Business of Well-being

Leading Through Employee Adversity

Ask any leader, "What makes you lose sleep at night?" and it should come as no surprise that reinsurance costs or dental coverage are not at the top of their list. What they will tell you about are their employees' everyday personal problems-family and marital, stress and depression, child and elder care, and financial and legal issues-that occupy a great deal of their employees' time and energy both on and off the job (according to Maureen Gleason in her article "It's Not Just Mental," which appeared in the July 2009 issue of Benefits Selling Magazine).

If work is home and home is work, should a leader be involved in his or her employees' personal and/or professional adversity? Yes, and here are six broad reasons why.

1. Employee Relationship

The most valuable asset an organization has is its engaged employee. Everyday leaders have a choice to make deposits or withdrawals in their employees' trust accounts. Through servant leadership behavior, leaders will create an environment of trust with their employees.

The benefits of that trust include higher productivity, loyalty and inner confidence that you care about them as individuals. As a result, in times of adversity, you will be viewed as a source of strength, hope and a place of solace. With trusted employee relationships, employees are more likely to participate in employer-sponsored programs and activities.

Additionally, trusted employee relationships will help overcome bystander behavior, leading to more open communication with you on questionable behavior that may need your attention. An even bigger win is the domino effect that the deeper trusted employee relationships will have on the stakeholders and the overall culture of the organization.

2. Positive Organizational Culture and Morale

By creating and living a culture of employee health, you will show your employees that you care about them. It is incumbent upon you as the leader to go first and provide an example. Your support and participation in living out the culture of health are the first steps followed by your managers and key employees.

Other employees in the organization will respond in kind. Furthermore, a culture of health has to be built into the structure (mission, vision and the physical environment), policies, benefit plans and employee incentives.

A leader who desires to create a healthy, family-like community must create a process whereby the leader and staff come to agreement on behaviors that promote a healthy work environment (according to Donald G. Zauderer's "Community: Key to High Productivity," in the spring 2010 issue of The Public Manager).

An organization's culture is made up of individual employees, all of whom want community, acceptance and respect. As the leader, you have the ability to set the vision for the organization and model a culture of employee health.

3. Productivity Improvement

At the heart of every business is productivity. Often overlooked as a productivity problem is employee adversity in the form of poor health/fitness. Gregg Lehman, PhD, wrote in "The Missing Links. Why Small Employers Require a New Solution for Employee Health" (Health Fitness. April 28, 2011), "Productivity is the next great frontier in health management.

Employers are interested in not just controlling health care costs, but also encouraging personal accountability for employees to maintain a healthy lifestyle." Employers are recognizing that employee health and productivity go hand in hand.

One contributor, or potential detractor, to productivity is employee physical fitness. Improvements to employee fitness levels can benefit an organization through an increase in efficiency. As the health of an employee workforce increases, so does productivity.

By addressing the root issues of health-related employee adversity and implementing appropriate strategies to overcome them, leaders will position their organizations for productivity improvements as the result of a healthier employee population. An added benefit to a healthier workforce is the potential for significantly lower overall health care costs.

4. Recruitment and Retention

To lead, one must have followers. To identify, hire, train and retain employees, leaders need to have an organization with a worthy mission/vision to attract candidates. It also requires the more tactical components of schedule, duties, office environment and culture, as well as employee benefits.

A leader's involvement with his or her employees shows interest and caring that contributes to a positive, healthy culture. People want to be a part of a positive environment, one in which they are cared for and one that helps them grow as a person.

The time, energy and financial investment to hire and train an employee are the initial requirements of a leader's journey with a new employee. According to hiring expert John Butler ("You've invested in an EAP, now learn how to use it," Canadian HR Reporter, June 3, 2002), it is often worth spending money to help employees solve whatever problems they have, because retaining a productive employee is one of the great keys to a successful organization.

That retention of productive employees can be better achieved through leader involvement that develops a trusted employer-employee relationship, leading to a greater work experience for all.

5. Employee and Employer Stakeholders

Leaders are not the only ones interested in a positive, productive work experience. In a recent survey done by a major insurance company, almost 50 percent of responding employees said that participating in a wellness program inspires them to perform better at work.

Employees want to become healthier! Achieving better overall health is the top reason American workers participate or would participate in a wellness benefit program. Employees are not interested in physical health alone. Their mental health, ability to handle stress and even knowledge on how to work through life issues are also important.

Financial issues rate high on the scale of employee stress causes, which affects the organization as well. The silent epidemic of money problems is costing businesses $15,000 per year per affected employee. Facing financial uncertainty, burdened with debt and besieged by bill collectors, employees are bringing their financial worries to work at great cost to their productivity.

Without proper attention to and management of these issues, corporate performance and profitability will suffer (Price, "Responding to Workers' Financial Crises," Journal of Employee Assistance, 1st Quarter 2009). Many employees don't know where to turn to for help.

They spend a majority of their day at work and are looking for, maybe even expecting, the employer to provide guidance. By helping the employee, leaders will be helping the organization; the two are intertwined. While it would be nice if we could draw a boundary between home and work, there seems to be an increasing trend for the office and homefront to merge.

In fact, the ability to balance work and family life is the single most important job aspect, with 97 percent of workers indicating that it is "important" and 88 percent saying that it is "extremely important," according to a recent Rutgers University national poll of 1,000 workers (Cohen, "When an employee's crisis becomes HR's problem," Workforce Costa Mesa, January 2001).

Again, leader involvement (coupled with the appropriate model of resources and services for the employee) leads to a healthier employee, a more positive culture, increased productivity and better outcomes for all stakeholders.

6. Moral Obligation and Responsibility to Employees

One could argue that the first order of business when it comes to employees is for the leader to understand his or her responsibility and moral obligation to their workforce. Leaders exist to serve others, and leaders have a societal obligation to their employees.

From a humanitarian perspective, leaders should want to give their employees the benefits they need. And, as clearly demonstrated already, in contributing to the overall health of employees, a leader benefits both the employees and the company (Solomon, "Behavioral health: The forgotten benefit," Workforce, February 2000).

In observing the concept of servant leadership and serving the employee with your heart, mind and resources, you will be rewarded in return with positive employee contributions to the company's culture and morale, increased productivity, loyalty to the company and a more favorable experience for all stakeholders.

The following leader involvement illustration visually shows that the leader-employee relationship is at the heart of leader involvement. The five work factors-culture & morale, productivity, EE & ER stakeholders, moral obligation and recruitment & retention-are all affected by the health of the relationship between leader and employee.Betty Bender once said, "When people go to work, they shouldn't have to leave their hearts at home."This leader agrees.

About the Author

John F. Nichols, MSM, CLU is President of Disability Resource Group, Inc. He is a nationally recognized industry speaker. In 1993, John had a near-death experience from a water skiing accident that left him paralyzed as a quadriplegic.

John has reached a level of recovery that less than 1% of all spinal cord injuries experience. In 2010, John was LIFE's Industry Spokesperson for Disability Insurance Awareness Month.

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