People are stressed and unhappy – but here’s how leaders can help build better employee well-being

Unhappiness has been increasing globally for a decade. Talent leaders should pay close attention to their employees’ well-being to ensure a happy and productive workforce.

This won’t come as a great surprise, but recent research from Gallup found the world is unhappier and more stressed out than ever

Here’s what they found: 

“As it does every year, Gallup asked adults in 122 countries and areas in 2021 if they had five different negative experiences on the day before the survey … In 2021, four in 10 adults worldwide said they experienced a lot of worry (42%) or stress (41%), and slightly more than three in 10 experienced a lot of physical pain (31%). More than one in four experienced sadness (28%), and slightly fewer experienced anger (23%). 

Already at or near record highs in 2020, these experiences of stress, worry and sadness ticked upward in 2021 and set new records. Worry rose two points, while stress and sadness increased one point each. The percentage of adults worldwide who said they experienced pain also rebounded two percentage points, matching levels more in line with previous years’ estimates.” 

Personal stress flows into work life too 

It’s also not a big surprise that the increased stress people are feeling flows into their work life as well. While work can be stressful even in the best of times, the workplace disruptions that have been driven by the global lockdown continue to be felt today – some three years into the pandemic. 

Here’s one current example from Yahoo Finance

“Airline service workers are demanding better working conditions and pay as a summer travel boom pushes them to the brink. …’Service workers in airports report a very acute level of stress that is due to understaffing and because, understandably, the traveling public is mad about delayed flights and cancellations,’ Mary Kay Henry, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) International, told Yahoo Finance. ‘Those are workers who are earning $8 an hour with no benefits and no guaranteed hours and who served us throughout the entire pandemic.’ “ 

Air travel has been a mess, particularly during this summer season in the U.S., and staffing issues have added to the stress and unhappiness that everyone — both passenger and airline workers — are feeling. 

And although the job market is still healthy, the rapid rise of inflation around the globe — it just reached 9 percent in the U.S. — is starting to spook businesses and organizations everywhere. A recent CNN report said “some major companies appear to be getting a little nervous.” 

Major technology firms such as Apple, Microsoft, Meta and Alphabet “are reportedly implementing hiring freezes.” Other companies such as Goldman Sachs, Ford, Tesla, Victoria’s Secret and Twitter are either slowing hiring, cutting jobs or laying off workers. 

Unhappiness has been increasing globally for a decade, as the research from Gallup clearly shows, and the rise of unhappy workers has been missed by almost every leader around the world. That’s because while leaders pay close attention to measures like GDP or unemployment, almost none of them track their citizens’ wellbeing. 

Workplace wellbeing impacts retention and recruiting 

According to a Great Place to Work and Johns Hopkins University survey of more than 14,000 people from 37 countries, employee wellbeing affects employee retention and employee referrals. In fact, one of the survey’s key findings is that “employee wellbeing is a predictor of employee retention and referrals.”  

Two important data points support that finding: 

** Employees who experience high levels of wellbeing in the workplace are 3x more likely to intend to stay with their employer; and, 

** Employees who experience high levels of wellbeing in the workplace are 3x more likely to recommend their employer to others

Recent research from Fuel50, an AI talent marketplace technology company, came to a similar conclusion about employee wellbeing in their most recent Capability Trends Report. Here’s what they said: 

“(Given) current world event, organizations see the need to focus on resilience, wellbeing, and safety of their employees. An article by Kristina Martic addresses the benefits of organizations investing in safety. These include employee retention, ROI, employee productivity, company reputation and employer branding.  

Organizations that get this right could have a huge competitive advantage in an unpredictable world. Fuel50’s research has identified some transformational capabilities to support organizations in creating sustainable change and creating an environment where employees feel safe. To achieve this shift, capabilities need to be embedded into three levels – Individual, Leadership, and Organizational.” 

5 ways leaders can drive better wellbeing 

The Fuel50 analysis goes on to make the case that, “Leaders are essential to drive safety policies, procedures, and programs.” And they add, “Leaders can also help employees feel safe and supported by offering opportunities for discussion, reminding people of available support services, and leading at a difficult time with compassion and empathy.” 

Their research found there is a strong need for organizations worldwide to increase leadership capabilities in the following five areas: 

  • Crisis control — Identifies threats to an organization and manages any disruptive and unexpected events to minimize the damage and allow for the organization’s quick recovery. Drives safety policies and procedures. 
  • Inclusive leadership — Leads with equality at the basis of every employment decision made. Honors the six C’s – commitment, courage, cognizance of bias, curiosity, cultural intelligence and collaboration. 
  • VUCA readiness — Predicts volatility, complexity and ambiguity in the working environment. Understands the distinct types of challenges that demand four distinct types of responses. 
  • Wellness agility — Assists the organization to be more adaptive, creative and resilient when dealing with complexity, uncertainty and change that could affect their employee’s wellbeing. 
  • Empathy — Understands the perspectives and feelings of others. Participates in meaningful communication and builds trust with employees, colleagues and partners. 

Organizations everywhere are trying to navigate the current economic environment. Not only have they faced three years of pandemic, lockdowns and associated chaos, but just as COVID starts to wane, they have been hit with rising global inflation and a war in Ukraine that has wreaked havoc on the supply of food and energy. That’s not good for happiness or employee wellbeing. 

But Gallup, a highly respected organization that is continuously polling and talking to employees everywhere, spells out exactly what does drive positive wellbeing, and it’s something every organization that’s interested in retaining employees in the wake of The Great Resignation should be thinking about: 

“Gallup analysis has shown that career wellbeing — liking what you do every day — has the strongest impact on overall wellbeing. People with high career wellbeing are more than twice as likely to be thriving in their life overall. 

This makes sense. A good job can improve all aspects of wellbeing. It provides financial benefits, but it also offers social interactions, physical activity and connection to one’s community. Working provides people a wealth of meaning in life. In fact, Gallup surveys in Germany and the U.S. have shown that most employees would continue to work even if they had so much money that they never had to work again. 

Work doesn’t stand in the way of wellbeing. Work you love is the foundation of a life well lived.” 

Those final words — “work you love is the foundation of a life well-lived” — should be something all leaders and managers remember.  If more did, we probably would not be spending so much time talking about The Great Resignation… and we might be facing less stress and unhappiness as well.