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Are you depressed?

Exhausted?

Losing interest in work?

Headed for burnout?

You could be, and not even know it.

The social and workplace turmoil associated with the worldwide pandemic has created a perfect storm for mental and emotional challenges that many people never imagined they would face.

Hundreds of organizations are studying the effects of the pandemic. Perhaps the most prominent is Gallup, the analytics company best known for its public opinion surveys.

Gallup’s latest findings can be found in Wellbeing at Work: How to Build Resilient and Thriving Teams. The book draws on Gallup’s 100 million global interviews across 160 countries to measure wellbeing in the daily lives of more than 98% of the world’s population. 

To learn more about the study—and its implications for all of us—I interviewed Dr. Jim Hartner, chief scientist for Gallup’s workplace management and wellbeing practices. He’s led more than 1,000 studies of workplace effectiveness, is a bestselling author, and is widely published in prominent business and academic journals.

Rodger Dean Duncan: To track suffering, struggling and thriving, you introduce a new metric—Gallup Net Thriving (GNT). How is that formula calculated?

Jim Harter: Gallup uses the Best Possible Life Scale as the global standard to measure Gallup Net Thriving across 160 countries. The two-part question, originated by Hadley Cantril, asks respondents to imagine a ladder with steps from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top, with 0 being the worst possible life and 10 being the best possible life.  Respondents are asked to rate their present life 0-10 and then where they think they will be five years from now, 0-10.

Packed into any person’s responses to this two-part question is almost everything in their life — from basic needs such as food and shelter to personal safety to a good job, social status, money and health.

Let’s call the two parts of the Best Possible Life Scale “best life present” and “best life future.” They are both important because one reveals your current state, which influences your decisions right now, and the other reveals your hope for the future. Even people in a negative state can keep going if they have hope that things will get better.

We determined the thriving, struggling, and suffering percentages based on analytics from over a million respondents across 160 countries.

  • Thriving: These respondents have positive views of their present life situation (7 or higher rating on best life present) and have positive views of the next five years (8 or higher rating on best life future).
  • Struggling: These respondents struggle in their present life situation and have uncertain or negative views about their future.
  • Suffering: These respondents report that their lives are miserable (4 and below rating on best life present) and have negative views of the next five years (4 and below on best life future).

Duncan: You say career wellbeing, the first of the five elements of wellbeing that emerged from your research, is the most important. How does career wellbeing influence the other four elements?

Jim Harter

Harter: One of Gallup’s most profound discoveries is that what the whole world wants is a good job. Career wellbeing, at its core, is “liking what you do every day”—having great job—and our careers and work are so central to our lives that they influence our social lives, our finances, our health, and the relationship we have with our communities.

Duncan: Burnout is now an official occupational syndrome recognized by the World Health Organization. What workplace issues play the biggest role in creating burnout among workers?

Harter: In workplaces, unfair treatment, unmanageable workloads, unclear communication, lack of manager support, and unreasonable time pressures can contribute to burnout. Struggling or suffering social, financial, physical, and community wellbeing can contribute to burnout too.

Duncan: What are the most important things an organization can do to boost career wellbeing among its workforce?

Harter: There are several—

  • Make sure everyone in your organization knows their strengths. Use a strengths-based strategy to design an employee experience that puts a high priority on developing employees and helping them learn and grow.
  • Remove abusive managers. No organization should tolerate managers who destroy the lives of the people you rely on to get work done. In today’s workforce, bad managers are your highest risk.
  • Transform bosses into coaches. The old top-down, command-and-control approach to managing doesn’t work anymore, particularly with younger employees. Great managers today aren’t bosses, they’re more like coaches who communicate with employees frequently and focus on their development. Manager should become experts at setting goals and providing meaningful feedback at least once a week.
  • Make wellbeing part of career development conversations. Once they establish trust, managers and teams can dream big together — not just about career goals and development but about life and overall purpose and wellbeing.

Duncan: When an employee expresses any degree of suffering (career-related or otherwise), what are the first steps a manager can take to put the employee on the path to thriving wellbeing?

Harter: Managers are best equipped to connect each person to the various resources that are available to them in the organization, and to coach them – as best as possible, and in an appropriate manner, of course – through any crises.  Under normal circumstances, we strongly urge managers to have conversation with employees at least once a week. This is even more critical if an employee is suffering.

Duncan: Your research shows that for many employees the worst part of their workday is time spent with their manager. (Ouch!) Yet managers seem to be a key to improving employee wellbeing. What can organizations do to equip managers to become highly effective coaches?

Harter: Gallup has found that the transition from boss to coach happens best through a journey, where managers are taught the science-based fundamentals of strengths, engagement, and performance management, accompanied by on-the-job practice and collaboration with other managers. Once managers advance in their journey, they are equipped to leverage the innate strengths of each person they manage to thrive in the five elements of wellbeing—career, financial, social, physical, and community.

Duncan: What can managers do to deal with their own wellbeing issues in ways that improve their performance as leaders?

Harter: First, they can evaluate where they are at on each of the five wellbeing elements. Unfortunately, managers report more stress and burnout than those they manage. It is hard to lead a resilient and thriving team when you are struggling or suffering.

Here are a few questions managers can ask themselves:

  • What gives me the most energy and connects to my organization’s mission or purpose?
  • What can I do to show others that I appreciate them today?
  • What can I do today that will have a positive influence on my long-term financial goals?
  • What can I provide my team as resources for improving financial security?
  • What is in common on the days when I have the most physical and mental energy?
  • How can my community get better? What can our team and I help change?

Duncan: You write about “net thriving culture.” What exactly is that?

Harter: A net thriving culture is one in which, in the aggregate, an abundance of employees score a 7 or higher rating on “best life present” 8 or higher rating on “best life future,” on the Best Life Possible scale. A net thriving culture gives organizations and their employees resilience.

Duncan: What are the keys to increasing clarity and purpose in an organization’s culture?

Harter: Only 22% of U.S. employees strongly agree that their company’s leaders have a clear direction for the organization. Workers Gallup surveyed in France, Germany, Spain and the U.K. in 2020 also report low percentages of strong agreement with this item. Some keys to improving clarity and purpose:

  • Clarify your purpose and brand. In the workplace of the future, your employment brand will be more important than ever. The new workforce expects their employer to improve their overall lives, not just give them a job. This starts with the stated mission from your CEO and board members that your organization can have more impact on your customers and society if all your employees have the opportunity to improve their lives.
  • Make sure your managers are thriving. Research findings suggest a contagion effect—when a manager is thriving in wellbeing, their direct reports are 15% more likely to have thriving wellbeing. It’s much easier for everyone to pull in the same direction when the team is thriving and inspired to reach a collective goal.
  • Reposition your managers as coaches. When managers are taught coaching skills — which include collaborative goal setting, ongoing feedback and accountability — they will develop high levels of trust with their employees. Collaborative goal setting between managers and employees – in which employees feel ownership – is particularly crucial to increasing clarity and

Duncan: In organizations where wellbeing is most robust, what have you seen as best practices?

Harter: A number of things come to mind—

  • Use the five elements of wellbeing as a science-based organizing structure for your benefits and wellbeing programs and offerings. When you have a wellbeing initiative, align it with at least one of the five elements. Clearly communicate how it builds net thriving and reduces struggling or suffering.
  • Know that wellbeing initiatives that come from the CEO’s office work best. One of the most effective ways to improve wellbeing is to be surrounded by people who are making good choices. In an organization, it starts at the top. People often adopt wellbeing practices through social contagion, where peers learn from each other and their leaders and live the expected norms.
  • Equip managers to include wellbeing as part of performance management. “Your wellbeing” should be an essential component of employee reviews. And employee development plans should include wellbeing goals.
  • Develop a network of wellbeing coaches who collect and share best practices.
  • Audit your practices and policies. Organizations should hold every benefit or practice accountable for its usefulness and impact, including rules and guidelines, communication, facilities, incentives, recognition, events, and development.

Duncan: What often gets in the way of building a net thriving culture in organizations?  What are the barriers?

Harter: A big step in building a net thriving culture is to avoid the four biggest risks—

  • employee mental health: Emotional health issues can have many causes, including predisposed traits. But the quality of the workplace is one factor leaders can
  • lack of clarity and purpose: Most organizations have well-intended purpose or values statements. And yet only 27% of employees strongly believe in their company’s values. Clear purpose typically stars with trust in leadership, which is largely driven by local managers.
  • overreliance on policies, programs and perks: Every organization needs policies standards and guidelines for how work gets done. But Gallup research has shown that the impact of nearly any policy, program, or perk will depend highly on the quality of the work environment—how engaged the employees are in their work and workplace.
  • poorly skilled managers: Bad and demoralizing managers pose the greatest risk to achieving a net thriving culture.