All Articles Leadership Management Building a healthy workplace goes beyond "wellness"

Building a healthy workplace goes beyond “wellness”

Research suggsets we're not thinking deeply enough about workplace wellness should actually look like.

5 min read


Building a healthy workplace goes beyond "wellness"

Pixabay image/SmartBrief illustration

Employee wellness programs are a “big” industry ($8 billion), with nine of 10 global organizations offering some sort of program. Yet a study released by the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that these wellness programs are not improving physical health metrics. And other studies point to an alarming increase in burnout, with mental health issues remaining the leading cause of illness and disability.

Toxic workplaces literally make employees sick, while constructive workplaces have just the opposite effect.

The 2020 Global Culture Report recently published by OC Tanner, best summarizes the role and responsibility of organizations in elevating workplace wellness. Organizations need to care about more than just the physical health of employees. They need to care about the employee as a whole; their physical, emotional, social and financial wellness.

What conclusions can be drawn by combining these findings with The Virgin Pulse State of the Industry Report 2018 revealing that workplace culture is the biggest roadblock to improving employee wellbeing and engagement? Is it possible that the budget for wellness programs has been misallocated to curing the wrong disease?

What the research reveals

Take a look at these research studies over the past 10+ years. They provide many clues to building a “healthy” workplace.

Teams and organizations each have distinct roles in promoting mental and physical health at the workplace. For instance, research from 2018 suggests that “trust and perceived support are both significant predictors of mental and physical health, job satisfaction and turnover intentions. However, the support at the team level is a more important predictor, while trust is a stronger predictor at the organizational level.”

The level of trust in the work environment is also associated with increased adjusted odds of having cardiovascular disease.

And, finally, management behavior that supports and develops trust promotes employee wellbeing at work.

Could it be that a link exists between organizational trust and employee wellness, both physical and mental?

As Mark Donohue, the founder of Lifeguides, recently reminded me, “While a few sick days may suffice for the flu, it takes more compassion and empathy to ensure a holistic employee wellness. To start, ask why your employees are “sick.” Is it really a health issue, or a well-being, life balance issue fueled by stress?”

And Kevin W. McCarthy, the author of “The On-Purpose Person,” so pointedly states, “A high trust culture reduces personal and interpersonal stress. This makes for a healthier and more productive workplace.” Who could argue with that?

The missing link

As in any new workplace strategy initiative, leaders must take the reins. A study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found “if a leader takes an authoritarian, unsupportive, or defensive stance, team members are more likely to feel that speaking up in the team is unsafe.” What if, instead, leaders were mentors and role models?

Imagine the impact of a simple gesture of recognition. In the O.C. Tanner 2019 Global Culture Report, only 57% of employees reported having received a “thank you” from their leader and peers within the past month.

If leaders are interested in building an authentically healthy workplace — one based on trust, not just lunchtime walks and Fitbits — identifying workplace principles that need improvement is the first step.

Then, consider surveying your employees. Identify the trust strengths and weaknesses at both the team level and across the organization. Getting “moving” on trust may just be the secret to elevating both physical and mental health, and it’s not nearly as costly.

“Working in a trusting environment frees every individual to focus their energy on the real issue at hand,” says David Belden of ExecuVision. “That allows an efficient use of mental and emotional energy. Daniel Kahneman’s extensive research on this subject explains that the survival instinct of the brain is to use as little energy as possible to solve any problem. When we, as leaders, create a trusting environment, we reduce waste, and enhance the fulfillment achieved by our team members.”

Stephen M.R. Covey perhaps summarizes it best: “As significant as the quantitative impact of trust is in terms of greater speed and lower cost, in my judgment the greatest dividends of trust are distinctively qualitative. As it relates to workplace wellness, the reality is that trust always impacts, in either direction, two profound outcomes:  Energy and joy. Low-trust cultures are absolutely exhausting, painful, draining, and debilitating; by contrast, high-trust cultures are positively energizing, exciting, engaging, and creative.”

Employee well-being, engagement and self-development increase when leaders put their hearts into not only ensuring the physical but also the mental health of their staff. They do this by mentoring employees and nurturing strong team bonds. This, in turn, connects employees, elevates trust and translates into motivation. Motivation has the lasting effect of improving company culture and engagement. And keep in mind, medical science tells us that when the heart stops beating, the brain also ceases to function.


Barbara Brooks Kimmel is the founder of Trust Across America-Trust Around the World, whose mission is to help organizations build trust. Now in its 11th year, the program has developed two proprietary trust-evaluation tools. She also runs the world largest global Trust Alliance and is the editor of the award-winning TRUST INC. book series. Kimmel is a former consultant to McKinsey who has worked across industries and with many Fortune 500 CEOs. She holds a bachelor’s in international affairs from Lafayette College and an MBA in marketing from Baruch.

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