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Employee Wellbeing

Does the Workplace Have a Powerful Impact on Employee Well-Being?

Ellen Galinsky

Health care is not only “in” the news. It often IS the news.

There is the battle of what health care coverage in the United States should become as well as the concurrent worsening of mental health problems. The World Health Organization concluded that depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide.

What’s the reality of the physical and mental health of the U.S. workforce? An upcoming report from the SHRM National Study of the Changing Workforce by Ipshita Pal and I enable us to address that question.

Report findings

According to the report, only a quarter of employees in the United States (26 percent) report being in excellent overall health. It also showed that half of U.S. employees are affected by minor health problems such as headaches, insomnia, or stomach upsets at least some of the time. High blood pressure being a key concern, with 17 percent of employees receiving treatment for it. It also found that over one-third of employees (37 percent) report experiencing sleep problems that affect their performance at work sometimes, fairly often and very often.  Perhaps one of the most significant notes from the report was that when using a standardized measure of stress linked to physical health problems and vulnerability to depression, 46 percent of employees report three or more symptoms.


What are employees doing as individuals to promote their own good health? As desk-based jobs become the norm, a growing concern is that “sitting is the new smoking,” a phrase coined by James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative.

We find that one in five employees (21 percent) report exercising regularly, defined as more than 16 times per month, and another 26 percent report exercising between eight and 16 times. However, 19 percent of employees do not engage in vigorous physical exercise at all.

The solutions are not just up to individual employees. The workplace has a powerful role to play.  Particularly important is what we call an effective workplace, an evidence-based seven-component index of working conditions that benefit employees and employers alike. The seven components are job challenge and learning opportunities, supervisor support for job success, autonomy, culture of respect, trust, and belonging, work-life fit, satisfaction with wages, benefits, opportunities to advance, and co-worker support for job success.


Across the board, employees in highly effective workplaces fare much better than those in less effective workplaces. They are significantly more likely to be in excellent health, have fewer minor health problems, fewer sleep problems, less work-family conflict, less stress and no signs of depression. 

Additionally, working in an effective workplace can reduce some of the differences we find between the well-being of men and women. For example, men are less likely to experience depression and stress. But this is not so in effective workplaces where employees are in better mental health than those in less effective workplaces. In these workplaces, there are far fewer disparities between women and men.

There is a lot we can do to improve workplace environments that help both employers and employees thrive.

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