Is a Focus on Employee Well-Being Revolutionizing American Work Culture?

Some U.S. companies and thought leaders are changing the conversation about the way we work and how we define success.

Is a Focus on Employee Well-Being Revolutionizing American Work Culture?

Stress. Burnout. Exhaustion.

These may be some of the first words that come to mind when you hear the word “work.” For many Americans, weekdays are spent counting down to Friday, and weekends are spent dreading Monday. Paid family leave isn’t mandated, and vacation time is handed out much less generously than in other industrial nations. Meals are consumed while hunched over a desk. Late nights at the office are increasingly frequent, and sleep is seen as a luxury, rather than a basic human need.

Does that sound healthy? A growing number of American companies and thought leaders are saying it’s not healthy and are calling for change. By shifting the focus to employee well-being, these influencers predict the results will not only be beneficial for the workers, but also for the companies – and for society, as a whole.

We’re. Burnt. Out. But how did we get to this point?

The origin of our current American work culture stems from the arrival of the Protestants from Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. You've probably heard of the Protestant work ethic. An intense dedication to work was their claim to fame, and that work ethic has persisted for the hundreds of years since they arrived in the New World.

But it’s possible to have a strong work ethic, while still maintaining your physical and mental health and living a fulfilling, balanced life. Somewhere along the way, the Protestant work ethic was misconstrued. Now, if you work a 40-hour week, you could be labeled as lazy or not committed to your company. But if you work more hours, you’ll get overtime pay, right? Not necessarily. A large portion of salaried American workers aren’t covered by overtime pay legislation. (President Obama tried to change the law to cover more employees, but so far he’s losing that ongoing legal battle.)

This toxic work culture appeared to come hand-in-hand with traditional measures of success: money and status. That’s why a number of leaders are attempting to redefine success. And the ringleader of this movement is something of a household name.

Falling down to rise up

Arianna Huffington (Photo: David Shankbone)

Media mogul Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, was one of the first American business leaders to bring conversations about the flaws in our work culture to the national stage. Huffington kicked off the discussion in 2014 with the publication of her book Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. The national bestseller lays out Huffington’s ideas, backed by research, for redefining success and revolutionizing our work lives.

It all started with a personal story. Two years after launching the Huffington Post and physically exhausted from overworking, Huffington collapsed. She told the story in an interview with Oprah Winfrey.

"I hit my head on my desk, broke my cheekbone, got four stitches on my right eye. I was very lucky I didn't lose my eye."

That fall was the catalyst for Huffington’s movement to make well-being a priority. First came the book. Then came the media company. Huffington launched Thrive Global in 2016, with the stated mission of ending “the stress and burnout epidemic by offering companies and individuals sustainable, science-based solutions to enhance both well-being and performance.”

Thrive Global provides articles – written by both experts and ordinary people – tips, product recommendations, and even an e-course, to help Americans redefine success and ensure they’re prioritizing well-being in their work lives.

Putting employees first

Huffington may be the ringleader of this movement, but she’s certainly not alone in the pursuit of a healthier work culture. There’s a growing list of companies and thought leaders working to make employee well-being a top priority.

In its own way, Google has played a major role in changing workplace culture. Leadership consultant and speaker Mark C. Crowley examined Google’s focus on employee well-being and performance in an article for Fast Company. Crowley argues the tech giant’s implementation of incredible perks and benefits for its employees is backed by “the same level of intellectual firepower it used to create self-driving cars.” In other words, a lot of thought and research went into creating the work culture on which Google prides itself.

Crowley highlights three ways Google has built a workplace where employees can thrive: the emulation of organizations that attract and retain top talent, the abundance of truly fulfilling work tailored to employees’ interests, and the democratic structure that gives every employee a voice.

A number of companies, in both tech and other industries, have followed suit. Employee satisfaction has been made a priority, and research has found this strategy can improve both work performance and a company’s profitability. Sounds like a win-win situation.

When the evidence works in your favor

The proof is in the pudding. The push for a new employee-focused work culture is being reinforced by studies, which have found enhanced productivity and even profitability in companies with positive work environments.

One such study comes from Gallup. The study, published in October 2015, set out to measure the relationship between well-being and employee engagement, and the benefits for a company that arise from increased engagement. Let’s take a look at the numbers.

According to the study, employees who are highly engaged at work and have high levels of well-being:

  • Miss 70% fewer workdays because of poor health in any given month
  • Are 42% more likely to evaluate their overall lives highly
  • Are 27% more likely to report "excellent" performance in their own job at work
  • Are 37% more likely to report always recovering "fully" after illness, injury or hardship
  • Are 59% less likely to look for a job with a different organization in the next 12 months

In addition to these surprising statistics, which point to improvements in performance and productivity, research has also found a correlation between positive work cultures and company profitability. In his book The Culture Cycle, Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus James L. Heskett explains why this correlation exists.

"We know, for example, that engaged managers and employees are much more likely to remain in an organization, leading directly to fewer hires from outside the organization. This, in turn, results in lower wage costs for talent; lower recruiting, hiring, and training costs; and higher productivity…”

Heskett goes on to describe how retaining employees allows for closer relationships with customers, which create more sales. A study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior in 2015 supports Heskett’s claims. The researchers concluded that a more engaging work culture drives customer satisfaction and sales, and therefore profitability.

Joining the movement

As the evidence in favor of an employee-focused work culture mounts, it logically follows that a growing number of companies would get on board before the wave of change knocks them over. But there is still some convincing to be done.

How can you help? If your company is still stuck in the traditional American work culture, talk to your peers and superiors (politely) about the benefits of making a change. Bring them the data. Share this article, and others like it, on social media. Visit Thrive Global’s website to learn more about the movement.

Most importantly, make your well-being a priority for once. Go home. Get a good night’s sleep. And for Pete’s sake, stop checking your work email.

How does it work?
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Dylan Lyons

Dylan is a digital content producer and freelance writer. He studied journalism at Ithaca College and previously managed social media for CBS Evening News. His interests include reading and petting dogs. Dylan lives in New York City.

See all posts by Dylan Lyons