The Reciprocal Relationship Between Well-Being and Productivity


Nikki Taggart is a work and organisational psychologist. She helps organisations look after their people in order to make them experience better well-being and more productivity.

In the video on this page she talks about the reciprocal relationship between well-being and productivity, what happens if workplace stress goes unmanaged, and the three levels of intervention. She concludes with the role APeopleBusiness proprietary tool StressFactor plays in helping organisations get their team structures,  people processes and culture right.

You can watch the video above, or if you prefer to read, need to use a browser translation program, or would like to print out the talk for your own reference, we have provided an edited transcript below.

The reciprocal relationship between well-being and productivity

There’s a really lovely reciprocal relationship between well-being and productivity. We know that if you work on an organisation’s productivity levels, doing that in the right approach, will often boost their well-being levels.

I’m sure many of you can relate to the fact that we do feel better when we are being productive, when we’re checking off that to-do list, and achieving incremental progress towards the goals that we are working towards.

On the other hand, if an organisation prioritises well-being, in particular psychological mental well-being, that organisation will enjoy boosted levels of productivity as well. So, it’s an absolute win-win. The business case for well-being in the workplace is very sound and very robust. And of course, you all have an interest in that because you’re reading this.

I’m going to give you my thoughts on the question ‘is prevention better than cure’.

I thought that James (of CERN ) pointed out a really good comparison between how he’d much rather have the vaccine for Covid-19, than experience Covid in order to be cured from it.  I hadn’t thought of that despite hearing about vaccinations everyday on the news for the last three months.

Imagine what happens if workplace stress goes unmanaged …

workplace stress unmanaged

There are many bad side effects as you can probably expect. These are:

  • Productivity goes down.
  • Performance goes down whenever workplace stress is unmanaged.
  • Well-being goes down.
  • Employee engagement goes down.
  • Physical health can go down as well.

We often associate stress, or think about stress, as an unpleasant feeling. But it also has really severe physiological consequences which can emerge in different ways for different individuals.

Here is a sobering statistic:

“chronic stress at work is more damaging to physiological health than exposure to second-hand smoke”

Back in the early 2000’s when the news broke in the medical journals that second-hand smoke was a cause of cancer and it was seriously detrimental to our health, governments scrambled quickly to implement new policies to change things about the way we consider smoking in society.  Many policies and rules were brought in at the societal level in terms of no-smoking in indoor public places, no smoking in outdoor public places, smoke free campuses, etc.  As a culture in many countries that has been adapted to because we really understand the implications and the risks from exposure to second-hand smoke.

Therefore, it’s quite shocking to think about the risks of workplace stress are actually worse for our health than exposure to second-hand smoke. Yet we’re still waiting for the policies to come from the government, or other bodies, to help organisations or make organisations address workplace stress. So just an interesting point to kick off with, but something that absolutely needs to be considered and remembered when you are working on your workplace wellness strategies.

Levels of intervention

I’m going to talk about levels of intervention, as this was the best way to answer the question ‘is prevention better than cure?’

Levels of intvention chart

Tertiary interventions:

This is when an organization works to implement third level interventions. These can include:

  • Mental health first aid.
  • Employee Assistance Program.
  • Smoking cessation.
  • Any type of physical activity initiatives.

These are all beneficial, but they do fall under treatment rehab, or recovery way of making an intervention. They are definitely helpful; if you’re doing them keep doing them, but they should not be looked at as a standalone part of your approach to well-being.

Often many organisations tick a box, they present their shop window very nicely with some mental health first aid – it’s valuable, it’s important, but in no way is it getting to the root cause of the problem.

Secondary layer of intervention:

We can move forward to the secondary layer of intervention. This is when you look to upskill your workforce. It’s very helpful, really good in terms of equipping an organisation with resilience skills, with stress management skills, and with mindfulness, for example.

I’ll talk about emotional intelligence shortly, but it does fit in to that primary level of intervention. You’re doing okay if you’re approaching your intervention with this tertiary level. You’re doing a little bit better if many of your initiatives are at that secondary level when you are looking to upskill your workforce. But you’re not getting to the root of your problem.

You may even get employees questioning approaches to interventions by saying: “well okay, that’s kind of you to help me deal with my stress, but why do you keep giving me this stress?”

If you look at the root of the problem, then maybe answer that and get some real change started. But you can only make changes if you know what you’re dealing with; you need to measure in order to manage different situations.

Coming back to the primary level which is the absolute vital level to get right when it comes to your interventions regarding workplace well-being. It’s about your:

  • Organizational design.
  • Your team structures.
  • Your people processes.
  • The culture in which your organisation operates.
  • and critically your leadership behaviours.

Organisational design is going to be a really interesting going forward. It’s likely that we’re about to go into a significant recession as a result of the economic shutdowns of Covid-19. In times like this we often get downsizing, and teams have to deliver the same amount of work, perhaps with one or two less people. That is only going to boost the stress levels of particular teams, divisions and organisations when the workload increases, but the resources decrease.

In which case you might get some engagement in resilience training or stress management training, but you’re not going to get the most out of it because you still haven’t gotten to the root of the problem.

when it comes to leadership behaviours this is really vital, and a lot of people, especially with the shift to teleworking that took place in two weeks. I should note a shift like that in at any organisation would usually take about two, to two and a half years to happen. We’ve all delivered it in pretty much two weeks in the midst of a global pandemic, border shutdowns, and global panic.

While that can be celebrated for agility, a lot of boxes will be left unticked, and a lot of areas will have been smoothed over and not properly addressed. So now is a brilliant time for you to do some root cause analysis to see what’s going on in your organisation, so that you can design a targeted strategy to improve well-being within your organisation, leading to improved levels of productivity and performance within your organisation.

Employers can introduce a suite of exemplary well-being policies and make a serious investment in employee health, but If their activity is not rooted in how people are managed, a supportive and inclusive culture and committed leadership, it will not have real impact.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, CBE President of the CIPD

You can introduce a suite of amazing well-being policies, and it can cost the world.  If you’ve got the biggest budget you can do whatever you want. But if you don’t root that activity in how people are managed, you’ll never get that supportive, inclusive culture that’s committed to well-being.  And your initiatives that you spend loads of on won’t have real impact, unless you address that leadership perspective.

Employee life cycle

Buliding organizational wellbeing

Paul Finch mentioned an ‘injection of emotional intelligence will help’ and it absolutely will, especially in terms of remote leadership. What we need is emotional intelligence, they say that about 35% of leaders have enough, and they’re well suited for remote leadership. 55% don’t have enough, but they can be trained. The other 10% will need a good bit of motivation to embrace the training and make some changes.

Remember, a lot of individuals are promoted for technical skills into management positions rather than for their people management skills. In these cases you really can look at boosting the emotional intelligence levels of your management workforce to help make a difference at that root cause, to really help you get the most out of the other initiatives that you put in place, those secondary and tertiary initiatives regarding your well-being strategy.

You can recruit for emotional intelligence. You can use it as one aspect of a bigger recruitment matrix using a psychometric test such as THE EQI-2.0. Involve it in your onboarding, involve well-being in your onboarding content.

Learning and development should be a continuous approach.  We have to recognise and celebrate those managers that exhibit the right leadership behaviours to drive well-being, to reduce stress levels, and to make work life as easy as it possibly can be for employees.

If you go back to the primary level of intervention, you have to get these things right before you can go on to the leadership development. Really have a look at your organisational design. It seems hard, it’s not the easy option, but if you do that’s where you’re going to set the stage for further success for everything else that you do from there.

Make sure your team structures are right, and looking at those people processes, and ultimately the culture.  You can do that by using a product like APeopleBusiness StressFactor™.  By generating heat maps you can identify what’s going on, and where.  I’d make a really informed conclusion by layering in the personality perspectives of the those that answered the survey as well.

Summing up

The closing message is get to the root cause. From there you can grow and develop your well-being strategy.

It’s going to be a moving piece of work. What you need to do at several points in your well-being plan, be that at the end of year one, year two and year three is measure. Re-measure as well, so you’re always monitoring your progress and adapting and reacting so that you can best serve your people. Because ultimately, it’s your people who are serving your customers, no matter what industry you work in.