behavioral programs lasting several weeks, often offered periodically throughout the year. The pedometer users, I did indeed find, are usually eager to abandon their device in the junk drawer after a program ended. But those who stop wearing their pedometer after eight weeks tend to be perfectly happy to resume wearing it when the next program rolls around. And I’ve seen unpublished data showing that the effects of this intermittent participation on activity levels is sustainable for more than a year. Using it or not using it for the first six months of ownership doesn’t seem essential.
Our wearable technology is ahead of our research. Do we know what consumers expect from trackers? Not everyone wearing a tracker wants to change. Some may be quantified-self devotees. Some enjoy a tracker as an expensive toy.
As for me: I need to have an activity tracking device because I’m in the business, and I’m extra motivated to continue so that I can contribute my data as a subject in the Heart Study (which, I hope, may ultimately resolve some of our questions about wearables). If my job was unrelated, I doubt I’d pony up the bucks for a glorified pedometer.
Calorie-counting apps have come under similar criticism, but there’s no arguing that expectations of these apps are more clearly defined. Consumers come to these apps to lose weight, though research shows that attrition is high and that the apps, perhaps like wearables, are useful as a measurement tool and not a standalone strategy.
I use MyFitnessPal to track calories for 3 to 4 weeks each year. In the first three weeks I used it, I suffered the revelation that I consumed more daily calories in snacks than I did in meals. While I caution that n=1 — my experience may be irrelevant to anyone else’s — approximately three weeks was all it took to trigger a lasting change in my eating patterns. I consider that a win and, as of this moment, it’s no secret.
[This post was originally published on Medium.com on May 18, 2015]
Pay No Attention to the Magnate Behind the Curtain?
In 2000, a bunch of diet “gurus” were assembled to debate the pros and cons of different weight loss diets. Robert Atkins, Dean Ornish, John McDougall, the Sugar Busters guy, Barry Sears, and Keith-Thomas Ayoob from American Dietetics Association were in attendance.
At the time, the Atkins diet was booming in popularity. The low-fat guys demanded from Atkins data supporting his advocacy of high-fat, high-protein, low-carb diets. Atkins said he hadn’t been able to secure research funding.
Ayoob chided, “Excuse me, 10 million books in print and you can’t fund the study?”
Eventually, Atkins funded his own studies, which demonstrated that his’ conclusions about carbs and fats were not something to be ridiculed (they influences much of today’s emerging thinking about weight loss). Many of these studies were published in distinguished journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine. Regardless, they were viewed warily because they were funded by Atkins.
In other words, skeptics belittled Atkins for not funding studies of his diet. Then, when he did fund them, they dismissed the results as biased…because he funded them.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Almost all employee wellness research is commercially funded, and I do believe bias and distortion are prevalent. On the other hand, I respect companies that endeavor to publish their results.
My job, as a consumer of science information is:
to be aware of the potential for bias;
to try to understand how bias may or may not influence outcomes;
to seek less biased sources;
…and then to use my own critical thinking skills to reach or reject a conclusion based on all the information I have at hand.
[This post was adapted from a reply I wrote in response to Ted Kyle’s blog post Head Spinning Bias About Funding Bias. Ted blogs prolifically about obesity on his ConscienHealth – website, and is uncommonly faithful to scientific evidence. He’s a voice that needs to be heard.]
I’ve compared, in a separate post, the terms health, wellness, and wellbeing.
But even “wellbeing” doesn’t go far enough. The term, as it’s typically used in employer circles, overlooks the interaction between an employee’s wellbeing and their work — the job conditions, the people they work with, the support they receive… indeed, all the way to the very way work is done. The consequences of a sustainable workforce are the very ones employers seek: work engagement, productivity, consistent attendance, and retention.
One of the best descriptions of workforce sustainability is offered by researchers Ellen Kossek, Monique Valcour, and Pamela Lirio in their chapter, The Sustainable Workforce: Organizational Strategies for Promoting Work–Life Balance and Wellbeing, published in the book Work and Wellbeing: A Complete Reference Guide:
“A sustainable workforce is one where the work environment is caring and supports employee wellbeing. Employees are not seen as primarily resources that can be deployed (and depleted) to serve employers’ economic ends. Their skills, talent, and energies are not overused or overly depleted. They are not faced with excessive workload nor with a relentless pace of work for weeks or years on end. During times of crisis (e.g., natural disasters, sickness), employees are given time to recover or seek the extra resources they need to be able to perform in the future. Burnout is avoided and workers are given time for renewal.
“When human resources are used in a sustainable way, employees are not only able to perform in-role or requisite job demands, but also to flourish, be creative, and innovate. Sustainable human resource management practices develop positive social relationships at work, which enhances business performance, including greater cohesion among organizational members, commitment to common purpose, hope for success, resilience, knowledge sharing, and collaborative capacity.”
There’s no secret sauce to achieving a sustainable workforce. But it’s important to understand the essential elements of workforce sustainability when implementing a wellness program, so that program offerings are crafted through a sustainability lens.
I recently read an article about business’s revolutionary transition from employee wellness to wellbeing. “Historically speaking,” the author wrote, “wellness has been thought of as strictly pertaining to physical health, usually measured by biometrics.”
But, accurately speaking, this is not so.
Of course, there’s no single arbiter who can proclaim what exactly health, wellness, or wellbeing mean, but it’s worth understanding some of the ways these words have been interpreted in order to fully appreciate the implications, or lack thereof, of the “transition” from wellness to wellbeing
“Health” was defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1946 as
a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
WHO’s definition, incorporated into its constitution, remains unchanged to this day. But in 1986 the organization held an International Conference on Health Promotion in Ottawa, which resulted in the famous Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion that elaborated on the definition, stating,
An individual or group must be able to identify and realize aspirations, to satisfy needs, and to change or cope with the environment. Health is, therefore, seen as a resource for everyday life, not the objective of living. Health is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources, as well as physical capacities.
The Charter went on to list the conditions for health: peace, shelter, education, food, income, a stable eco-system, sustainable resources, and social justice. A far cry from biometrics.
In the late 1950s, the chief of the US Office of Vital Statistics — Halbert Dunn, MD — described a dynamic state-of-being he called “high-level wellness.” This is generally considered the founding of wellness, and Dr. Dunn’s sermon-like lectures reveal his concept to be anything but a simple embodiment of physical health. Dr. Dunn said…
The state of being well is…a fascinating and ever-changing panorama of life itself, inviting exploration of its every dimension.
I believe Dr. Dunn was amplifying — not refuting — WHO’s original definition, and the Ottawa Charter later adopted much of his take on wellness as a never-ending interaction with the environment.
But Dr. Dunn’s framework may have proven too cosmic for the mainstream. And many thought leaders have since distilled wellness into the sum of its various dimensions.
The National Wellness Institute adopted a model that incorporates six dimensions of wellness — occupational, physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and social. Others have divvied wellness up into five, six, seven, or eight dimensions, sometimes tossing in a “relationship” dimension, sometimes “environmental,” “financial,” or “community.” A quick image search reveals a galaxy of multidimensional wellness models in the shape of pies, hexagons, prisms, Venn diagrams, concentric circles, and geodesic domes.
I don’t know exactly how “wellbeing,” in the last few years, worked its way into the hearts of employers and the wellness industry. But one catalyst probably was the bestselling book, The Five Elements of Wellbeing, by Tom Rath and Jim Harter. Both authors are workplace consultants with Gallup (a partner of wellness vendor Healthways) and entrepreneurial marketers with a track record of successfully persuading employers to their way of thinking.
Rath and Harter argue, based on Gallup findings, that wellbeing is more profound than health and wellness, incorporating career, social, financial, physical, and community wellbeing. Sound familiar?
In practice, employers are rallying around mindfulness programs and financial planning, and repackaging stress management as resilience, and using these incremental expansions of the status quo as markers to distinguish wellbeing from wellness. Ultimately, the transition amounts to little more than a name change.
I’m more than happy to dispose of the word “wellness.” I never cared for it — not because of its definition, but because it has failed to resonate with employees or the public at large. And I see no harm in calling it wellbeing instead of wellness. Certainly, while the employee wellness industry has been celebrating this “transition,” I doubt many employees have noticed a difference.
Besides, I’m open to the evolution of language, as long as it isn’t contrived to cover up a deception (like calling participation “engagement,” which I’m sure no self-respecting wellness professional would ever do).
Here’s my bottom line based on this incomplete and superficial exploration of the terms health, wellness, and wellbeing: Some people are inclined to see connections, whereas others are more drawn to compartmentalize. Maybe surgeons and benefits directors are more likely to see what’s tangible and quantifiable, while artists and farmers see the whole and the dynamics it contains. Both points of view probably deliver value.
Either way, I’m guessing that anyone who views health and wellness as only physical phenomena is likely to see wellbeing the same way. Others who view these concepts holistically are likely to do so regardless of the labels we attach to them.
Health, wellness, wellbeing: In the end, what we call it won’t matter as much as how we think of it…and how we act on it.