When it comes to wellbeing, you probably know it has something to do with eating more vegetables and getting some exercise, but you probably don't know the impact your boss can have on your triglycerides. Or, how important it is to chit-chat with a coworker in the next cubicle, or E-mail back and forth with colleagues who are also working remotely. And you probably didn't know that a job isn't essential to career wellbeing. In his new book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, Gallup guru and bestselling author Tom Rath, together with coauthor Jim Harter, elucidates those aspects of our lives that have the most critical impact on our career, physical, social, financial, and community wellbeing. Rath recently spoke with U.S. News. Excerpts
How important is career wellbeing on our overall wellbeing?
We've been tracking employment status and how engaged people are in their jobs. We've looked at the way that affects diagnosis rates of anxiety and depression and the like. Let's say the baseline is a rate of people who not only have a job but who like what they're doing each day, so they're pretty engaged in their jobs—that group has the very lowest rates of subsequent diagnoses of anxiety and depression, as you might expect. But what's interesting is if you're just in a job that you're not engaged in, you don't like what you're doing on a day-to-day basis—that alone doubles the chances of being diagnosed with depression over the next 12 months. If you're unemployed and looking for employment, that triples the chances from that original baseline rate, which is 4 percent. It goes from 4 to about 8 to about 12 in terms of odds of being diagnosed by a clinician with depression over the next year or so.
You note in the book that sustained unemployment is a particular threat to wellbeing.
I guess the scary thing for our economy as a whole is that there may be a lot more damaging psychological implications of the recession than most of us are thinking about today—when you think about the numbers that suggest about half of the people unemployed today have been unemployed for more than six months. Some of the research we look at in the book shows there's really nothing more detrimental in life than a prolonged period of sustained unemployment.
So were you able to see any ways that could be mitigated?
Definitely. That was one of the encouraging things. As long as there's something you can honestly look forward to when you wake up every morning. So when you roll out of bed, you have something you look forward to doing that day, even if that's volunteering or it's time taking care of a grandchild or a niece or a nephew or whatever it might be. That can certainly give you as much career wellbeing as you need, even if you're not getting a paycheck.
Do certain careers have higher rates of wellbeing?
We see slightly different rates based on whether people are employed part-time versus full-time and hourly versus salaried, and we see a little bit lower rates overall when you look at jobs that involve a lot of manual labor. But what's been the most interesting is that we actually see more variance within a single organization than we ever see across industries or across organizations. So, no matter how well-managed you think an organization might be—being engaged in your job is so strongly dependent on the quality and effort that the manager of that work unit puts forward.
Managers have an impact on physical wellbeing as well?
Correct. As a worker's engagement increases, we see that their total cholesterol and triglycerides go down. And some studies have shown how people who have bosses they've really hated over the years are more susceptible to heart attack and stroke. It sounds like a little bit of stretch at first when you hear your manager might impact your physical health, your cholesterol, and your risk of having a stroke. But when you think about the role that stress plays on the physiology of what's going on inside our bodies on a day-to-day basis, and think back to one of the worst managers you've ever had, it starts to make a little bit of sense.
Are there elements of wellbeing more within an employee's control than the quality of a manager?
Figure out what you really love doing and use your strengths on a daily basis. As long as people have an opportunity to do what they do best every day, they're significantly more likely to be engaged in their jobs and satisfied in their lives overall. Also, people who had high levels of career wellbeing had a leader or mentor or someone that they looked up to. One of the interesting findings was that creating close friendships on the job makes quite a difference. People who say they have a best friend at work are seven times as likely to be engaged in what they're doing. And if they don't have a best friend at work, the odds of being engaged are just 1 in 12.
How do you determine what is a best friend? That's kind of an ambiguous term.
When we were first working on this research, we tested a lot of different questions. We tested asking workers if they had a friend at work, if they had a good friend at work. The only item that really differentiated work groups who had higher levels of productivity, less turnover, higher levels of customer satisfaction, and the like were the people who said they had a best friend at work. One of the interesting things we've been drawing into recently is how just the sheer amount of time you spend socializing in a given day has a strong influence on your overall wellbeing. That's the time you spend at work socializing with colleagues, E-mailing back and forth, instant messaging, talking on the phone. When you add all that up, each additional hour you spend in social time each day dramatically increases your odds of having a lot of happy moments and fewer stressful moments in a given day.
E-mail and instant messaging aren't to workers' detriment?
I don't know that it is. We've begun to study the wellbeing levels of a few organizations now and when we segment out their remote workers—or people who work from home—they have wellbeing levels that compare favorably or a little bit better in some cases to the large physical offices where people come in every day.
Did you find that there is an ideal daily schedule for wellbeing?
It is so easy to put things off, but when people exercise in the morning, in many cases they did so because over time they realized that working out in the morning puts you in a better mood and you're more productive and you have more energy throughout the workday. People with high levels of wellbeing have been careful to work out early in the morning and not to have heavy meals throughout the day because you kind of fall off a cliff in terms of your energy by 2 or 3:00 if you have a lunch with a lot of heavy foods.
Were there companies that have done a particularly good job of encouraging wellbeing? For example, Google is famous from providing organic meals to its employees.
I'm sure all the things that Google does are perceived as helpful by employees and nice to have, but our engagement research shows that those more trivial benefits and perks—the doggie daycare and on-site dry-cleaning—don't have anywhere near as much impact as a manager who cares about what's going on with your family. So, I don't think companies can just pile on the benefits and see any real improvement in engagement or wellbeing over time.
In your own life, have you become really conscientious about exercising, eating right, and being engaged at work?
Yeah, I've made a lot of changes. The obvious one—that I think a lot of us who have worked on this research have learned—is that even if you have a lot to do in a given day and you have a lot of meetings scheduled, you actually get more done in less time if you start your day with a good workout and if you avoid some of the high loads of a sugars and carbs and fats earlier in the day. We've also seen a lot of people in our organization who rally around to say, "let's go spend time together," whether it's a work baseball team or everybody getting together after work to do one of the couch-to-5k running programs.
I know people who are regular exercisers, healthy eaters, and active in their communities. Sometimes I think these are people who were just born with those inclinations. Are there certain personality types more prone to having wellbeing in multiple areas?
There is certainly some predisposition to wellbeing, based on the research I've looked at. There are people who have a lot more natural disciple. But for most of us, it takes a lot more in terms of social expectations, where, say, we tell people we're going to run a 5k. In my office in D.C., we've hired a lot of young people. Just something as basic as going and getting a paper cup of coffee—people give me dirty looks when I do that now. I know there's a social expectation that I should be using a mug that I wash and reuse each time instead of throwing away a paper cup. That's exactly what happened with smoking. Smokers were essentially just pushed to the outer edges of social networks one at a time. And you could watch the same social patterns with litter 25 years ago or seatbelt use. You can see how those big social changes happened in the context of groups and organizations and communities and neighborhoods.
I've been watching the television show Mad Men lately. Characters on that show go on picnics and leave their litter in the park—they drink while they're driving.
I was saying that to my wife. We watched a few seasons of that recently and it seems like a time capsule to me. I told someone that show makes me a little more optimistic because you can see how much progress society can make in a short period of time.