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4 practical ways leaders can improve employee wellbeing

Employee wellbeing should be a top priority for leaders and LaRae Quy offers a step-by-step guide.

8 min read


employee wellbeing

Mateus Campos Felipe/Unsplash

As the workplace drags itself into a post-pandemic existence, the emerging reality for leaders is that COVID has made employee wellbeing an urgent priority. A recent Gallup Poll indicates that “fewer than one in four US employees feel strongly that their organization cares about their wellbeing, the lowest percentage in nearly a decade.”

larae quy wellbeing

The same study also found that teams who feel leadership cares about their wellbeing achieve higher customer engagement, profitability, productivity, lower turnover and fewer safety incidents. These are all critical considerations but it underscores how most current research on leadership behavior focuses on employee’s performance rather than the employee themselves. 

Employee Experience (EX) is just now beginning to get the attention it deserves. It’s not at all about benefits and perks. A lot of companies mistakenly think that because they “offer free massages and beer on Fridays that they’ve checked off the employee experience box.” Or, they hand it off to HR and hope they’ve heard the last of it. 

Engagement and wellbeing place importance on loving what we do and being motivated to achieve goals. The Great Emergence is the recognition that our career wellbeing intersects with our overall satisfaction with life. 

While not a lot of positive things can be said about COVID, it has highlighted the need for leaders to consider the wellbeing of their employees seriously. People’s expectations of work have fundamentally changed after their experiences with the pandemic. 

The terms “wellbeing” and “wellness” are often used interchangeably, but they mean two very different things. Wellness describes a healthy lifestyle, whereas wellbeing encompasses the broader holistic dimensions of a well-lived life, of which wellness is only one part.

Here are 4 practical ways leaders can improve engagement and wellbeing:

1. Understand the intrinsic need for employee wellbeing and motivation

Researchers have found that people have 3 innate psychological needs that affect their wellbeing and motivation. We actively seek ways to meet these needs because our brain recognizes them as a reward; if we’re not able to meet them, our brain registers this as a threat.

Known by the acronym ARC, the 3 needs are: 


  • People feel a sense of ownership and direction in their work.
  • Provide input when deciding how work gets done.
  • Express ideas and opinions.
  • High energy and enthusiasm


  • People feel connected, understood, and valued by others.
  • They are committed emotionally to the organization and their team.
  • Like and get along with colleagues.
  • Feel valued by people at work.


  • People feel they make a difference.
  • Use their strengths every day.
  • Confident in their abilities.
  • Feel a sense of accomplishment in their jobs.

The ARC approach doesn’t ask people to be touchy-feely; instead, it nudges people to care about others. Critical to the success of an employee wellbeing program is the demonstration of empathy, which is simply the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. This is most easily accomplished by asking quality questions that make employees feel valued, capable and in control. Not everyone welcomes an emotive approach or wants to bleed out their emotions and feelings, so it’s important that the questions promote thoughtful reflection about the issue at hand. 

Many people think that mental toughness is bulldozing your way through obstacles. That might work in football, but not in life. Instead, mentally strong people understand how to manage their thoughts, emotions and behavior in ways that will set them up for success. Emotional Intelligence allows leaders to understand not only others in greater depth but themselves as well.

How to make it work for you: When developing an employee wellbeing initiative, align it with the ARC in mind. 

  • Clarify how it will help people live fuller lives. 
  • Assure people that when they take an active role, others will listen.
  • Provide meaningful feedback.
  • Take care not to offer extrinsic rewards which can undercut the intrinsic motivation that wellbeing provides people.

2. Start at the top

Often, there is a significant divergence between what leaders believe is happening and what their teams perceive to be happening. So, it takes more than a rubber stamp of approval by leadership to ensure employee wellbeing programs attract the employee’s attention. Workplace wellbeing programs aren’t cheap. RAND estimates that programs which support healthy outcomes among employees are a $6 billion industry in the US.

But, people must be convinced that wellbeing is more than a passing fad. They need to see how it will help them to solve problems both at work and at home. Research shows that leaders in tune with their people can target meaningful activities rather than one more thing jammed into their already busy schedule. When daily wellbeing habits infuse the culture of the company, it nurtures a fertile climate for ongoing employee development, engagement and motivation. 

The folks in the corner offices set the organizational culture. Wellbeing must flow downhill, from top leadership to the rank and file. To fully integrate the importance of wellbeing into the company’s culture, robust discussions on these programs must start at the Board level.

How to make it work for you: To get the best results, get buy-in from your employees. Consider people’s lived experiences; get their opinion on what wellbeing looks like to them and their thoughts on work-life balance, leisure, job quality, social connections and trust. 

3. Create a positive culture

Company culture is the result of values plus behavior. It’s what people in the workplace do when no one is looking. 

One of the best ways to ensure that employee wellbeing initiatives are effective is to recruit influencers from within the organization across a range of work groups. Influencers earn their name for a good reason — they influence how people think and behave. 

It’s been said that managers do things right, while leaders do the right thing. Now is the time for top leadership to do the right thing and be an influencer among their teams. Unlike many wellness programs, employee wellbeing initiatives don’t require a lot of specialized training. All it takes is to 1) observe, 2) listen, and 3) ask quality questions. And when leaders do those three things, others will follow their example.

How to make it work for you:

Observe. Which employees exhibit low energy? Fail to deliver on timelines? Appear distracted? Take a lot of sick days? Come in late? Keep to themselves?

Listen. Let people know that you’ve observed their behavior in a non-judgmental way. Open the topic up and then listen to their response. Listening well takes time, skill and a readiness to slow down, to let go of expectations, judgments, boredom, self-assertiveness and defensiveness. Before helping people, you need to tell them that you understand their fears and anxieties are real. You need to listen to them and let them know you are there to help them get through these difficult times.

Ask. One of the best questions is, “How are things going for you today?” A more general question like, “How are things going?” is usually answered with an automatic response: “Fine.” But when you add the phrase “for you today,” it acknowledges that we all have highs and lows and that you care about how they are doing nowFinally, follow up with the individual to let them know you heard them and that you care.

4. Share the joy

Studies show that social support improves wellbeing. For example, people who feel connected have lower levels of anxiety and depression. 

Further research reveals that social connectedness is waning at an alarming rate in the US. The study showed that in 1985 Americans claimed to have 3 close friends. By 2004, it had dropped to zero, with over 25% of Americans saying they have no one in which they can confide.

Social connectedness can eliminate poor morale in the workplace. Here is an example: LinkedIn is a huge platform for professional networking, with more than 590 million members in more than 200 countries and territories. The company was created with a culture of transformation, integrity, collaboration, humor and productivity. The company faced new challenges in 2015,  and in response, LinkedIn launched a new employee recognition program called Bravo!

Through the new program, any employee could recognize a colleague who exhibited outstanding performance or efforts at work and demonstrated LinkedIn’s core values. Recognized employees were offered a variety of award levels and personalized rewards, including gift cards and merchandise across all countries where employees reside. In the first 18 months of the Bravo! program, 24% of employees actively recognized another employee.

LinkedIn is one example of how employee wellbeing practices can be integrated into the workplace. A wellbeing initiative can enable employees and leaders to start daily micro-steps and actions that have a lasting positive impact on the company’s culture.

How to make it work for you: Let’s face it, leaders set the tone for employee wellbeing in the workplace. To be effective, you need to model core behaviors to your team. This demonstrates your purposeful follow-through on actions that support wellbeing. 

LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years, during which she exposed and recruited foreign spies and developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty and deception. Find out if you’re mentally tough with Quy’s FREE, evidence-based Mental Toughness Assessment. Quy’s new book is “Secrets of a Strong Mind (2nd edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles.” Follow her on TwitterFacebookInstagram and LinkedIn.


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