Wellbeing at work: the simple things that help employees thrive

One of Australia’s leading experts on workplace wellbeing draws on engagement research from Gallup to explore ways to prevent staff burnout and boost productivity in the new world of work

Did you know that most of us will spend 90,000 hours of our life at work? With all that time spent on our careers, our wellbeing in the workplace matters. Yet, for many of us, we’re rarely encouraged to put wellbeing at the top of our work to-do list.

If you think prioritising wellbeing isn’t essential for productivity, that’s where you’re going wrong. Extensive evidence shows that thriving wellbeing and productive output are integrally interlinked. And when workplaces help employees be the best version of themselves, it also has enormous benefits for the company.

Camilla Frumar, a senior Australian consultant for the global research business Gallup, has been at the forefront of this research. Camilla joined me on a recent episode of my ‘Ideal Day’ podcast to share her insights about workplace wellbeing. Camilla is well aware of the toll that burnout can take and is deeply passionate about undoing some of the stressors we take for granted as something we have to live with at work.

Read on for a breakdown of some of that research and discover the top ways to boost wellbeing at work.

The five universal elements of wellbeing

Gallup has conducted research for the past 70 years across 160 countries, revealing five common elements of wellbeing that transcend every country and culture. Understanding which elements are vital for wellbeing worldwide can help us differentiate between a thriving life and one spent suffering.

Best of all, these elements aren’t entirely out of our hands; we have some agency over the factors which make the most significant difference. So, this research is encouraging. The pursuit of wellbeing is far from hopeless, and we can all be proactive about getting closer to that ‘best life possible.’

Here are the five common elements of wellbeing:

  • Career wellbeing: how we occupy our time (or the general purpose behind our days, for those who do not work).
  • Social wellbeing: the quality of our relationships, and also ideally having six hours of socialising per day (conveniently, this doesn’t necessarily have to be face-to-face and can include inconsequential conversations).
  • Financial wellbeing: how effectively do we manage our economic life and financial security?
  • Community wellbeing: having a sense of engagement in our area and taking pride in what we contribute to our communities.
  • Physical wellbeing: having good health, learning strategies to manage chronic illnesses, or just the energy to get things done each day.

In an ideal world, we’d all be one of the people who thrive across all five elements. These participants tended to have fewer health issues, less worry and depression, and also more hope, happiness, energy, interest and respect. However, making all five elements work simultaneously is pretty challenging for most of us.

Take some time to reflect on which wellbeing pillars you’ve already got into control. All five are interrelated, so having just one pillar at your foundation will eventually benefit all of them.

For example, if your finances or career aren’t where you want them to be, but you’ve recently made strides in your physical and community wellbeing, then feel positive knowing that this will have a cumulative effect.

Introducing wellbeing into your workplace

According to Gallup’s global poll, only about 23 per cent of the world’s employees are thriving at work. This isn’t just bad news for employees, but also for companies, as wellbeing and engagement are reciprocal according to Gallup’s research.

When we’re engaged at work, we’re more likely to go above and beyond, feel a sense of purpose, look out for our colleagues and take care of one another. On the flip side, being too engaged (without enough focus on wellbeing) could lead to burnout. Sitting at our desks all day, without any breaks or physical movement, simply isn’t sustainable long-term.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gallup’s research shows us that the single most important factor in engaging workplaces is the manager. The best leaders focus on holistic management that prioritises engagement and wellbeing equally. This balance leads to sustained performance, less employee turnover, fewer safety issues and thriving workplaces.

And since managers have a massive impact on their employee’s wellbeing, this role is a huge responsibility as well as a privilege. People leaders should consider themselves accountable for employee’s wellbeing and productivity alike.

Here’s how to get started with a more holistic approach to management:

1. Conversations: Gallup shows that having high-quality conversations is the primary tool for building trust and relationships at work. These conversations should be frequent and varied. And, crucially, not always connected to what you’re doing at work every day. So, ensure some interactions aren’t transactional and show genuine consideration for life outside work. The good news is the essential skill of conversations can be developed through planning, a willingness to be a little playful and making those interactions purposeful.

2. Recognition and appreciation: Be more mindful of showing appreciation for recent work. Gallup’s research shows we need recognition every seven days to meet that human need. Every employee is different, so bear in mind there are many ways to show appreciation, both publicly and privately.

3. Expectations: It’s essential to be crystal clear about what’s expected at work. Managers should have consistent check-ins to really clarify what the goals and expectations are. Ideally, a 15 to 30-minute check-in once a week is excellent, but these chats should be longer if you’re doing them less frequently. You need this time to genuinely listen and engage.

4. Focus on strengths: At Gallup, studies show meaningful conversations are much more impactful when we focus on strengths.  And unsurprisingly, far less effective when every chat is about fixing deficits. In fact, there’s a clear link between high-performing companies and those who invest in their employee’s strengths. So, when setting those weekly goals, try to incorporate a strength-based approach. Help employees understand who they are and what they do best, and help them apply these skills daily.

5. Stay connected with hybrid workers: The post-pandemic work environment has complicated things a little, but it’s not all bad news. At Gallup, they’ve seen that optimal wellbeing and engagement occurs in employees who go into the office about two to three days a week. This leads to a great mixture of face-to-face time with colleagues and managers while also benefitting from those work-from-home days.

However, a downside is that in offices where hybrid work is not mandated, men are now more likely to return to the office. Why? Because women often have more of a caretaker role, whether looking after the kids or elderly parents. With this in mind, ensure that those working from home are kept in the loop about development opportunities and that relationship-building still occurs.

Here are two final wellbeing tips which can benefit all workers:

6. Setting boundaries: ‘When I’m on, I’m on, and when I’m off, I’m off.’ As Camilla Frumar of Gallup says, it’s essential to be ‘actually off’ on your off days. That includes holidays because, unfortunately, some people get a badge of honour for working on their holidays. Take the breaks you need, and you’ll be better for yourself, your colleagues and the organisation. From a management perspective, encourage everyone to take breaks and take agency over setting boundaries.

7. Be sure to make changes before you burn out: Waking up in the middle of the night and unable to sleep? Too tired to make any plans at the weekend? Unable to take care of your other wellbeing pillars because you give everything to your job? If you have even early signs of burnout, it’s essential to address them immediately. Talk to a manager or confidant at work and address the root cause of your burnout in its early stages, or reach out to a mental health provider.

Again, a good people leader should understand that a holistic approach is essential for employees – and the organisations they work for – to truly thrive.

Listen to Duncan Young’s full Ideal Day podcast interview with Camilla Frumar of Gallup here.

Duncan Young is a motivational speaker, wellbeing habit change leader and executive coach who inspires people to thrive. Before starting his own wellness consulting business, he enjoyed a successful 27-year career at Lendlease with an ultimate position of Head of Workplace Health and Wellbeing. He has helped local and global companies engage employees through his bespoke wellbeing and performance programmes, and he has spoken regularly at WORKTECH events.
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