The events of the past 8 months have only added to the complexities of life and the stress of the work environment. Employers and employees across the globe met the transition from in-person to remote work with mixed emotions. Our collective recent experiences have changed the way we work and live. And for those who admit to feeling moments of depression coupled with a shot of elation, or feelings of freedom with a side of restriction and confinement, you are not alone.

The quest for balance is one that has been discussed and sought since the 1980s when the term ‘work-life balance’ was initially coined. As new generations entered the workforce, employers became increasingly more aware of the need to help employees navigate their complex lives and their work lives in more creative and flexible ways, in order to retain them. Work-life programs have become table-stakes for employers, and have been proven to boost morale, reduce absenteeism, decrease cost, and increase overall performance.

How can leaders promote wellbeing without sacrificing productivity?

Research and practice have shown that both productivity and wellbeing are key ingredients for organizational success. The tolls of COVID-19 on our lives and what seems to be like an enduring worklife from home requires us to show up differently in preparation for these levels of productivity.

This year has been a breeding ground for unchartered territory. Organizations have been forced to pivot to new ways of working that come with their own sets of challenges and impact on productivity.

While some organizations have struggled with productivity, we are seeing a surge in ‘productivity’ amongst others. JP Morgan announced that their sales and trading employees amongst those in other functions are being encouraged to return to the office due to increased productivity slips on Mondays and Fridays. However, the Boston Consulting Group found in a study conducted across organizations that 51% of respondents reported that they maintained or even improved their productivity. This variation sheds light on a very important point: Not everyone is measuring productivity in the same way.

Having a productive day? How do you know?

At the end of a day on which we’ve attended 8-10 Zoom calls, we may feel anything but productive. But for some, productivity is defined by visibility, where it is about showing your face whether it’s in the office or on a screen. For others, productivity is defined by the level of employee engagement. And one of the most widely spread ways in which productivity is being measured is by how many hours you’ve clocked into your working day. But in today’s world of blurred lines between our personal and professional lives, a full day’s work may feel like anything but productive.

When was the last time you took a vacation?

People are now working more than ever before. According to Business News Daily, remote employees work 1.4 more days per month than their office-based counterparts; which is more than 3 additional weeks of work per year. Moreover, given the risks and restrictions around travel, people are opting out of taking their PTO. Many of us have forfeited our vacations this summer. As mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, a Zenefits’ study of 3,000 companies found that there were about 63,000 requests for vacations in April and May, which is significantly less than the 120,000 requests made during that same period in 2019.

However, spending more time doing work and showing face on camera does not necessarily mean more productivity. A Stanford study has found that productivity per hour declines when a person works more than 50 hours a week. Further, those who work up to 70 hours a week are only getting the same amount of work done as those who put in 56 hours.

Our gas tanks become depleted.

We run out of mental and physical resources that create optimal conditions to work and be productive. Our traditional measures of things like hours spent in the office, visibility, engagement, and drop-in PTO tell us that productivity is on the rise, but these are not traditional times.

Can wellbeing be the key?

The world of work has for the most part started to catch up with the necessity of taking care of the workforce, and investing in Employee Wellness Programs. However, employees continue to cite issues with stress, burn-out, and depression. Studies by SHRM and by the Total Brain’s July Mental Health Index show that 41% of employees feel burnt out and 45% feel emotionally drained from work and that the risk for depression among U.S. workers has risen to 102% and more specifically to 305% for those between the ages of 20 and 39 as a result of the pandemic.

And employers are taking action. Just this Labor Day, Google gave employees an extra day off as a response to the increased levels of burnout and depression amongst their employees. Other tech giants, such as Cisco, also gave their employees a mental health day back in May, where Chief People Officer, Fran Katsoudas wrote: ‘There are few places to go, people need us, and we enjoy our work. Our weeks and weekends are blurring together. Yet there is one reason to unplug: ourselves.’ Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, gave employees a day of rest in June, emphasizing that ‘health comes first’ and to ‘make time for it’ because it is these kinds of days that ‘build strength’ to get work done.

How is wellbeing being defined?

Like productivity, the metrics for wellbeing are also flawed. One of the common metrics for measuring wellbeing is absenteeism or the number of sick days taken.

If productivity is being measured by the number of working hours and wellbeing is measured by the number of days off from work, and we know that some people are opting out of much-needed PTO, then we might be drawing some false conclusions around productivity and wellbeing going up.

With people’s daily lives and habits changing, there is a need to recalibrate our perceptions and definitions of wellbeing to ones that are more holistic and relevant to our current times.

Gallup uncovered that the common elements of wellbeing that need to be fulfilled for people to thrive are physical, career, financial, social, and community elements. How employees are doing in terms of physical health, career satisfaction, economic stability, relationships, and belonging in their community will impact the effectiveness of business outcomes. Employees thriving in all five elements are 41% less likely to miss work as a result of poor health and are 81% less likely to seek out a new employer in the next year. This is interesting news.

Common elements that people need to thrive in their lives

*Image by Gallup

What we are learning is that wellbeing actually impacts productivity.

To ensure we are productive and prepared to deliver on our accountabilities in a sustainable manner, we will not only need to invest in our wellbeing, but we must also leverage and utilize it to cultivate productivity.

How to cultivate productivity

We clearly need to recalibrate our perceptions of productivity and wellbeing to ones more relevant to our current times. And, we need to view wellness as a means to our productivity – as opposed to two elements that are mutually exclusive.

  1. Build a Life Pie. Encourage your employees to consider the 5 elements of wellbeing and assess where they are. Support them in finding ways to build out their satisfaction and quality of life in these areas.
  2. Include your employees in generating solutions. Your employees are likely to have ideas of what they need to feel well and in turn, perform better. Sourcing and sharing ideas from your constituents can go a long way.
  3. Build awareness of how wellbeing can be leveraged to enhance productivity. Discuss and define productivity together as a team.

Make a habit of revisiting the first two steps. If we have learned anything from 2020, it is that things can change at any moment and the only way to deal with the ambiguity is to adapt. Revisiting what wellbeing looks like in your organization can help you create the culture of adaptation organizations of the future will need to succeed.

Wellbeing makes strategic sense. It is important to maintain productivity in a ‘Work From Home’ environment and to leverage and utilize wellbeing to do so. Organizations need to get a better understanding of how their employees work to find answers that make sense to boost productivity and achieve their strategic objectives. This is not a one-time thing for your organization. The exercise of redefinition needs to be embedded into the organization’s strategy because productivity in the post-COVID era might look very different from what it looks like today.

If you are interested in learning more about how to leverage wellbeing to improve productivity, gothamCulture would be delighted to speak with your team.

Co-authored by Shawn Overcast

Read more: Good Stress, Bad Stress: Finding the Stress Balance for Your Team