How to improve wellbeing at work (in the era of stress and burnout) 

Wellbeing at work: The statistics

  • In a 2017 GSK study, more than 67% of workers in China, India, Philippines, and Indonesia felt that their work environment caused their body pain, and more than 60% said their work environment caused them head pain, leading to significant productivity loss and human suffering. [1]
  • Wellness programs can help increase employee engagement. Companies with engaged employees report 37% lower absenteeism levels, up to 65% lower employee turnover, 10% higher customer satisfaction; 21% higher productivity, and 22% higher profitability. [2]
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  • A Gallup research found that companies with engaged staff have higher earnings per share, outperforming peers by as much as 147%. [3]
  • In as little as six weeks health risks could improve dramatically. Those who maintain healthy behaviors experience lower health risks for six weeks, six months, 12 months, and even out to 18 months after a wellness program begins.[4]
  • 70% of employees enrolled in wellness programs have reported higher job satisfaction than those not enrolled in the companies’ program. [5]
  • 56% of employees had fewer sick days because of wellness programs. [6]
  • Employee morale is cited as the most improved (54%) metric from implementing wellness plans. [7]
  • 62% of participants in a wellness plan said that it helped them lower healthcare costs.[8]

The rise of wellbeing at work, and its importance

Decades ago, in the work era perhaps most associated with the Mad Men television show, discussions about wellbeing at work didn’t happen that much. This took many forms, including drinking at work as a coping strategy (“bar carts”) and some generational assumptions from the period. Stress was almost assumed as a component of work. 

It’s a much different picture today. Wellbeing at work is a massive topic. Heck, it’s so big that Prince Harry joined a well-being-focused company as Chief Impact Officer. We’ve been talking about it for years, but COVID truly accelerated these discussions: HR leaders, especially, reported a staggering amount of workplace stress in 2020 and into 2021. 90% of HR professionals said their stress has increased in the last year — 47% of whom say their stress levels have increased “dramatically.”

What happened as stress soared and wellbeing at work declined? What happened as we had to adjust to new norms around working? Well, products and investment did follow.

North of $1B globally was dropped into wellbeing solutions in 2020. We’re no different. We doubled down on some of our own products incorporating wellbeing in 2020 (and before), including team performance and resolving conflict.

Why is wellbeing important at work?

Wellbeing at work is a similar issue in some ways to diversity — you can argue that it doesn’t need a business case, and it’s more a moral imperative, as in, we should want people to be mentally and physically healthy. But we also understand the realities of companies, and in a way, everything needs a business case. 

The business case around the importance of wellbeing programs is that employers save money on insurance coverage of employees, provided they’re providing that in the first place. This is pretty logical — if employees are healthy, they go in for doctor care less, and employers thus pay less. 

Wellbeing programs also increase productivity, generally, and 63% of employers who had a focus on wellbeing at work reported increased fiscal sustainability and growth. (What’s more: U.S. Chamber of Commerce studies have seen a ROI of $1.50 to $3.00 USD per $1 spent on wellbeing at work.)

So yes, it’s a moral discussion, but the importance is also about the bottom-line and productivity.

Wellbeing at work discussions are pretty multifaceted, though, so let’s try to explain where we’re at with wellbeing and where we could be headed. 


Definition: what exactly is wellbeing at work?

Per Smarp, wellbeing at work refers to “the way employees’ duties, expectations, stress levels and working environments affect their overall health and happiness.”

The Innovative Workplace Institute has a tool called PROWELL, a well-respected methodology for assessing wellbeing at work. PROWELL has three domains:

  • Physical wellbeing
  • Mental wellbeing
  • Social wellbeing

Within each domain, there are subcategories, 7 in all:


  • Fitness
  • Physical comfort
  • Physical nourishment
  • Environmental wellbeing


  • Cognitive wellbeing
  • Emotional wellbeing


  • Social wellbeing

You can probably inherently understand what each category refers to, but in general “fitness” falls in line with corporations offering on-site gyms or reduced gym memberships or having “step challenges” — basically organizational nudges to get you to move more and work out more. 

Physical comfort refers to the environment, as does environmental wellbeing; those were shifted a lot during COVID because many people were working from home and had to make decisions about posture, video call location, etc. by themselves, not based on an assigned desk. 

Cognitive wellbeing and emotional wellbeing often align with discussions about stress and burnout. 

Social wellbeing is about the power of friends at work, including this idea that if you have a friend whom you see on most days, the increase to your happiness is like earning $100,000 more each year. On the other hand, when you break a critical social tie, it’s like suffering a $90,000 per year decrease in your income. Social wellbeing can also refer to workplaces with a high amount of gratitude; there have been 51 different studies showing that gratitude in a workplace can be a bigger, better motivator than compensation and bonuses. 

Now that we have an idea of what employee wellbeing at work looks like and how it’s defined, let’s start thinking about the goals of a wellbeing program.


What should a wellbeing program accomplish?

The No. 1 piece of advice (which we will get to in a second) in any article about building wellbeing at work programs is “get executive buy-in.” That’s obviously good advice, and you need it, but lots of different programs are trying to get executive buy-in at any given organization. How can a wellness or wellbeing program rise up? 

You need to be clear about your goals and what will be tracked, and while wellbeing at work can be argued as a moral imperative — who doesn’t want healthy, thriving employees? — you will need a bottom-line tie, because that’s usually how to achieve buy-in.

Here are some of the common areas that wellbeing at work programs attempt to focus on or solve:

  • To increase staff satisfaction
  • To increase staff morale
  • To improve staff retention
  • To increase productivity
  • To reduce absenteeism
  • To foster better relationships between staff and management
  • To increase open communications

Whichever swim lane you choose, you will need metrics associated with these areas. Usually when discussing wellbeing, the metrics come from employee surveys about stress, workload, burnout — and then more direct numbers like turnover, turnover by time worked, turnover by specific manager, sick days, etc. You can also choose to track buy-in or opt-in, i.e. percentage of employees who got a reduced gym membership or participated in a step challenge. 

No mix of data around these concepts is perfect, because this is a holistic look at your employees, and their lives are not just work. There’s many inputs.


Stress and wellbeing at work: What are the biggest impediments to wellbeing?


Poor management: 

We all know anecdotally that poor management isn’t good for wellbeing and general health, but did you know there’s actually research about this based on a longitudinal study of 1957 high school graduates? To wit: 

“When researchers followed up with this group in 2011, those who had spent their lives working in stressful environments that provided them with little control were 15.4% more likely to have died. At the same time, those who spent their careers with high levels of control as well as high job demands were associated with a 34% decrease in the likelihood of death, compared with low-demand jobs.” 

In short: better management = more wellbeing at work.

Lack of priority management: 

This is deeply tied to good vs. bad management, but when employees don’t know what the priorities are and constantly get pivoted between different “urgent” projects, there’s a good deal of stress and burnout. A clear priority orientation can help significantly with employee wellbeing. 


Are you a culture that constantly demands more and heaps more on people, or is there room to breathe and disengage from work periodically?


If employees rise to the workload and the commitments, is there a chance for them to earn more incentives, either tangible or intangible? If it’s all work and no potential incentives, that’s likely to cause burnout and reduce wellbeing at work.

Lest you think that stress is not super real as a concept and everyone experiences stress at work, so why even worry about it? Well, primarily, it’s a huge hit to productivity. And it’s very, very real. 

Here are results of a new study from Groupon called “Too Much Work, Too Much Stress.”They surveyed 2,000 people. (It’s not a huge number, no.) Some of the key findings include:

  • 20% of the respondents said they worked 10 hours/day
  • 60% of the respondents said there wasn’t enough time in the day to do everything
  • 50% said workload was preventing them from work-life balance
  • 53% said they still had significant financial concerns
  • On a 1-10 scale, stress at home averaged a 5; at work, it averaged a 6.4

That’s a snapshot of numbers. It’s one study without a ton of people, so you can’t take a million different executions from it, no. But most studies about work stress tend to fall in this range in terms of numbers. In general, people feel like work stress is increasing.


What are some wellbeing at work initiatives you should try?

There are a couple of different options, and it varies tremendously by industry and who’s on your team, but some things to consider include:

  • Wellbeing coaching: This is by-and-large the best wellbeing at work initiative to start with because it is backed by solid evidence and the ROI of coaching can be up to 788%. Our A.I. Coach makes wellbeing coaching affordable and accessible to everyone, and requires a very small time investment to see drastic results (about 20-minutes a week).
  • On-site yoga: Usually this is fairly inexpensive to organize, and yoga practices just starting out are grateful for the exposure to an employee base.
  • Walking meetings: This can feel a little hokey, yes, but have meetings where people are forced to move about.
  • Co-designed corners of the office: Allow a group of employees to work together on a segment of office design, especially if you plan to return to work with a hybrid model.
  • Callout wall: Put a giant sheet of paper on the wall and a bunch of markers and Post-It Notes next to it. Encourage employees to write callouts to co-workers when they do something great. You can also do this virtually on Slack or with another platform.
  • Subsidize training/learning modules: If an employee wants to learn something new, offer to pay for a percentage of it.
  • Healthy office snacks: This is a common Silicon Valley narrative, and while a bit more expensive, other companies can do it too.
  • Monthly health-driven potluck: This could be a good way to reintroduce office work under a hybrid model. Encourage people to only bring healthy food.
  • Volunteering: Again, this has been tougher with COVID, but as we see a bounceback from the pandemic, do some volunteer events with home-building, food missions, and more. It will fill the soul of employees, and it’s good for social media and general organizational branding on the company side.
  • Mindfulness training and meditation apps: Encourage employees to use them. Consider subsidizing any apps with fees. For a free option, share this article on mindfulness exercises with your team.

How do you handle executive buy-in around wellbeing at work?

This is a crucial topic because without executive buy-in, not much will happen on any wellbeing programs. But it’s also a complicated topic.

See, many people at the top of organizations — senior leaders — did get there through lots of late nights, hard work, 80-hour weeks, etc. In many companies, that’s a badge of honor. It’s considered the one true path to the top. 

So, many of these individuals look at burnout and think “that’s the cost of doing business.” When a wellbeing at work program is presented to them, then, it’s possible they will perceive it as “These employees want to work less?” and then there will be concerns about productivity. 

Broader point: Burnout is normative for people who come to run companies. They see no other path. Burn the candle at both ends, crush rivals, make money. If you do the same — i.e. create your own burnout — maybe you can get to the perks level. If you choose to leave, usually the narrative is “He/she couldn’t hack it.”

So how do you get buy-in?

  • Do not dress it up in fluffy concepts: Some executives will not view burnout as a “crisis.” They want to see numbers. How is burnout impacting productivity? How is it impacting turnover? What does that mean in terms of money spent on recruiting and vendors? Tie the wellbeing at work discussion to hard, direct revenue numbers and you will have more success.
  • Explain what will be tracked, outcomes, and more: Run through the program and the process and what will be measured, how it will be reported, when action items will arrive, etc. Give them a full view of what to expect.
  • Report and iterate: As you get data from employee surveys, turnover numbers, and more … report that data to executives with proposals and wellbeing program shifts. Treat it like anything that comes to them from another silo. Less decks with stats from McKinsey, and more action items. This will cause the wellbeing at work program to be more respected by executives, and give it greater buy-in and heft. 

The bottom line

Work is complicated and globalized these days, and despite the advent of tons of technology, we haven’t been able to reduce burnout and stress and improve generalized wellbeing. We’re all still on that journey organizationally. 

If you can fix some core problems with management internally — namely, make managers better at their jobs and identifying priorities — and you can do direct, revenue-driven reporting to senior leadership, there’s a good chance your wellbeing at work program can excel. It’s not easy, but we’re also here to help. 

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