The new balance: work-health and not work-life

Healthy-office

Photo credit: British Columbia University web site

An SHRM survey recently reveals that employee preferences toward health are fast changing. Employers witness a rapid shift of employee preferences toward gym memberships and subsidies, yoga and dance classes, and health monitoring gadgets. Millennials in the workplace are leading this trend and employers are responding to these by increasing the scope of health benefits to include them as part of an employees’ overall compensation, even though fixed pay scales in the market remain fairly stagnant. While work-life balance has been spoken about for several years, the world is still debating about it. Many argue that the correct term in today’s work environment is work-life integration. Others are still struggling to find the sweet spot where work and life balance each other out. With leaders talking about holistic talent management and about the business of talent more deeply, the answer to the question of work-life balance may finally be revealing itself.

The employer should drive work-health balance- for its own good

As the trend of offering augmented health benefits is still in primitive stages, participation to company-sponsored health programs (such as gym memberships/subsidies, dance classes, fitness competitions) is optional and voluntary in most companies. While the number of employees opting to utilize these benefits has increased, many employees still choose to stay out of them. How many times are we guilty ourselves of justifying why work kept us from visiting the gym or taking the routine evening walk? How many of us have signed up for gym or yoga classes, only to drop out after 2 or 3 sessions because it felt like the investment was just too demanding? Here arises another crucial question, who is accountable for driving work-health initiatives- the individual or the enterprise? Has the enterprise done enough by provisioning these benefits to employees? Research indicates that in order to realize the full benefits of providing health benefits to employees, it makes business sense for an employer to also drive them. Here are some findings that support why an employer should drive work-health benefits for its own good.

  1. EY research indicates that work-life flexibility is the third highest driver in candidates evaluating a potential job after fixed pay and benefits.
  2. A survey by Quantum Workplace says that companies with company-sponsored programs have 44% more engaged employees compared to the ones that do not.
  3. Companies who proactively drive wellness save substantially on employee health costs. For example, J&J saved over $250 million in healthcare costs between 2002 and 2008 since the time the company invested in driving employee wellness among employees.

Change the buzzword: Work-health balance

Companies that change their employer brand messaging to reflect their commitment to employee health and wellness are able to build a much more emotional connection with future and current employees. It sends the comforting message across that the employer cares about each of its employees. Most talent strategies focus on the outcomes from surveys that indicate employee satisfaction. Gallup’s “Customer satisfaction doesn’t count” article indicates that satisfaction is useless without making an emotional connection. Investing in employee health and wellness is about just that- the emotional connection.

Employees too, can stop worrying about how to balance their work and life and instead focus more on balancing work and health. After all, it is always about simplifying life into “the one thing” that makes everything else easy.

No more long work hours

The German labour ministry’s ban on outside of work hours sends a strong signal to the global business community about making managers responsible for team inefficiencies

A news report on The Telegraph earlier this morning caught my attention, and indeed the attention of everyone I forwarded the link to. It says that the labour ministry of Germany has implemented a ban to out of hours working within German soil. The ban prevents managers to e-mail or call team members for any reason outside of working hours unless the manager can justify that there was a business-disruptive necessity. Viewed through any lens, the move can at the least be called “bold,” with many terming it with emphatic adjectives, such as “idiotic,” “stupendous,” and “audacious.” While the pro employee lobby globally has welcomed the news with loud cheers and excited hoots, many sceptics would term this move as “out-of-age” and “economically regressive.” Which lobby do I belong to? It doesn’t matter, does it?

A time to reflect

Last week’s human capital headlines were rife with the news about the death of Moritz Erhardt, an intern with the investment banking division of Bank of America. He was a 21 year old whose epileptic condition was amplified to fatal levels owing eight “all-nighters” in office. Post Erhardt’s tragic death, many news reports started emerging from several quarters and from all corners of the globe about how such “all-nighters” are a part and parcel of an investment banker’s professional existence. Many work secrets of the investment banking world have since emerged, including the most famous “magic roundabout.” The magic roundabout is a practice of sending an employee home in a taxi which waits until the person showers and gets fresh to be taken back to office immediately. Talent management experts and behavioural psychologists term these practices as “inhuman” and “counter-productive” both for an individual and for an organisation. While it is for time to tell how the legislation in Germany pans out on the ground for business corporations, it does provide a basis for employers to step back and evaluate if burning employees out is really the right way to go.

My gut says that any management practice that is detrimental to the well-being and happiness of an employee will come back to bite an employer in the long-term, though it may be profitable in the immediate-term. Detractors of the employee-rights lobby feel that in a hyper-competitive business environment, rigid work hours will take an economy back by several years, by restricting the ability of business entities to produce “more” economic value. But then again, it is a question of how one views “more.” Many believe that “more” in the short-term means “less” in the long-term. I thought about an analogy about the argument while driving to work this morning. When a car zipped past me on a bumpy road and jumped a red light, its driver was able to beat some traffic and gain more ground in less time. At the same time, he was incurring the economic cost of greater risk exposure, car depreciation, and higher fuel expenditure. These economic costs in the long-term will turn out to be much more expensive that his short-term objective of getting to his destination early. His luck with escaping dangerous accidents might run out, his car tyres may need to be replaced sooner, and his monthly fuel bill will be more than what one would usually incur for that distance.

An organisation with the reputation of long working hours is less likely to enjoy a superior employer brand image compared to one that does not. In the last 2 years, research studies from the WHO have emerged, revealing the health effects to the first generation globalised workforce that was exposed to 15-20 years of hyper-competitive business environment. Chronic diseases are now widespread ins this generation and some research studies even suggest that organisations stand to potentially lose up to 20% of their annual revenue through an ailing workforce. Added to that, if other factors such as disengagement and disloyalty are included, is that not too high a price to pay for any short-term gain?  

Empathy is the key

While there are no magic or gold-standard practices on how to improve engagement and the overall health of employees, having the empathy and respect for the time of co-workers can help a great deal to making workplaces more efficient. A manager who values time outside of work should empathize with the assumption that direct reports will not appreciate calls and e-mails during out of work hours. The onus of altering the working culture of an organisation lies greatly on the shoulders of managers and senior leaders. Here are two warning signs that any manager or senior leader should always look for in his/her team.

  1. Acknowledge the problem— Many managers consider after hours working as a sign of engagement and drive among team members, oftentimes ignoring that many employees stay back to “project” that image. There are two risks to an organisation that encourages a manager who compels his team to stay back in office after hours. First of all, team members will become disengaged or burn out in the long run. Second, professionals tend to adopt management styles of erstwhile managers and an organisation runs the risk of making more such monstrous future managers if they allow one to flourish. It is in the best interest of the senior leadership and management of an organisation to acknowledge it as a problem and make earnest efforts to resolve it. Many progressive companies have put together a process where an employee has to get a formal manager’s approval during any time when s/he has to stay back in office. Additionally, such managers are pulled up by the organisation’s HR and senior leadership if there is a rising trend of team members working outside office hours.
  2. Be on the watch for burnout— Oftentimes, in the drive for results, managers tend to turn a deaf ear to employee complaints and resistance about after office work hours or simply tend to ignore them. Subjecting team members to prolonged long hours and erratic status update schedules can burn them out. Before any after work call or e-mail, a manager should step back and ask, “can it not wait until tomorrow morning?”

Long-term business success depends on a number of factors, including the external business environment, the economic market conditions, and the evolution of demand. It is, therefore, important for an organisation to recognise the importance of having an engaged and healthy workforce where most of the outcomes are a result of discretionary effort and solicitous action. Without considerate leadership and management’s commitment to employee well-being, an organisation may soon realise that it’s on a path to a competitive abyss.