Employee Well-Being: What Are Your Indicators?

What are your leading indicators?

If you're an economist, you probably look at the stock market and building permits.

If you're an epidemiologist, maybe you're scoping out web searches for flu as warnings of an impending outbreak.

And if you're an employer, you might be looking at a jump in healthcare expenses as a leading indicator of something about to go awry in your workplace.

Unfortunately the last one is just wrong.

What Claims Data is Telling You

The idea that a rise in medical claims is a sign of building stress in your workforce is mistaken. Those amped-up doctor expenses aren't politely warning you that stress is coming - they're screaming that stress is already here. It's camped out in your workplace making people feel listless, tired, and disengaged. If your cube farm were a comic strip, the text bubbles above people's heads would say something illustrative, like...life stinks, and, I'm sick and you're going to pay.

Merely focusing on a jump in health claims means that by the time you've been alerted by the surge, the real organizational damage has been done.  Lower retention...engagement...productivity. Although not everything declines - sick days have probably gone up.  And I think we all know what that means.

Wellness Alone is a Failed People Strategy

This is why health and wellness programs alone fail. They're like throwing antihistamines at a rash caused by the soap you use every morning. They only look at the obvious symptoms and ignore what got you there.

Let's illustrate this with high blood pressure. We know that high blood pressure is a billion dollar problem in this country.  The Centers for Disease Control calls high blood pressure one of the most expensive ailments, costing upwards of $76 billion annually. The Milken Institute brings it home for employers, estimating that hypertension-related productivity losses cost employers more than $500 billion each year.

Those are big numbers. So the logical temptation is to be reactive -- look at the potential impact and try to head off the problem with related wellness fixes like exercise (gym memberships) or nutrition (weight-loss programs).

But what if there are more complicated roots - maybe nonstop work lives that are taking the air out of the whole work/life equation, diminishing employee engagement, and creating a business culture of discontent? We have specific data that says that's true. Our own well-being study showed clear evidence of the connection between unmanaged work-related stress and very specific health problems. Dependent-care challenges alone are enough to upend a workforce. Caregiver stress is real and working and taking care of your family is a hard job. And employees who don't get dependent-care help from their employer were three times more likely to be treated not only for high blood pressure, but for diabetes as well.

So now let's go back to those gym memberships and weight-loss programs you just bought. You've just spent money, and for what? Because your people don't need a treadmill (philosophically, they're already on one); they need help figuring out their child care situation. And guess what? With all that conflict between managing those busy work lives and taking care of families, who's got time for the gym? Worse, as Horizons Workforce Consulting's Lucy English pointed out not long ago, your people may actually hate some of those well-intentioned wellness mandates so much that they're doing the opposite of good.

So What's the Answer?

That makes it essential to start at the beginning. Throw out everything you think about what might work, and do some investigating to find out what will. Find out what your people need. When you locate the actual malady, you'll have a better shot at a cure.

And I can't repeat often enough...the secret to understanding what your people need is that ultra-low-tech standby: ask them. Don't guess...ask.

With a carefully crafted survey, you can point your money in precisely the direction where it can actually do some good.

Even better, you can figure out what's ailing your people before it shows up in your inflated claims.

Written by: Bright Horizons Blog Editor

About the Author

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The Bright Horizons Blog Editor frequently posts on the real solutions that meaningfully support employees, advance careers, and drive the world’s leading brands. The Editor curates the latest news, trends, and challenges facing HR pros because your time is scarce. Follow the Bright Horizons Blog to receive this insight in your inbox.