Why a Culture of Well-Being Is Critical for Performance

Person typing on a computer with a plant beside them on the desk.

Originally published in Thrive Global Journal. Photo by Corinne Kutz on Unsplash.

In 2013 Gallup gathered data from 230,000 full- and part-time workers in 142 countries. According to the 2013 Gallup poll, in the U.S. more than 2 in 3 workers are unhappy in their jobs. Gallup found that 52 percent of U.S. workers are not engaged, meaning that even if they don’t actively hate their jobs, but they’re unhappy and don’t invest themselves in their job. Gallup found that another 18 percent are what they call ‘actively disengaged,’ meaning they can’t stand their jobs and sometimes even sabotage co-workers or their companies. Should this be a concern for organizations?

At its basic level, wellbeing is really about personal happiness — feeling good, feeling healthy and working safely and productively. Yet, while the vast majority of organizations assert that wellbeing is important, many organizational leaders and staff are still afraid to embrace or are just not thinking much about embracing wellbeing as an organizational imperative.

A ton of scientific research into wellbeing and performance shows why developing a culture of wellbeing is critical. Progressive leaders are recognizing that the old business model is not working. They are in desperate need to change the way they live and work in order to not just survive, but thrive. They also know they can’t really afford to be putting off addressing underlying causes for burn out, the related retention issues, and lack of engagement, and that individuals they lead also need a more peaceful, productive and healthy work environment.

If you are an innovative and progressive organization and know that you need to move from the minimalist and reactionary approach to health and invest in employee wellbeing, but are still afraid that making wellbeing a value in practice will cost you or put more stress on you, then you need to read on. Here is why more leaders are embracing wellbeing as a top value: when leaders help people feel valued and supported, they facilitate belonging, trust and reciprocity. Practices that support belonging, trust and reciprocity, in turn boost productivity.


Workplace or organizational culture around wellbeing is a key determinant of how valued and supported people feel in their roles and how productive the organization becomes. Employee relationships are much like any personal relationship. When there is a sense that the employer and staff at all levels invest in building trust and belonging, employees are inspired to reciprocate with greater investment in the organization.

When employees feel they have contributed to shared objectives that address essentially how well they feel in their workplace, leaders will have greater success at creating a culture of wellbeing and sustained productivity. You do that by including everyone’s ideas, input, experiences and ideas for how they can get on board with their own wellness, and also how to support each other in creating that shared objective for wellness.

Even if well-meaning, when ideas of wellbeing are imposed, leaders may discover few are truly on board. In one workplace, the owner generously bought every individual a year’s pass to the gym in the same building as a Christmas present. But hardly anyone went to the gym. Employees felt guilty that money was wasted on something they didn’t want and the company owner was mad at everyone that she wasted the money. Needless to say, resentment built. Had she solicited feedback on what wellness looked like and what would support wellness, she would have had different results. Getting everyone on board by gathering a shared understanding of what wellbeing looks like is step one. When our ideas around the experiences we want for our own happiness are heard, we feel valued.


Step two, or, rather, in parallel — is trust-building! When people are trusted, their motivation tends to come from the inside, rather than the outside. As a leader, your best approach to ensuring performance is to inspire and motivate. The inducements and punishments approach is still evident in most organizations and awareness around how those methods miss the objective of facilitating trust is key. Trust must be an objective if you want to facilitate wellbeing.

While few leaders would argue against trust being necessary for performance, many still view trust-building as a “soft” or “secondary” competency (Covey and Conant, 2016). Covey and Conant remind “It’s not a nice-to-have; it’s a must-have. Without it, every part of your organization can fall, literally, into disrepair. With trust, all things are possible — most importantly: continuous improvement and sustainable, measurable, tangible results in the marketplace” (Covey and Conant, 2016). In one study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, an increase of trust in management at one tenth of the scale was equivalent to more than 30% increase in monetary income.

The Great Place to Work Institute partnered with Fortune to produce the “100 Best Companies to Work For” in which trust comprised two-thirds of the criteria. They similarly found that those companies beat “the average annualized returns of the S&P 500 by a factor of three” (Fortune 100, 2017). Covey and Conant explain how trust affects two measurable outcomes, speed and cost: “When trust goes down (in a relationship, on a team, in an organization, or with a partner or customer), speed goes down and cost goes up” (2016). All leaders need to consider trust-building as a key component to employees’ positive experience and sense of wellbeing.


Reciprocity is enhanced when you’re feeling valued and supported which correlates to better performance. Social reciprocity goes far beyond ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.’ It’s a means to effective collaboration. Effective collaboration is where each person brings their strengths, capacities, experience, assets and value to the table that another does not necessarily have and can benefit from. In this sense, each person adds to effectiveness by sharing what they uniquely can bring and receiving what others uniquely can bring in any relationship.

Reciprocity is almost a natural response to feeling included, trusted, and being heard. This aspect to collaboration and engagement is often overlooked but has comprised one of my biggest research findings among the organizations I have studied and provided consulting where people facilitate the changes they want to see, especially in challenging situations and environments.

Studies illustrate the connection between reciprocity and performance that organizational leaders might want to consider. Economists show that employers who are perceived as distributionally fair by their employees generate comparatively more value due to the positively reciprocal behavior of those employees (Boss, Phillips, and Harrison, 2009). And it’s not just fairness that is critical to higher performance but rather the mentality of giving in a relationship, whether a personal one or within an organization, where service entails that you bring your best to the table for the betterment of others and the benefit of the whole. As Englmaier, Kolaska, and Leider conclude through their research, by practicing reciprocity as a value employees develop better team-working and are generally more successful (2015).


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