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Survey Report

Leverage social connections to drive employee wellbeing

2019/2020 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey Findings

Health and Benefits|Inclusion and Diversity|Retirement|Talent|Total Rewards|Integrated Wellbeing
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February 26, 2020

Employers are finding other ways to help employees improve their physical, emotional and financial wellbeing. This includes the use of social connections.

Recognition is growing among employers that previous attempts to change health and lifestyle behaviors, through reliance on employees’ self-interests or financial incentives and penalties, have not been as effective as hoped in leading to sustainable behavior change.

As a result, employers are looking to find other ways to motivate and help employees to improve their physical, emotional and financial wellbeing. This includes the use of nudges and social connections to promote change that is meaningful and sustainable.

Our data show a particularly strong two-way relationship between social connections (with co-workers and the wider external community) and health (Figure 19). Individuals in poor health may be less able to participate in activities that develop social connections, while strong bonds with members of a work team or the wider community are likely to be more effective at encouraging an employee to lead a healthy, physically active lifestyle.

Our data show a particularly strong two-way relationship between social connections and health (31% in fair or poor health have a low social connection, 23% medium, 14% high). Individuals living paycheck to paycheck responded: 35% low social connection, 35% medium, 37% high. Highly engaged individuals responded 11% low, 27% medium and 64% high social connection.
Figure 19. The relationship with social connections

Those with strong social connections are clearly healthier and more likely to exercise frequently, more engaged with their job, and suffer fewer days lost at work due to absence and presenteeism.

In contrast, social connections are not strongly correlated with the individual’s current financial state; however, those with strong social connections are more likely to report they are heading in the right direction with their finances.

So while social connections may not fundamentally underpin financial wellbeing, they can provide support in times of trouble or where employees need help.

Additionally, workers with weak social connections are less likely to interact with their employer regarding their health and wellbeing. In particular, they are less likely to participate in workplace fitness activities or seek help from friends, colleagues or managers in the event of stress or depression (Figure 20)

Those who exercise regularly have a high social connection (43%), and 30% of those that participate in fitness and physical activities at work have a high social connection. As a result of the stress, anxiety or depression you or your family members suffered, did you seek support from you manager responses: 28% low, 32% medium, 43% high social connection. As a result of the stress, anxiety or depression you or your family members suffered, did you seek support from your colleagues responses: 25% low, 37% medium, 51% high social connection.
Figure 20. The link between social connections and physical and emotional health

Hence, low social connections can be a key barrier for employers seeking to address physical or emotional health issues within their workforce. And low social connections can be a sign of low employee engagement with employer initiatives to address financial and physical wellbeing (Figure 21).

Financial - Employers should offer tools that provide guidance on how employees can improve their financial situation: low 34%, medium 50%, high 68% social connections.

Financial - I would trust tools provided by my employer more than tools I can find online: 22% low, 38% medium, 60% high. 

Physical health - Employers should actively encourage their employees to live healthy lifestyles: 54% low, 69% medium, 83% high.
Figure 21. Social connections and the employer – use of ER services and whether want ERs to take a role

For employers, encouraging social connections, either through affinity groups or company forums, and fostering an inclusive culture that supports such participation, is potentially a key new lever to improve employee engagement in benefits programs and enhance employee wellbeing – physical, emotional, social and financial.

Building social connections can help support employee wellbeing but can also play part of a broader desire to ensure employees feel supported, respected and treated with dignity as part of their jobs. Increasingly employers see this an important priority for the employment deal and important to their business success (see below).


Building a culture of dignity

Evidence from the U.S.

Workplace dignity is a key component of a healthy work environment. A culture of dignity promotes self-respect, pride and self-worth, and influences an organization’s ability to foster wellbeing. And employers are realizing that dignity is strongly linked to better business performance. Over 90% of organizations that completed the 2019 Willis Towers Watson Workplace Dignity Survey report that building a culture of dignity is a key business priority over the next three years. Yet, only two-thirds of employees feel they are treated with dignity and respect on the job. This shows there are significant opportunities for employers to improve workplace culture. To bridge this gap, employers must understand the breadth of the challenge and the levers that will help them build a culture of dignity.

Initiatives aimed at building and maintaining such a culture may fall short if approached through too narrow a lens. A broad definition of workplace dignity encompasses three dimensions:

  1. 01

    Dignity at work

    Employees are treated with respect in an environment free from marginalization (e.g., discrimination, harassment, exclusion, bullying). They feel a sense of psychological safety in their ability to be themselves, voice concerns and be heard. Diversity of people and thought are foundational to organizational innovation and growth.

  2. 02

    Dignity in work

    Employees and employers are aligned on values. Employees look for meaning and purpose in their work and understand how work relates to the goals and objectives of the organization. They feel a connection to their work and their team.

  3. 03

    Dignity from work

    Employees feel they are paid what they are worth, are confident in their security to provide for themselves and their dependents, and have the wellbeing to thrive now and in the future.

These dimensions help organizations better understand the range of priorities needed to build and sustain a culture of dignity.

Results from this employee research indicate a number of key facts:

  1. Dignity varies modestly between cohorts. There are opportunities to address lower levels of dignity among specific cohorts such as those who are disabled, LGBTQ+ and employees in manual jobs.
  2. Each of the components of dignity have an incremental impact on the culture of dignity and improved employee wellbeing. Employees with higher levels of dignity are more engaged around their health and exhibit good health behaviors, manage their finances more carefully, are more optimistic about the future and are more open to their employers’ actions to help support their pursuits around wellbeing.
  3. A culture of dignity is linked to higher work engagement, lower stress, better health, fewer financial issues and ultimately higher productivity and improved employee and company performance.

With an understanding of the key dimensions of dignity in, at and from work, employers can begin to set priorities and shape strategies to overcome the key barriers to workplace dignity, including abuse of power, discrimination, bullying and harassment. Greater leadership support and accountability, targeted training and communication, reskilling and the right metrics can enable employers to build a culture of dignity. In turn, employees who feel respected and empowered are less likely to leave, and more likely to be productive and contribute to better organizational performance.

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