From our Thought Leader Partner, Deloitte.

In the wake of the pandemic, some organizations have publicly committed to addressing workforce well-being issues and have allocated significant resources to drive improvements in health, well-being, and productivity—an average of US$11 million a year for companies with more than 20,000 employees1—but their investments, while signaling support, may not be working when you look at the outcomes.

Although the intent may be good, little progress can be made if the root causes of poor workforce well-being are not addressed.

We believe that three factors have an outsized impact on well-being in today’s work environment: leadership behaviors at all levels, from a direct supervisor to the C-suite; how the organization and jobs are designed; and the ways of working across organizational levels. We call these “work determinants of well-being.”

To better understand how these three important work determinants could impact well-being in an organization, Deloitte conducted a marketplace survey of 1,274 US workers across a wide range of industries, regions, education, income levels, and demographics (see the sidebar “About the research” for more details).

What we found is that leaders cannot rely on perks and programs alone, which often come at a high cost. In fact, more than two-thirds (68%) of workers surveyed said they did not use the full value of the well-being resources their organizations offered because accessing programs was either too time-consuming, confusing, or cumbersome. To help address the biggest determinants that shape well-being at work, companies could shift their thinking and take wide-ranging action now to address employee well-being (see the following section, “The well-being direction”).

Addressing the work determinants of well-being has the potential to catalyze a substantial shift in well-being across organizations, evolving from a traditional model centered on the individual to one that supports human sustainability by promoting the collective long-term well-being of workers, organizations, and society. This potential may not be realized at organizations that place the responsibility on human resources (HR) alone, because HR may lack the authority to do more than create ad hoc programs focusing on benefits and incentives. The systemic change that may be required to address this issue could be owned by the chief executive officer, the rest of the C-suite, and the board—and their decisions could be informed by data and meaningful input about the lived experience of their workforce.

About the research

Research findings are based on a survey conducted by Deloitte in the United States. The survey sought to diversify the sample to be representative of the US workforce based on US Department of Labor data. It was fielded in November 2022, and it targeted full- and part-time employees between 18 and 73 years of age. In total, 1,274 people completed the survey across several industries.

The workplace well-being crisis

The global economy may be paradoxically displaying signs of widespread worker discontent and an ever-present race for top talent. The recent trends of “quiet quitting” and the Great Resignation may have surfaced the issue of workplace wellness like never before.


Why is workplace well-being important?

The World Health Organization considers employment to be a “social determinant of health”—something so important that it shapes our well-being at a deep level.2 One issue may be that some employment determinants are limited to factors such as job security, physical safety, and salary.

Where, how, and when people work may have changed and could continue to evolve in the future, potentially removing traditional boundaries between work and other life activities. It could be time to change the way we think about well-being to reflect these changes in the workplace: Work can impact many aspects of an individual’s well-being, including their physical, mental, social, and financial health, as well as their sense of purpose and ability to grow.

The well-being direction

Organizations could have the potential to improve the lives of workers and create environments that sustainably support humans. But where do they start? Three steps could help them meaningfully improve their workforce well-being and deliver impact to the bottom line.

1. Shift from legacy mindsets and build accountability for change beyond HR

Recognize the organizational responsibility to create systems and structures that potentially eliminate obstacles to individual well-being, and champion this perspective with cross-functional counterparts to help enable widespread behavior. Figure 2 shows the shifts that could enable this transformation.

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2. Measure well-being in a meaningful way

Expand beyond self-reported qualitative data to look at operational and other quantitative data to understand the level of well-being maturity (figure 3) and make informed investments.

Organizations may collect reams of self-reported data about aspects of employee well-being, but they may not connect those data points with empirical operational data and create a holistic, real-time measure of the state of well-being across an organization. Some organizations may not make these metrics available to the public.

Along with gauging workforce sentiment through surveys and interviews, organizations can measure observable proxies that empirically assess well-being.3 For example, organizations could track the amount of overtime people put in, analyze the network activity of individuals to better understand workload or decision-rights challenges, or monitor the volume of email and pings sent during weekends and evenings.

Attrition rates could shed light on the quality of workers’ relationships with their supervisors, while insurance claims could help understand whether workers are seeking more or less medical attention over time. Combining metrics like these with explorations of workers’ lived experiences can help leaders develop a nuanced, actionable understanding of well-being across the organization.

3. Identify the biggest opportunity areas and build momentum

Prioritize those spaces that can have the greatest impact on worker well-being, defining the organizational levers that can help fix what is not working and drive momentum.

Based on our experience with clients, the work determinants listed in figure 4 have an outsized impact on employee well-being.

The well-being opportunity

Our survey aimed to better understand the specific factors within the work determinants that may negatively impact a worker’s well-being.

Leadership

Anyone who has responsibility for others—including those in early supervisory roles all the way up to C-suite positions—may be the stewards of well-being. Their behaviors and interactions with their teams can set the tone for the team and the workplace culture.

Respondents in our survey reported that micro- or undermanagementa lack of recognitionand a lack of empathy and psychological safety are the most detrimental leadership behaviors to their well-being.

Micro- and undermanagement

Both over- and undermanaging were listed by our survey respondents as pain points, with differences across generations. Millennials in our survey reported leaders micromanaged them (16% to 17%) significantly more often than Generation Z and baby boomers (10% and 7%, respectively). Meanwhile, the biggest pain point for Gen Z workers surveyed was leaders providing no developmental feedback at all, reported at levels three to five percentage points higher than by other generations.

Recognition

Our survey found that recognition was important across nearly all demographics and industries, and even more so for older employees. Up to 17% of surveyed workers ages 50 and older valued leaders who recognize workers for their hard work and success, versus 11% for those under 25 who were surveyed. The difference was even stronger when we asked workers if they valued leaders who regularly acknowledge and recognize workers for doing a good job (up to 27% for those over age 50 and over, versus 15% for those under 25).

Empathy and psychological safety

Empathy and psychological safety can be the building blocks of trust, and trust can be foundational to high-performing teams. Emotional intelligence and empathy have also become increasingly important as many workplaces transitioned to a hybrid environment during the pandemic. In fact, a manager’s emotional intelligence and empathy were ranked in the survey as the most critical elements in fostering stronger ways of working in a hybrid environment.

Opportunities to help improve well-being through leadership development

  • Consider team well-being as a core competency to be embedded in leaders’ performance reviews.
  • Collect and share direct-report well-being data (such as how much paid time off [PTO] is taken and how many hours are worked) in a dashboard for leader visibility to identify red flags that may indicate possible burnout.
  • Model well-being behaviors to set the tone for your team.
  • Encourage open, transparent conversations at all levels so that individual workers may be able to share what they need with their managers and teams.
  • Encourage employees to better understand and share their working styles. For example, Business Chemistry is a tool often used at Deloitte to provide insights about one’s own work style and how to best interact with other work styles on a team.
  • Offer empathy and psychological safety training to help managers become better leaders. Emotional intelligence is not innate; it can be a learned skill.
  • Think outside of the box when it comes to creating a culture of recognition at work. Recognition does not always have to be monetary. Small behaviors such as incorporating shout-outs at the start of meetings or encouraging managers to write gratitude notes to team members can make a big impact.

Design of work

Workers may be spending countless hours a day on work they feel does not add value or has little meaning, and this can negatively impact well-being. For example, research found that employees are spending 250% more time in meetings today compared with prepandemic days, many of which are likely of low value.4 Instead of having room for growth, discovery, and focus within their work, workers are often locked in roles that are highly prescriptive and may fail to enable skill development and challenge.

Respondents in our survey reported that being consistently overburdenedhaving little room for career growth, and doing boring, monotonous, and/or meaningless work are the most detrimental aspects of work design to their well-being.

Being overburdened

Our survey found that the higher workers advance through the leadership hierarchy in terms of age and experience, the less time they were able to spend on work that truly matters to them. A 2022 C-Suite study by Deloitte supports these findings, reporting that 30% of workers surveyed cited a heavy workload and job stress as the reasons they wouldn’t take PTO.5 The evolution of the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic may have also accelerated the pace and amount of work expected.

Lack of career growth

Twenty-three percent of survey respondents said that having no room for growth in their role had a negative impact on their well-being. Additionally, 35% of respondents wanted “ample opportunities to learn new things and develop skills.” Our survey also found that a lack of growth was reported more often among systemically disadvantaged groups in leadership.

Finding work meaningless

Our survey found that even as they are doing more, workers who were surveyed feel like they are having less impact. However, workers across different generations reported different pain points. The leading negative factor for Gen Z workers surveyed was “having no time for innovation and creativity,” while the most significant negative factor for those respondents aged 65 and older was work that “doesn’t allow me to leverage my strengths” or “doesn’t feel meaningful.” We found a six- to seven-percentage-point gap between the oldest and youngest workers, respectively, when they were asked about the importance of meaningful work and work that leverages one’s strengths.

Opportunities to help improve well-being through the design of work

  • Redesign organizational structure with clear governance and decision rights.
  • Take a hard look at meetings. An e-commerce giant welcomed its staff back from their Christmas holiday by announcing a “calendar purge” to give employees more time to work on other tasks.6
  • Help employees carve out unstructured time free from meetings; this can increase meaning and creativity.
  • Consider your organizational structure and how it can be redesigned with clear governance and decision rights.
  • Set expectations for mentoring as part of a leader’s or manager’s role.
  • Design work to be less prescriptive, with room for growth and experimentation to fulfill workers’ desire for continual learning.
  • Match skill sets and interests (instead of level) with roles and projects. Even when work is simply better aligned with a worker’s existing skills, workers can be happier.
  • Consider how to connect everyday tasks to a greater purpose.

Ways of working

The processes, expectations, and behaviors around how work gets done can be overwhelming. While workers want flexibility, it can come with the unintended consequence of feeling like they are always working. Workers also may use a multitude of disconnected and unhelpful technologies: Employees waste 32 days per year toggling up to 10 times per hour between technology apps, according to research conducted by RingCentral and published in Forbes.7 Digital fatigue and constant task-switching can lead to burnout, anxiety, and distraction.

Respondents in our survey reported that being always onswitching tasks constantlyand not being able to make their own decisions about how they work are the most detrimental aspects to well-being in terms of how work gets done.

Being always on

When work intrudes on nonworking hours as a result of constantly connected technology, workers report consistently negative mood.8 Our survey found that feeling like you are always on and always working was even more common among women and workers under the age of 50. The percentage of workers surveyed who felt like they were always on decreased with age.

Task-switching

That persistent feeling of distraction and fatigue people may feel these days could result from the haphazard use of so-called “productivity” tools. Software that was meant to help ease the burden of work may now be having the opposite effect. People switch screens an average of 566 times a day, according to research from Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine.9 Many of the respondents in our survey reported high levels of task-switching and distraction across all demographics, income level, and industry.

Not having control over how to work

Flexibility may be an important aspect of feeling a sense of control over your work. Workers may welcome greater flexibility, as happened organically during the pandemic. As organizations shifted overnight to working from home, and then to hybrid environments, some learned that remote or virtual work doesn’t always equate to better well-being. And while some organizations may offer flexible work arrangements as a well-being program, if the work culture does not support it, then it could become a well-being program that goes unused.

Opportunities to help improve well-being through changing ways of working

  • Work with teams to help create clearer expectations around communications, including how quickly to respond and modes to use in an emergency, among others.
  • Provide limits to meeting times and distractions such as push notifications.
  • Empower workers to decide which flexibility-related work norms may be best for them.
  • Communicate which tools may be most effective at which types of collaboration, rather than adding tools simply to create more ways to communicate.
  • Empower teams to create their own team norms and behaviors that could address their personal working styles and well-being priorities.

A new workplace model for well-being

Some leaders may assume that well-being at work is entirely the responsibility of the individual. This notion could break down if organizations consider the possibility of a worker who is carrying the responsibilities of three roles, a manager who has more direct reports than there are hours in the day, or a burned-out employee. To offer exercise or an app to help with this level of stress could be inadequate.

Organizations could rethink the legacy beliefs that may be unintentionally affecting employee well-being in the workplace.

The number of dissatisfied employees may only continue to grow until organizations address the root causes of poor workplace well-being. This may not only have implications for the organizations, but it also could impact society at large. Employers may have an opportunity to address the changing dynamics of work and move toward a model that could support human sustainability—and if they do, they may be able to increase productivity and innovation, accelerate growth, better recruit and retain workers, and strengthen brand value.