Healthy workers are productive workers, but how can companies ensure their employees remain content and productive? What are the factors that influence happiness, motivation and engagement?
The happy-productive worker thesis has often been described with the metaphor of happy cows produce more milk. According to a current research, the organisational reality is, however, slightly more complex: One size here does not seem to fit all—whether employees who are happier are also more productive seems to depend on individual and organisational factors. Perhaps a better phrase to coin would be: Healthy workers are more productive workers.
Indeed, employees that are physically and mentally healthy are better able to deal with work-related challenges; they have the necessary headspace to dedicate themselves fully to their work.
Therefore, the question companies should really ask themselves is: How can we make sure our workforce is healthy so that they can be productive? This should not only be asked in the interest of productivity, but also in light of the high costs employee ill-health has for companies and the society as a whole.
Research spanning more than 30 years in the area of job design provides meaningful insights. Factors that affect health and well-being can be grouped into ‘demands’—factors requiring constant physical or psychological effort and ‘resources’, all aspects of a job that help employees get their work done and develop. Amongst the frontrunners—competing for the most detrimental factors for employee health—are the demands of high workload, low pay, work pressure and emotional demands.
Emotional demands, such as having to deal with unreasonable customer complaints, often put a major strain on service employees, as grinning and bearing comes at a high cost. Employees end up exhausting themselves through putting a brave face on and pushing their own negative feelings aside, often leading to sick leaves, absenteeism and ultimately burnout. Reducing these high work demands is not always an option, as they might be part of the job or their reduction very costly (for instance, employing more staff). While there is an upper limit to how much stress employees can endure before they break, job resources might serve as employees’ stress resistance armamentarium.
The frontrunners for having the highest direct positive effect on employee health are job control or autonomy, meaning that employees have some say in work-related decisions, and social support from colleagues or managers. Having someone else’s support, be it either tangible and instrumental, such as access to key contacts, or emotional, such as words of advice and assurance, are invaluable.
Importantly, not only do these resources directly contribute to employee health, but also indirectly through serving as a protective shield against job demands. Beyond these organisational factors that contribute to employee health/ill-health, individual differences also make certain employees more vulnerable. While time pressure is perceived by some individuals as threatening, causing stress and an inability to perform, time pressure constitutes for others a positive form of stress (i.e. challenge), which spurs them on to perform well and which they sometimes even seek. Unfortunately, beyond serving as selection criteria in recruitment due to links between personality and job performance, individual differences offer companies little insights into how to manage employee health.
Leadership might be the answer to this dilemma—not only can leaders be seen as the linking pin between employees and HR practices, largely determining whether employees will use these practices, but also due to their unique relationship with employees. Leaders who have a trusting relationship with their employees and a sympathetic ear for their sorrows will have a good understanding of employees’ most pressing job demands. Importantly, many of these job demands can be directly influenced or controlled by managers, such as assigning an additional member to a team facing a tight deadline. Additionally, managers are often in control of various job resources that contribute to employee health, such as task autonomy. Consequently, managers can authorise employees to make certain task-related decisions, while managers that know their staff make sure to tailor job resources to the needs of individual staff. In this way, managers might also represent a solution to employees’ individual differences regarding susceptibility to ill-health and perception of stressors. Through their knowledge of individual employees’ strengths and weaknesses, such as areas of expertise and stress resistance, managers can manage job demands and resources to, in turn, maintain individual employee health.
In conclusion, to ensure employees are performing at high levels, companies should primarily focus on fostering employee health. Managers are in the best position to handle individual employee good health and the focus should, hence, be put on training managers in health-supportive supervision (for example, transformational leadership). As a word of caution, it needs to be, however, also said that even the best supervision has its limits: If job demands, such as work load and low pay, are too high, even the best supervision might not prevent employees from burning out.
Dr Kristin Hildenbrand
The author is lecturer, Leadership and Organisational Behaviour, Sheffield University Management School, UK