More than two-thirds of employees around the world, a recent Gallup poll found, feel disengaged, dispirited and fatigued at work. Why is that?
A value proposition is no more than the promise of a fair deal: I provide you with something you want and, in exchange, you give me something I consider worth the trade. That trade between employers and employees, since the dawn of capitalism, has been time for money.
The problem is that buying people’s time is no guarantee you’ll get their best efforts. No amount of money will ever be sufficient to meet all employees’ needs at work.
Rather than trying to demand more and more from employees, employers need to invest more generously in meeting their people’s core needs: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. When employees feel better taken care of, they’re freed, fueled and inspired to take better care of their customers and clients. It’s a win for everyone.
Care at the physical level translates into giving employees the opportunity to take better care of themselves. Human beings aren’t designed to run the way computers do: at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time. But they’re increasingly expected to do just that, and it’s counterproductive.
The more people try to keep pace with their digital lives, the more fatigued they become, the lower the quality of their work and the less value they create over time.
Consider medical interns. One study, in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that interns who worked 24-hour shifts made 36 percent more medical errors than those working 16-hour shifts and five times the number of diagnostic errors, and were 61 percent more likely to accidentally cut themselves during procedures.
The study found that the rates of serious medical errors in two intensive care units “were lowered by eliminating extended work shifts and reducing the number of hours interns worked each week.” By asking interns to work less, the hospitals improved their performance.
Caring for employees at the physical level begins with creating a culture that values renewal and rest as a fuel for sustainable high performance. Google has done this since its founding by providing napping pods, low-cost massages, fitness areas and high-quality, nutritious food at no cost to employees.
Encouraging renewal serves both employers and employees at the mental level, too. Overloading the brain with information leads to distraction, reducing how much it retains over time. Mental downtime not only provides an opportunity to relax and refuel, but also to reflect and to digest new information. People also tend to get their best ideas during downtime, when they’re not working toward a specific goal.
But the most powerful aspect of caring for employees occurs at the emotional level. How people feel profoundly influences how they perform. Nothing so influences employees’ engagement as the feeling that they’re genuinely cared for and valued by their leaders and managers.
When employees believe they are cared for, they experience a variety of feelings, including safety, trust and well-being. If they don’t feel cared for, they’re more likely to feel a sense of fear and threat. That can impair the ability to think clearly or creatively. As Daniel Goleman, author of “Emotional Intelligence,” put it, “Threats to our standing in the eyes of others are remarkably potent biologically, almost as powerful as those to our very survival.”
Doug Conant, the former chief executive of the Campbell Soup Company, felt so strongly about the value of acknowledging people that in his 11 years at the company, he handwrote 30,000 notes to employees, acknowledging their contributions. Engagement levels rose.
At my company, the Energy Project, we’ve made it a practice to publicly acknowledge each other’s successes. We also hold a weekly community meeting that begins with a simple but powerful question: “How are you (really) feeling today?” The freedom to answer this question honestly helps us know what others are bringing to work emotionally, and to be more attuned to them.
Another core need is for meaning and significance. When a company stands for something beyond maximizing profit, employees have the potential for a purpose beyond a paycheck. It’s both energizing and inspiring to work for a company that is committed to something beyond its immediate self-interest.
That’s relatively easy for nonprofits, whose goal is to add value to others. But it’s also possible for companies that sell more mundane products. Take Toms Shoes. By committing to donate a pair of shoes to someone needy for every pair sold, the company’s founder, Blake Mycoskie, has created a sense of mission among employees.
Stephen Friedman, president of MTV, recently collaborated with a start-up called Catchafire that matches companies with specific skills to nonprofit organizations that need help. Employees at MTV got an opportunity to use their skills in website design, branding and social media on behalf of the Center for Employee Opportunities, an organization that helps inmates just released from prison get jobs.
For all these examples, what’s the hard evidence that taking better care of employees generates more value for their employers? The 2012 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study surveyed 32,000 employees across 30 countries. The main factor in driving employee engagement and higher performance, it concluded, is “a work environment that fully energizes employees by promoting their physical, emotional and social well-being.”
In companies with the most engaged employees, 74 percent of them felt their leaders had a sincere interest in their well-being, while just 16 percent of employees felt that way in the companies with the least engaged workers.
There were stunning performance differences between the companies with the most engaged and least engaged employees. The companies with the least engaged employees had an average operating margin of 10 percent. The companies with the most engaged employees had an average operating margin of 27 percent — nearly three times as high.
The Towers Watson research is compelling, but the conclusion is entirely intuitive: Invest in and care for the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being of employees, and they’ll perform far better for longer.
About the Author
Tony Schwartz is the chief executive of the Energy Project and the author, most recently, of “Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live.” Twitter: @tonyschwartz