The High-Wire Act of Balancing Productivity and Well-Being

Our belief in hard work trumps our belief in resilience.

The high stress of work is literally killing our employees.  In 2020, the US spent 18.8% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on healthcare, and healthcare as a percentage of GDP has increased from 5% in 1960 to over18% today. That is a 3.7x increase over the 5% spent in 1960 (Statista, 2020).  Unfortunately, the job is often the cause of the very healthcare costs we want to minimize. work is the leading cause of worker stress. In 2018, the World Health Organization. In the book Dying for a Paycheck, Jeff Pfeffer found that job stress costs U.S. employers more than $300 billion annually and may cause 120,000 excess deaths each year.

The costs are clear—and so are the benefits. High-performance organizations—those excelling over time in revenue growth, profitability, market share, and customer satisfaction—embrace a holistic approach to well-being. They focus on both the physical and mental/emotional elements of well-being at rates up to 4x that over-performing organizations. These top-performers are also 7x more likely to report increased levels of innovation and creativity (Institute for Corporate Productivity, 2020).

The research about the importance of well-being to productivity and a host of other beneficial outcomes to corporate economic value is very clear. But employees continue to tell us they are overworked, stressed, and burned out—and comments from senior technology executives confirm they see employees’ pain:

“We’ve created an electronic salt mine.   Technology enables people to be exploited.. .
“Self-deception is when leaders concentrate on delivering results. They see people as cogs in the machine. . .”

Policies and Behaviors May Conflict

If we know that this virtuous cycle between productivity and well-being exists, why do health care costs continue to rise and metrics for well-being continue to decline? It may be that the corporate policies and our own cognitive understanding of the importance of well-being are undermined by our actual beliefs and behaviors. The corporate culture may favor "productivity" over well-being as it pursues ambitious goals and agendas. The messages that we receive—and may unwittingly give—are that hard work matters most, and work comes first. Those messages come at us loud and clear in “inspirational” quotes and images that many of us have up on our office walls right now.

Messaging undermines importance of well-being
Messaging undermines the importance of well-being

Employee health and well-being happens when a corporate culture supports the needs of individual practices. We cannot teach employees resilience practices (Ruderman, Clark and Fernandez 2020) and then overtly or covertly deny employees the time and space for those practices to take place. We must actually  walk the talk. Our desire to foster well-being in the workplace simply loses traction in the face of the drive to show constant growth and profitability for our organizations. This exacts a great price. Burnout is about your workplace, not your people.

Check out the following scenario and think about what you would actually do in this situation:  

Marcia requested and received approval for a two-week vacation in April more than 6months ago. She is a critical engineering resource for a highly anticipated new product release impacting two major clients. It is now the beginning of April, and despite a number of sprints, the team has encountered setbacks and will miss the promised deadline. The delay will be significant should Marcia leave for two weeks. What would you do?

This scenario demonstrates the real-life dilemmas we face when confronted with these decisions. Small decisions made throughout the days, weeks and months will set a trend. It’s a high-wire act that requires a lot of balance.  Landing on the side of clients has very real personal consequences for Marcia—and possibly the long-term impact on her relationship with the organization. Landing on Marcia’s side may create consequences for team leaders, its members, and the organization itself.  One decision does not a trend make. But what is the cumulative impact when leaders land on the side of economic results rather than employee well-being ten times, or a hundred times? These small, human-impact decisions add up to create the cumulative effects that cause stress and burnout.

Small Decisions Add Up

You and other leaders will be forced to make numerous decisions where you must balance organizational needs to achieve financial goals and the needs of individual human beings. It’s critical to take a long-term view. If you consistently land on the side of productivity and economic value, your decisions will undermine the organization’s commitment to employee well-being. Those incremental decisions will add up to a stressed team, creating higher risks for increased medical costs, burnout and attrition.

Understanding the long-term impact of those cumulative, every day decisions requires putting in place a system of metrics, data, and analytics that defines productivity, and well-being, tracks longitudinal change, and provides insights into what organizations should do differently. The results need to be operationalized. Metrics for measuring those outcomes can come from a variety of resources like ISO 9000 standards, the GALLUP Well-being Index (e.g., career, social, financial, physical, and community).  More importantly, we need to understand how our decisions, over time, positively or negatively impact our employees. Taking the time to think through that human-impact is at the very heart of human-centered leadership.

Recommended resources and citations

·       Next Practices in Holistic Well-Being. (2020).  Institute for Corporate Productivity.

·       Ruderman, M., Clerkin, C., Fernandez, K. (2020).  Building Leadership Resilience: The Core Framework. Center for Creating Leadership.