Why Wellness Is the Key to Solving our Employee Engagement Crisis

Employee wellness isn't simply about improving physical health.

Ensuring a high level of employee engagement starts with a focus on employee wellness.

In our fervor to solve the employee engagement crisis, we've thrown a lot of potential solutions at it. We survey, train, coach and recognize employees. But there's one important piece that many leaders overlook: employee wellness.

My Own Experience With Wellness and Work

In my early 20s, I participated in a "starter marriage." It was an emotionally volatile and unstable time in my life, and while I'm sure there were some good times, I only remember the life-consuming turmoil. I was an emotional wreck, and I called in sick to work for several days. I couldn't muster the strength to fake it.

Once my starter marriage was over, I was able to switch my focus to finding success at work. I'm thankful I was able to keep my job, because despite giving it what I could, I hadn't been performing very well. If you had assessed my level of employee engagement during this time, I most certainly would have been labeled as "disengaged." But my disengagement had nothing to do with work itself.

This example reveals a gap in how we think about employee engagement. Many leaders assume that an employee's engagement level is affected only by what happens at work. This simply isn't the case. No survey would have diagnosed why I was disengaged, and no amount of recognition or leadership transparency would have changed it.

My personal life has interfered with how much I was able to give at work at many points in my life. Whether my energy levels were low because of my poor diet or I was worried about money because of my debt, I felt too crushed by outside forces and obligations to give my job my best self. These experiences aren't unique. Other people — maybe even some who work in your office — have even greater issues to contend with.

When we aren't whole and well as human beings, our capacity at work is limited. It's hard to be creative when you are worried about money or safety. This is why employee wellness is the missing piece to employee engagement. If our goal is to fully engage employees, we must start by making sure we have a whole and healthy employee to engage.

Achieving Employee Wellness

Employee wellness is traditionally viewed as an employee benefit or as a means to reduce health care utilization. While these are both reasonable motivations to invest in wellness, they overlook the most important factor: Employee wellness affects our employees' capacity to perform at work.

Excellent leaders want to create a work experience that fully engages employees and encourages them to willingly give us their best performance. If a person isn't fully well and able to meet their potential, these employee engagement efforts will never be realized.

Wellness isn't simply about improving physical health. It's about supporting each employee in achieving an overall sense of well-being. The Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, a widely referenced measure of well-being and wellness, suggests there are five elements of well-being: purpose, social, financial, community and physical. To address these, make an effort to support employees in addressing real issues in their lives outside of work, such as by offering schedule flexibility, work-from-home programs, and mental health and/or financial advice hotlines.

Here are a few ideas for where to start.

1. Remove the phrase "work-related" from your vocabulary. We've convinced ourselves an artificial wall exists between work and personal. It never has. If you truly want the best from your people, embrace the idea that anything affecting employees is "work-related," whether it happens on the clock or not.

2. Provide resources and support to help employees find greater stability in their lives. Wellness is fundamentally about helping people feel more "well" and healthy. This often starts with reducing stress. Many of the biggest stressors are rooted in financial or relationship issues. To improve wellness, find or create ways to help employees understand and manage this stress by improving their financial management and relationship skills.

3. Ask employees how you can help. Once you've committed to wellness, the best way to find out how you can help employees is to ask them. Every person has some kind of aspiration related to feeling better — getting more sleep, losing a few pounds, having a better relationship with their teenager, and the list goes on. When you can support people in making progress on these individual aspirations, you'll be rewarded with improved engagement and loyalty.