Employee well-being matters. Most of us have had jobs that made us stressed or miserable. We know what it’s like to feel as though a boss or workplace is costing us our physical or mental health. In the words of Robert Hogan, PhD, “Bad leaders perpetrate terrible misery on those subject to their domain.”1 Who should be responsible for employee well-being, though?
The short answer is that both the employer and the employee have a stake in employee well-being. The pandemic and its economic effects have caused a permanent change in how we work—and how we feel about work. In their endeavors to bring people back into the office, 83% of employers say that employee well-being is a significant part of their return-to-work strategy.2 Yet burnout has risen by 17% while workplace happiness has decreased by 6% over the last two years.3
Employees remain stressed out and burned out despite employers’ focus on well-being. In a recent survey from the American Psychological Association, 79% of 1,501 respondents reported experiencing work-related stress in the previous month.”4 There seems to be a huge disconnect between employers wanting to improve employee well-being and employees reporting workplace stress. Is that the fault of leaders? How much accountability should organizations really have for the well-being of their workers?
Read on to explore the extent to which organizations should be responsible for employee well-being and ways that organizations can take effective action to improve workers’ wellness.
Whose Responsibility Is Well-Being, Anyway?
Employers and employees have a shared responsibility to communicate with each other about work and well-being. In that sense, both parties must be fully committed to the employer-employee relationship. Like any relationship, it should be reciprocal and rely on clear communication for success.
Because well-being is unique to each person, employees need to tell their employers about their needs. Likewise, employers need to indicate their expectations for work and respond to employee communications appropriately. Faltering communication can create circumstances for burnout.
In addition to a mutual responsibility to communicate, employees and employers also have different obligations to one another.
Individuals have full responsibility for their personal well-being. Only each person can manage their own physical, emotional, and mental health. Employers should not be accountable for employee well-being in that way.5
Individuals are also responsible for reasonably safeguarding their well-being at work.6 Employees’ actions can affect the safety of the work environment.If eye protection is a safety requirement, but some employees won’t wear goggles, they have chosen not to uphold safety standards. If others’ behavior causes a workplace hazard, employees should report risks to their safety. Compliance and communication fall firmly within the purview of employee responsibility.
Employers are responsible for providing well-being support, mitigating stressors, and creating an environment conducive to workplace happiness. Their approach to employee well-being should be guided by an intention to treat people the way people prefer to be treated—an empathy-driven variation of the Golden Rule. Treating employees like individuals by honoring their needs and their wants is an employee well-being philosophy that strengthens the employer-employee trust relationship.
Employers should also provide physical health support, mental health support, and a culture established by leaders that facilitates well-being and reduces the likelihood of burnout. Any well-being programs and policies will likely need to be tailored to the organization’s location, size, and industry.
Physical health – Employers are accountable for providing physical safety. In the US, those standards are governed by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It is a legal requirement for workplaces to be free of major hazards and compliant with other such standards. Expressions of physical health support might include safety training, flexible work schedules and paid time off, health stipends, wellness programs, and robust health benefits.
Mental health – Just as employers are legally obligated to provide physical health support, they ought to provide mental health support as well. Mental health support might include access to mental health resources, opportunities for learning and development, education in mitigating bias and harassment, generous leave policies, and commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. In fact, DEI and well-being are inextricably linked; organizations should integrate both initiatives to improve their joint efficacy.7
Culture of well-being – Leaders are responsible for establishing the culture of their teams, departments, and organizations. Because their values influence the values of the group, a culture that values individual well-being starts with leaders. To address burnout and promote a culture in which employee well-being is a priority, leaders need to commit to systemic change rather than wellness programs alone. According to the McKinsey Health Institute, “Taking a systemic approach means addressing both toxic workplace behavior and redesigning work to be inclusive, sustainable, and supportive of individual learning and growth, including leader and employee adaptability skills.”8
Meaningful organizational change begins with leader action. Keep reading to learn what steps leaders can take to promote employee well-being.
Organizational Action Steps for Employee Well-Being
Employee well-being is a shared responsibility. To better fulfill their part, employers should administer personality assessments to leaders and employees, develop leaders who value well-being, and understand employee motivation, values, and preferences.
Conduct assessments – Achieving employee well-being goals can be nearly impossible without collecting data that describe the current context. A personality assessment provides data-driven insights about how well people may tolerate stress and change, how they may respond to burnout, and what motivates them to work. After assessment shows leader and employee characteristics, potential derailers, and values, organizations may establish or adapt well-being initiatives specific to their talent. (Of the numerous excellent employer guides available, we were particularly impressed with the thoroughness of this one from the Society for Human Resource Management.)9
Develop leaders – Using assessment results, organizations can develop leaders who value and excel at supporting employee well-being. Personality characteristics can indicate strengths, such as building team psychological safety, setting vision, and using active listening. They can also indicate overused strengths that may derail leaders and the kinds of behaviors that stress might trigger. When people understand their assessment results, they can make deliberate choices to leverage their strengths, moderate their overused strengths, and even learn new or different behaviors. This strategic self-awareness empowers leaders to effect reputational changes that positively influence employees’ workplace wellness.
Understand motivation – Assessment results also provide talent insights into people’s motivations for work. Motivation relates to well-being when our work satisfaction meets our deep-seated human need to find meaning. At Hogan, we use the 10 scales of the Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory (MVPI) to measure the core values, drivers, and interests that reveal motivation factors and preferred work environments. Of course, what constitutes meaningful work will differ from person to person. Some prefer public recognition while others prefer private acknowledgement (the Recognition scale); some prefer a high level of decision-making responsibility while others prefer to execute processes and tasks (the Power scale). Knowing the specific drivers for each person enables leaders to position employees in roles that the employees feel are most rewarding and to provide them with environments where they are likely to be most productive.
When employers understand the impact that leaders have on employee well-being, they can take actions to build a safer environment, encourage purpose and fulfillment, and protect against burnout by creating a culture of well-being.
- Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2005). What We Know About Leadership. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 169-180. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-26188.8.131.52
- Miller, S. (2022, April 7). Employers Focus on Well-Being and Work/Life Balance as Employees Return. SHRM. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/employers-focus-on-well-being-and-work-life-balance-as-employees-return.aspx
- LinkedIn People Science Team. (2022, March). Employee Well-Being Report. LinkedIn. https://business.linkedin.com/glint/resources/employee-well-being-report-march-2022#0
- Abramson, A. (2022, January 1). Burnout and Stress Are Everywhere. Monitor on Psychology 53(1), 72. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2022/01/special-burnout-stress
- Amador de San José, C. (2021, November 17). Who Is Accountable for Worker’s Wellness: The Employer or the Employee? Allwork. https://allwork.space/2021/11/who-is-accountable-for-workers-wellness-the-employer-or-the-employee/
- Gill, M. (2021, May 10). Employee Wellbeing Is a Shared Responsibility. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forrester/2021/05/10/employee-wellbeing-is-a-shared-responsibility/
- Maese, E., & Lloyd, C. (2022, February 21). It’s Time to Synchronize Your DEI and Wellbeing Strategies. Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/389957/time-synchronize-dei-wellbeing-strategies.aspx
- McKinsey Health Institute. (2022, May 27). Addressing Employee Burnout: Are You Solving the Right Problem? McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/mhi/our-insights/addressing-employee-burnout-are-you-solving-the-right-problem
- How to Establish and Design a Wellness Program. (2015). SHRM. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/how-to-guides/pages/howtoestablishanddesignawellnessprogram.aspx