Elements of wellbeing in career and life

Jim Clifton and Jim Harter work for Gallup, an analytics and advisory company. Clifton is the chairman and CEO, and is known for having expanded Gallup from predominantly U.S.-based to a worldwide organization. Harter is chief scientist, and he specializes in workplace studies. They are both bestselling authors and, in their second book together, they propose an approach that could make for a better world—by making a better workplace.

1. We need official statistics on thriving in the workplace.

The U.S. Census Bureau finds that a third of Americans are showing signs of clinical anxiety and depression; the percentage of Americans reporting these symptoms of anxiety and depression has doubled since 2014. In fact, Gallup’s global trends on worry, stress, anger, and sadness have steadily increased over the past decade. The COVID-19 pandemic has put additional strain on lives, creating an increased risk of employee burnout.

What we urgently need are official statistics for things like how your employees are making it through COVID-19 and an uncertain economy. Gallup is taking on the mental health challenge because solving any big, seemingly impossible problem starts with the question, “What can we measure?”

Gallup’s goal was to quantify the difference between the best possible life and the worst possible life. Through our global research, we found a two-part question that anyone in the world can answer and that does the best job in summarizing how your life is going. The question was originated by pioneering social researcher Hadley Cantril in 1965:

“Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom, to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally stand at this time? On which step of the ladder would you say you will stand about five years from now?”

Every organization can ask their employees this and know how many employees are thriving, struggling, and suffering. People in these three distinct states of mind have vastly different life and health outcomes. For example, those who are engaged in their jobs but aren’t thriving have a 61 percent higher likelihood of reporting burnout often or always.

2. There are five universal wellbeing elements.

Gallup’s global research has revealed five elements of wellbeing that we believe will change the world and human development forever. Any individual can take action to impact each of the five, and organizations can especially play a major role in each. The five are:

  • Career wellbeing: you like what you do every day.
  • Social wellbeing: you have meaningful friendships.
  • Financial wellbeing: you manage your money well.
  • Physical wellbeing: you have energy to get things done.
  • Community wellbeing: you like where you live.

For leaders to develop thriving cultures in their organizations, they need to use the five elements as guideposts for their practices and policies, and for their managers. The elements can be used as an organizing structure for benefits and wellbeing programs. Wellbeing should also be an essential part of employee reviews and ongoing conversations.

This does not mean managers should play the role of financial advisor or life coach. It means they should integrate wellbeing conversations into their management practice. Organizations can also develop a network of wellbeing coaches who become experts on each element—accumulating and sharing the best advice when employees need it. And the strongest nudges often come from peers—every organization has influencers who are gifted at connecting others and influencing involvement.

3. Of all the wellbeing elements, career wellbeing matters the most.

Our careers influence our social lives, finances, health, and the relationship we have with our communities. When organizations focus on such employee engagement fundamentals as role clarity, ongoing developmental conversations, and accountability, they begin to develop a culture of trust. Employees then become more attentive and open-minded to broader conversations about their personal wellbeing and utilization of the organization’s wellbeing resources. Career wellbeing opens the door to greater organizational impact on overall wellbeing.

Managers should have conversations with their employees about wellbeing, but only when they’ve built a foundation of trust. Wellbeing conversations without a personal connection can be a minefield. Any manager who has made significant progress on engaging their team has already made great inroads into career and social wellbeing. That sets the stage for more open discussions about other elements of wellbeing—financial, physical, and community.

4. Unskilled managers pose the greatest risk to organizational wellbeing.

There are many risks that serve as barriers to developing a thriving and resilient organizational culture—mental health, a lack of clarity and purpose from leadership, and overreliance on policies, programs, and perks.

But it’s poorly skilled managers who present the greatest risk because they exacerbate most other risks. When managers are not engaging in regular, meaningful conversations with employees, their mental health and clarity of the organization’s purpose deteriorate. The quality of an employee’s work experience has three times the impact on their overall wellbeing as the number of hours they work. Having engaging work—which also depends on the manager—has five times the impact on wellbeing as the number of weeks of vacation.

It is important to upskill managers to move from “boss” to “coach.” The old-school command-and-control model of management is becoming a relic of the past, and the best managers now focus on coaching and developing employees. Central to this, managers should have frequent conversations and check-ins with their team members, to see how they are developing and achieving their goals—at minimum, one meaningful conversation with each employee per week.

Gallup has found that the transition from boss to coach happens best through a journey, where managers are taught the science-based fundamentals of strengths, engagement, and performance management, accompanied by on-the-job practice and collaboration with other managers. Once managers advance in their journey, they are equipped to leverage the innate strengths of each person they manage to thrive in the five elements of wellbeing.

5. Your innate strengths make wellbeing work.

People can achieve thriving wellbeing without taking extreme measures or fundamentally changing who they are. You don’t need to be an athlete to be healthy—you only need a moderate amount of physical activity every day. You don’t need to be a multimillionaire to feel financially secure—the key is to live within your means. And you don’t need to make ten new friends to improve your social life—you just need relationships that give you energy.

Improving wellbeing requires changing habits. So how do you make it easier for people to do things that are best for them in the long term? The key is to identify your employees’ unique strengths and leverage them to increase their wellbeing.

When you can identify their specific strengths, you will know what that employee finds interesting, engaging, important, and valuable. This empowers you to have meaningful conversations and match wellbeing activities with that individual’s interests.

Combining strengths and wellbeing at work is potentially the most transformational treatment yet in the urgent pursuit of resilience, mental health, and, ultimately, thriving wellbeing.

This article originally appeared in Next Big Idea Club magazine and is reprinted with permission.