Employee wellbeing is profitable

The other day I had the pleasure of attending a presentation held by Professor Guy Ahonen. Guy is an expert on workplace wellbeing and I had really been looking forward to his presentation since his research is so closely related to my research on opting out and in. One of the things I have found in my research is that opting out and in can have an immense positive effect on wellbeing. And what I want to do with this knowledge is help organizations create sustainable working models and cultures where individuals won’t feel the need to opt out to achieve this sense of wellbeing that so many seem to be missing today.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. The presentation was great; Guy’s research is pretty mind-blowing.

Through his research, Guy has managed to show that not only is employee wellbeing important in order for a company to do well, but it is so important that it should be considered strategic. The thing that makes this research so amazing is that not only does he show that wellbeing has a direct effect on performance and productivity, he does so in real numbers, in actual money. In other words, he has an ability to translate his research into a language that organizations really can understand, and to show them exactly how much money they would actually save if they work on increasing employee wellbeing. And let me tell you, we’re talking about a lot of money.

The research is based on data from companies in the Nordic countries, but they can be translated to other companies as well. What Guy and his team have done is collect data from companies on costs directly related to illness in the workplace. These include things like cost of injury, sick leave, and early retirement (and opting out I might add). It turns out that during the past couple of decades the cost of mental illness has skyrocketed, which may be due to mental illness thankfully becoming less of a taboo in society, but also, no doubt, due to things like constant restructuring and job insecurity. In fact, the Kelly Global Workforce Index shows that over 50% of all workers in the world are unhappy mostly due to these very reasons.

Well, the cost of illness in society is huge. In Finland it was about half of the state budget in 2012, which is mind-boggling. All costs aren’t work related, naturally, but the effect this has on individuals’ ability to work productively is substantial.

So what Guy and his team did was study companies that strategically and specifically targeted employee illness in order not to just minimize costs but also to get to the bottom of what the problem actually was and fix it. The savings these companies made was six times the savings made by companies that didn’t treat wellbeing as a strategic issue. You’ll have to read his book and report for exact numbers, but the implications are tremendous. Companies can save huge amounts by focusing on their employees’ wellbeing.

This is all fine and dandy and all companies in their right minds should obviously jump at this opportunity right away. But there is one thing that bothers me, one nagging thing at the back of my mind.

The thing that bothers me is the very argument that companies should care about their employees’ wellbeing because it is profitable. We argue this way because companies’ raison d´être is to constantly increase productivity and profit, and by speaking to this we (hopefully) get them on board. This is also true for gender equality or diversity initiatives. By showing companies that it is good for productivity and profit (which it is) we hope they will work at becoming more gender equal and inclusive.

But what happens if it stops being profitable? What happens if companies realize that it isn’t as profitable as promised, or that they are doing well enough as it is and the cost of turning their corporate culture around just isn’t worth it?

That is not okay. Caring about wellbeing, and making sure that employees don’t suffer, is a moral and ethical issue that cannot be reduced only to questions of productivity and profit. Making sure that half the population (women that is) have the same rights and possibilities to advance in their careers, not to mention people of different cultures, races, and sexual orientations, is not something we can do only if we feel like it or if it is worth our while. It is absolutely essential and anything else is immoral, unethical, and just wrong. Regardless of whether or not it is profitable.

How can we get organizations to understand that?

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Opting out or a strategic career move?

‘Opting out’ as a term is actually quite misleading. It started out as a debate about women who leave their successful careers, but has since come to represent so much more. I joined the debate in 2009 because I felt it was missing important contemporary aspects and since then, research has shown that it is not only about women and most of the time it isn’t about leaving working life altogether either. Still this is the term we use to debate this phenomenon, and every now and then someone points out to me what an inadequate term it really is. And they are right because it kind of sounds like dropping out instead of making a lifestyle or career change, which is what people who opt out of their successful careers usually do. People with careers rarely leave them to do nothing. Most of the people who opt out rather choose to leave a certain expected career path or way of working in order to organize their lives on different and more sustainable terms.

So yes, I do agree that as a term opting out is a bit inadequate, which is why I rather talk about ‘opting in’. I mean we know a lot about why it is people leave, but not so much about what they choose to do instead, which is very valuable information – both for people who are looking for a change, but also for employees who want to know what it is people look for in their professional lives.

By now I’ve been researching opting out and in and alterative solutions for work for years. Although I am an expert on opting out and in, I’m not an opting out coach and I always feel a bit at a loss when people approach me and ask how exactly they should go about opting out and in. And a lot of people do.

The thing is, opting out and in can be hard since imagining an alternative is difficult. It can feel like stepping out into the unknown, which it often is. Therefore the narratives I collect of people who opt out and in often contain stories of crises that have pushed them to make a change and to overcome the uncertainty of the unknown. And you can’t very well tell people to have a crisis and everything will sort itself out, because sometimes it doesn’t. Obviously there must be a better way; I just haven’t really had any tools to offer.

But then I started reading a book written by a person I have gotten to know through my blog. Monika Janfelt used to be an academic but opted out of academia to become a career coach and an expert on talent and career development. We have sort of made similar journeys but in opposite directions, and whenever we meet we always have a lot to talk about. And when we do I’m always struck by how much we have in common. We deal with similar issues in our work, just out of different perspectives.

Her book Karriere – kunsten at flytte sig (loosely translated: Career – the art of moving) was a revelation for me. I like her writing style. She bases her writing on research, she has a very pragmatic and systematic approach, and she is obviously very knowledgeable. But the revelation I had was that although ‘opting out’ as a term may be somewhat catchy and attractive to someone who is just sick of his or her current job situation and desperately wants to move on, what we’re really talking about is a career transition.

According to Monika, career transitions (of which opting out can be seen as one type) are something that we are going to have to get better at going into the future, since they are going to become an increasingly important part of our professional lives. But instead of creating a greater sense of insecurity, she argues that by building our career transition competencies (knowing ourselves and being able to drive our career changes) we can actually gain more control and influence over our lives (which is exactly what people who opt out and in are looking for).

And the good news is, unlike me, Monika has the tools to facilitate this change. Instead of jumping out into the unknown, if you want to know how to go about opting out and in, you should be in touch with her. Click here for more information.

Her book is in Danish, but I sincerely hope she will publish an English translation soon, because this book is definitely worth a read. In the meantime you can contact her directly. In addition to Danish she also coaches in English and in Swedish. For those of you who want to make a change but are at a loss as to how, this might be a solution for you!