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Understanding the interconnections of wellbeing

By Steve Nyce | October 11, 2023

A successful wellbeing strategy provides targeted support while encouraging social connection, a key element to boosting all dimensions of employee wellbeing.
Health and Benefits|Benessere integrato

Wellbeing is a major business priority for companies around the globe. Employers understand that a healthy, secure and emotionally connected workforce is critical to an organization’s success. And it has never been more important than it is today, as employees of all generations, especially younger employees, are struggling. The aftermath of the pandemic and the current cost-of-living crisis have fueled financial insecurity, emotional instability and social disconnectedness among employees. Companies are also grappling with increasingly tighter labor pools, causing them to look at all the possible ways to get the most out of their workforce.

Today, 63% of employers in the U.S. say that they are prioritizing actions to improve employee wellbeing, according to WTW’s 2023 Benefits Trends Survey. Over the past decade, employers have been making investments in the core areas of wellbeing, including physical, emotional, financial and social wellbeing. In many regards, employers have made substantial investments directed at the areas where their workforces are having the biggest problems. But companies are increasingly recognizing that employees have more complex issues that span all aspects of wellbeing. Employer solutions need to move beyond their silos and toward those that address the whole set of issues employees face. The challenge is that little is understood about the indirect connections between the various areas of wellbeing.

Using employee data for the U.S. from our latest Global Benefits Attitudes Survey, we examine the interconnections between the different dimensions of wellbeing: emotional/mental health, physical health, social wellbeing and financial wellbeing. Specifically, we assess whether any consistent patterns have emerged from among the individuals who have made great strides in improving their wellbeing. In short, our findings reveal that high levels of social wellbeing are the most important common thread among individuals who are thriving and have made significant improvements in their overall wellbeing.

The state of wellbeing: a positive association across most wellbeing dimensions

We define the ideal state of wellbeing as one where the employee is physically thriving, financially secure, emotionally balanced and socially connected. An important observation when looking at the connections between the various states of wellbeing is that employees with high levels of wellbeing in one area tend to report high levels of wellbeing in the other dimensions. This is particularly the case with emotional and financial wellbeing. Those with high financial wellbeing are almost twice as likely to have high emotional wellbeing than those with low financial wellbeing. Otherwise, physical and emotional wellbeing are directly linked to all other aspects of wellbeing.

The one exception is that many employees who report high levels of social wellbeing also report poor financial wellbeing. This could be an indication that certain social norms or peer pressures can perpetrate poor financial decisions or that those with high financial wellbeing can tend to sacrifice their social wellbeing to achieve a more secure financial state.

The journey to improve wellbeing: targeted actions matter most, but spillovers are important

As we see above, various levels of wellbeing are highly connected and tend to move together. The next question is to understand what actions are most associated with improvements in wellbeing: Should employees focus only on the area in which they are having immediate issues, or do they benefit from a more comprehensive approach by taking actions in multiple areas of wellbeing?

The most effective way to improve wellbeing in any area is to take targeted actions in that specific area. Those who take significant actions to improve their physical, financial, emotional or social wellbeing are about 30% more likely to improve their wellbeing in those areas, respectively (controlling for key sociodemographic variables such as gender, age, salary, ethnicity and family status).

But actions in those specific areas alone are not the only drivers of improvement. We also find that actions have a positive and significant impact outside their target area of influence. For example, those taking actions to improve their social wellbeing are 15% more likely to improve their emotional wellbeing. Similarly, those taking action to improve their physical health are 10% more likely to improve their emotional wellbeing.

When employees combine actions in multiple areas, the benefits (in terms of wellbeing improvements) are larger still. In fact, employees who take actions in all wellbeing areas are three times more likely to be thriving (i.e., achieving high wellbeing levels in all dimensions) than those who take no actions. While targeted actions are important, employees benefit significantly by taking actions across multiple dimensions and not simply concentrating on one aspect of wellbeing.

Using the ‘social’ lever to activate employees

As discussed above, employees who take actions are more likely to improve their wellbeing. But what makes employees more likely to take actions?

Our analysis finds that high levels of social wellbeing are the main catalyst to encouraging employees to take actions. As Figure 1 shows, employees who are socially connected (both at work and outside work) are more likely to take action to improve their wellbeing in all dimensions. No other area of wellbeing has this magnitude of impact, making social wellbeing a key catalyst to supporting change.

Sample: Full-time employees only

Source: 2022 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey

This does not suggest that social wellbeing is a silver bullet solution. It is clear that a successful wellbeing program must offer solutions that target specific needs in the areas of physical, emotional and financial wellbeing. But employers that make conscious and deliberate efforts to enhance social wellbeing increase their chances of activating employees to participate in their wellbeing programs. This can go a long way to overcome the engagement challenges, which have been an ongoing problem for many employers’ wellbeing programs.

Employer considerations

Employee wellbeing is a complex issue. However, by understanding the interconnections of the different wellbeing components, employers can better design wellbeing strategies that help their employees improve their wellbeing and sustain change. Providing targeted support while encouraging social connection and creating a workplace culture that supports wellbeing is key for building a successful wellbeing strategy. The following are considerations for employer wellbeing programs:

  1. Enhance programs to support targeted initiatives across each area of wellbeing. Assess the problems across the population and identify the programs that are the best fit for employees’ needs. Good programs and initiatives, while not sufficient, are necessary to encouraging employee engagement.
  2. Encourage a multipronged approach to change. Improvements in wellbeing are rarely one dimensional. Employees who focus on multiple areas tend to experience the biggest improvements in their wellbeing. Employer programs that support seamless connections between solutions in all dimensions of wellbeing provide the landscape for addressing the holistic set of needs employees have.
  3. Prioritize social connections as a strategy to broaden program engagement. Employer programs that emphasize social wellbeing as a precursor to many other aspects of their wellbeing strategy set the stage to deliver the most value from their investment, as they help to encourage employee actions.
  4. Build a workplace culture that supports meaningful connections between employees. Employees who work for employers with a high wellbeing culture are more than twice as likely to take significant actions to improve their physical, financial and emotional wellbeing and more than three times as likely to improve their social wellbeing than those who work for employers with a low wellbeing culture.

Director, Research and Innovation Center

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