Can Organization Handprints Improve Employees’ Mental Health?

Eileen McNeely

Eileen McNeely, RN, C., M.S., PhD.
Co-Director Sustainability and Health Initiatives for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE)

It has long been recognized that physically healthy employees are good for an organization’s financial health. To that point, discounts on gym memberships which began as an innovative employee perk, are increasingly common as employers look for ways to incent employees to adopt healthy life-styles. Behind these perks is the continuing increase in employee health insurance premiums.

According to a 2015 HealthAffairs report with references to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average health insurance annual premium for employer-sponsored family coverage in 2014 was $17,544 per employee. In an effort to keep the rising cost of health insurance premiums in check, employers have deployed a variety of financial incentives such as discounts on employees’ share of health insurance premiums for:

  • non-smokers
  • biometric screenings, and
  • meeting health targets as a result of biometric screenings.

However, what was once considered innovation by large employers, has now evolved to second generation strategies that look beyond improving just the physical health of employees. For example, business are now understanding the value of motivated employees who are positively engaged in both their work and the employee community. These activities often have a direct correlation to an employee’s overall well- being including mental health.

At the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, we are assisting businesses in this evolution through the Sustainability and Health Initiatives for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE) project. The foundation of SHINE is recognizing the positive results gained from a moving away from a singular focus on the negative consequences of a business’ footprint. These footprints which are often thought of as the product’s impact on the planet —such as a carbon footprint—are familiar to many consumers and are often used when evaluating purchasing decisions. This effect on purchasing decisions is so relevant that many large global organizations seek ways to limit their products’ footprints throughout the entire supply chain, from acquiring raw materials for making the product, to labor conditions, to final delivery of the product to the consumer.

At SHINE, we have turned this idea on its head by challenging organizations to look at the impact of positive changes from the products and services they provide. This positive impact is called a handprint. By lowering an organization’s footprint while increasing their handprints a NetPositive measurement is obtained.

Many categories of positive impact can be measured. One category is the handprint on employees’ well-being. This category moves beyond mitigation of disease as the goal, and focuses on what defines a thriving population at work and at home. In order to measure the handprint, SHINE researchers, together with leaders at Johnson & Johnson, a SHINE member company, developed the well-being index, sometimes referred to as the HaPI (Health and Performance Index). This tool provides organizations with clearly defined metrics that identify the level of functioning and adaptation of employees at work. The index also measures the impact of various job resources, such as flextime or supervisor support, on employee well-being. The measurement tool allows companies to set targets for handprints and organizational growth and performance, as well as measure the effectiveness of adjustments they make.

SHINE developed this tool so that it can be used across a variety of work environments and so that employee well-being can be measured and treasured!  Since employees spend nearly two-thirds of their waking lives at work, businesses who nurture more productive, vibrant employees may also contribute to an engaged and healthy citizenry.

Early findings with SHINE companies show that employees who are more fully engaged at work have lower disability days and more positive mental health and physical states.  Most importantly, these well-being outcomes are correlated with how much employees perceive their work environments as meaningful and supportive. Also, employees who feel empowered to learn and make decisions,

receive greater supervisor support, trust and respect, or who feel comfortable with job expectations, do better than their peers mentally and physically.

Working with partners around the globe SHINE continues to ask questions that reflect cultural differences and a variety of different work environments. Questions that SHINE seeks answers to include:

  • What are the main predictors to well-being at work?
  • How does family caregiver-support impact employee well-being?
  • What work experiences best predict mental health in the workforce?

Continued research will identify the effect of well-being handprints as business indicators. How is the overall health of the business impacted? What role does employee well-being play in innovation and productivity?

Many tools to measure the sustainability of the planet are in current use. I am encouraged that understanding the sustainability of employees’ well-being is now being recognized as just as important.

Our aspiration at SHINE is to see all companies reporting about employee well-being in every sustainability report, and ultimately, that the sustainability or corporate social responsibility report is integrated into financial reporting. In this way, every business will truly be putting their money where their mouth is—people first!

Your Turn

  • What trends are you seeing to improve employee well-being in the workplace?
  • What metric would you include in an employee well-being index?

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