Is work good for our well-being?

Most people regularly feeling under excessive pressure at work say it has a negative effect on their individual performance

Health and well-being at work were hot topics at last week’s CIPD annual conference and exhibition, especially on the Wednesday following Professor Sir Cary Cooper's keynote address, which also happened to be National Stress Awareness Day.  As it happened, the CIPD’s summer 2015 Employee Outlook survey contained a suite of questions on well-being, which prompted me to tweet some of the key findings over lunch.  Here’s a collation of what our survey results show.

There are clear correlations between job satisfaction and (self-assessed) physical and mental health.
 

Of course, the direction of causality is an issue here.  If our health is bad, we probably feel less good about ourselves and work becomes more of a challenge, something to be endured rather than enjoyed.  But work can sometimes be one of the causes of poor physical and mental health, for example, if working conditions are unsafe or stressful, or if work lacks meaning and challenge, leading to feelings of boredom and alienation.

Mental health is an even more powerful factor than physical health in accounting for employee well-being


 
This is a broader measure of satisfaction with life, using four questions developed by the Office for National Statistics to measure personal well-being.  The results show that employees who regard their mental health as moderate or worse have lower average life satisfaction scores than employees who regard their physical health as moderate or worse.  This may in part be a product of the questions (two of which ask about feelings of happiness and anxiety).

There is a clear correlation between employees feeling under excessive pressure at work and their (self-assessed) physical and mental health



We see that 28% of employees with very good mental health (and 29% of employees with very good physical health) report feeling under excessive pressure at work on a weekly or daily basis.  But for those with poor or very poor health, the proportions are 64% and 61%.  The correlation is clear but causality less so.  There is plenty of evidence that feeling under uncomfortable pressure can be stressful, which in turn can damage our health.  But it may also be the case that people in poor health find work more of a struggle and pressures which others may find manageable are, to them, excessive and uncomfortable.

There is a clear correlation between feeling under excessive pressure at work and perceptions of the workload


 
For the 30% of employees who feel their workload is excessive, 83% feel under excessive pressure on a weekly or daily basis.  This proportion falls to 24% for the 62% of employees who feel their workload is about right.  The direction of causality seems much clearer here: from excessive workloads to feelings of being under excessive pressure.

Most people regularly feeling under excessive pressure at work say it has a negative effect on their individual performance

 
For a few employees who feel excessive pressure on an occasional basis, pressure is seen as enhancing performance.  But, for most of us, excessive pressure has a neutral or negative effect and the likelihood of seeing it in a negative light increases as excessive pressure becomes more frequent.

Employees feeling under excessive pressure most often are least likely to feel they can turn to managers or colleagues for support
 

Note these are subjective judgements made by the individual employee about their managers and colleagues.  We were unable to probe whether employees had in fact looked for support from managers and employees in the past, and what the reaction had been.  Nevertheless, the survey results are consistent with the demand-control-support model of stress and well-being.

However, our latest autumn 2015 Employee Outlook survey also shows one potentially contradictory finding …

Employees feeling under the greatest pressure are more likely to feel they are more productive than their colleagues


 
Over half (51%) of employees feeling under excessive pressure every single day regard themselves as more productive or much more productive than their colleagues, whereas the proportion is just over a third for those who never feel under excessive pressure.  And this is despite almost three quarters of employees feeling under excessive pressure on a daily basis saying that pressure reduces their performance!

Of course, our interpretation of these findings will depend upon what criteria employees use in deciding whether or not they are more productive than their colleagues.  If employees equate “productivity” with working longer, or in a manic rush, perhaps these results aren’t unexpected.  That’s something I’ll be exploring in my next blog.
 

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