The woodworkers at a mill noticed something peculiar. The speed of their production line seemed to be increasing through the week, starting at a moderate pace on Monday and accelerating to a speedy pace by Friday.
And the levels of their stress hormones rose along with the speed.
This research, done some years back, revealed that as stress hormones rose day by day, their levels stayed high through the night. They did not drop until the weekend.
Meanwhile the mill workers started drinking more and spent more hours at night locked in TV-watching. They stopped socializing with their families and friends. They got depressed.
On the other hand, when the production line slowed down and the workers found the right level of challenge, all that reversed. Their stress hormones got back to a normal level, they stopped binge drinking so much, and once again enjoyed their family and friends.
Today we call that optimal match between job demands and abilities part of “well-being at work,” according to Eileen McNeely, co-director of the Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise, at the Harvard School of Public Health. She connects individuals’ well-being at work with their organization’s (and their personal) focus on the sustainability of the planet. “People need to be fulfilled enough to pay attention to sustainability,” she told me.
Her research pinpoints a number of other factors that determine our sense of well-being at work. Her Harvard group has drawn on years of relevant research to develop a Well-Being Index, assessing key dimensions. These include our sense of purpose and meaning in what we do, as well as the richness of our relationships at work.
The key signs of well-being are a sense of security, trust, and respect among co-workers and workers and their bosses. That resonates with George Kohlreiser’s model for optimal leadership, which puts the ability to provide this emotional surround at the heart of excellence.
In my emotional intelligence model, this positive environment results when people feel a particular kind of empathy, called empathic concern, toward those they work with. This genuine caring makes a team member, for instance, happy to put in a little extra time helping out a teammate. It makes a boss more likely to see a lapse as a learning opportunity for an employee rather than a black mark. And a boss with empathic concern will look for stretch challenges for workers, ones that will help them grow better at skills they need, rather than play-it-safe assignments.
A CEO told the Dalai Lama he was concerned about how stressed his entry-level employees were with their anxieties. The Dalai Lama’s response: “For their peace of mind, let the younger staff have an internal conversation—maybe once a week or every month—about their state of mind, their emotions, not the business.” They could share ideas on how to be resilient, confront challenges, be more effective, he added.
That’s not a bad idea. As McNeely finds, one of the strongest determinants of our sense of well-being lies in our social connections.
What does your organization’s wellness programs look like? Share tips and best practices in the comments.