To Build a Strong Team, You Need to Address All of Your Employees' Needs
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The media has devoted endless reams of newsprint and inches of digital real estate to examining the country’s most pressing health problems. According to data released by the Centers for Disease Control in 2017, obesity affects nearly 40 percent of adults and 20 percent of children in the U.S. In addition, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that approximately 44 million, or a fifth of all Americans, grapple with mental illness in a given year.
But when it comes to the office, few talk about these issues. The thought of introducing these topics at work instantly leads to visions of George Orwell’s 1984, or emotionally digging up excruciating details from childhood.
There’s no call for a company to play Big Brother to its employees but these needs still need to somehow be met. When businesses overlook their employees’ physical and mental needs, they squander an opportunity to develop greater loyalty, productivity and a high-performing team.
What’s happening on the inside finds its way out.
The crux of the matter is that while employers try to treat employees’ mental and physical health as separate from the workplace, what happens beyond the office’s four walls inevitably makes its way in. Any leader who’s managed an employee going through a divorce or healing from surgery has watched it happen -- the things that impact an individual’s mental or physical health also impact their behavior at the office.
By trying to separate health from the office, business leaders overlook an even bigger truth: What happens in the office can absolutely impact employees’ health. The American Institute of Stress states that work is a major source of stress for Americans, with nearly half indicating that their main source of job stress is their workload. That work stress, in turn, increases their chances of heart attack and hypertension.
Then there’s the perennial challenge of work-life balance. Those who struggle in vain to achieve work-life balance because of long hours or demanding bosses note that they suffer on both sides, missing important life events and enduring lower productivity. Over the long term, employees who work more than 55 hours a week are at higher risk of stroke, heart disease, depression and anxiety. It’s hard to argue that work and health aren’t connected.
How attention to health can preempt burnout
Highly stressful workplaces, in terms of both mental pressure and physical fatigue, are intended to get the greatest output from employees -- even if that means grinding them down.
“Why should such workplaces be given a free pass, when they are the sources of stress, while their inhabitants are being told that burnout is their own personal problem and responsibility?” asked psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter in an article on Quartz. “Instead of letting such bad job settings off the hook, we should also be focusing on how to improve the workplace environment.”
A 2009 TED talk professed the benefits of plants around the workplace for creating not only a mentally stimulating environment, but an oxygen rich one. Incidences of burnout decreased, sick leave was taken less often, and overall productivity increased, from a simple change in environment.
More enlightened workplaces offer employees choices in terms of designing an environment that works best for them as individuals. Gensler’s Diane Hoskins reports in Harvard Business Review that “knowledge workers whose companies allow them to help decide when, where and how they work were more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, performed better and viewed their company as more innovative than competitors that didn’t offer such choices.”
How can leaders offer choices that communicate their desire for employees to feel supported as individuals, not just as workers?
Create physically comfortable spaces.
A study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill revealed that chronic and debilitating back pain is on the rise among men and women of all ages, races and ethnicities. Meanwhile, Annals of Internal Medicine reported that the longer people sit, the greater their chance of early death, meaning sitting really is the new smoking.
To combat the unintentional physical pain caused by most offices, leaders would do well to create an active workspace. Invest in standing desks, create walking or movement-oriented areas and design rooms that can be adapted to specific purposes as needed. Enabling people to easily change positions or take walking breaks can do a world of good in easing the strain on their backs and hearts. Varidesk, which manufactures standing desks, notes that the right setup often requires testing and employee awareness: “What the definition of flexibility is for your workers today may change tomorrow as job roles change and as the workforce changes.
Build in flexibility.
Employees -- even those fully devoted to your company’s cause -- have lives outside work. Being able to work remotely to allow a plumber in or to see a child’s play during an off hour can make a big difference in how an employee’s week goes -- and how he perceives the company. This is as true of people in caregiver roles as it is for others. The Denver Post reports that 84 percent of workers feel flexible options are equally important for parents and nonparents.
For positions without time- or location-critical components, allow employees the flexibility to work from different places or take breaks at different times. Breaking ingrained lunchtime routines or off-site work rules can feel uncomfortable, but the question underlying every decision that stands to benefit employees’ well-being is: Does this matter? If the work is getting done, and your employees are accessible when you need them to be, does their location or lunch hour matter?
Address mental health.
At a time when celebrity suicides dominate news cycles and suicide contagion seems a real concern, brushing off mental health as a non-work-related issue is dangerous. Realizing mental health support was a “pervasive issue across the entire workforce,” Lyft added free behavioral therapy to its full-time employees’ benefits packages -- and included their families, too. By providing additional resources, Lyft hopes employees can identify problems quickly and raise them as needed.
If it’s financially feasible, you can follow Lyft’s lead. Another option is to develop a company mental health policy and offer training to help managers and employees learn how to manage difficult mental health situations. Make any employee assistance program resources readily available at all times. Small changes, such as allowing occasional recharge days -- no questions asked, can also make a positive impact on someone who’s struggling.
While you may want to keep the sticky, uncomfortable topics of mental and physical health outside the office, they’re already there. Those pesky problems we face as humans are because we are indeed humans. By acknowledging humanity in your employees and supporting them in every aspect of their lives, you can foster more productive, resilient employees -- and a more productive, resilient company.