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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Welcoming Wellness


In its most recent annual performance report, the Office of Personnel Management touted the federal government’s renewed commitment to cultivating happy, healthy employees. By the end of fiscal 2011, agencies had kicked off comprehensive wellness programs with the goal of attracting 75 percent participation rates within five years, and OPM had started assessing wellness initiatives to see where there was room for improvement. 

Why should even couch potatoes care about improving and expanding such programs? They lower health care costs, boost worker productivity and make it easier to attract talent, OPM says. 

If the inherent benefits of happy, healthy employees have not yet motivated you to make work-site wellness a priority, then perhaps OPM’s more intense focus on the initiative will give you the push you need. Managers play a crucial role not only in developing and implementing these programs, but also in ensuring they are adopted rather than stigmatized. 

A manager’s reaction to employees’ decisions to spend their lunch breaks at the workplace gym or to take advantage of free screening programs could help determine whether they stay active or leave the benefits unused. The same goes for changes like using a balance ball instead of a desk chair or organizing an office support team for employees who want to quit smoking. Culture has a tremendous impact on the success of wellness initiatives and managers, in turn, have a tremendous influence over culture.

Stress management is another key component of employee wellness, and managers have the power to significantly reduce employees’ anxiety levels.

Organizational psychologists Cary Cooper and Susan Cartwright developed the ASSET Model framework for workplace well-being, now owned by Robertson Cooper Ltd. Employee Wellness Magazine called ASSET “ideal for managers to identify the sources of workplace pressure which they need to actively manage.” It describes six factors that affect workplace happiness: 

- Resources and communication

- Control

- Balanced workload

- Job security and change

- Work relationships 

- Job conditions

While managers do not, of course, have complete control over all these areas, they might have more influence than they think. They can, for example, make sure they base tough decisions on information readily available to their employees so that their choices don’t seem arbitrary. They can allow experienced and insightful employees to get more involved in structuring or planning projects. They can ensure that, even during busy or challenging times, their employees have a reasonable workload aligned with the priorities of the office. 

In addition, managers can handle organizational changes in ways that make employees feel secure. Policy or leadership changes should be well-communicated and employees should be given enough information and training to meet new goals and expectations. 

Fostering employees’ psychological and physical well-being can pay off by heightening their sense of purpose and making them feel better about themselves and their accomplishments. Individual employees will be more productive, motivated, engaged and committed. Your organization is likely to thrive, too, with better attendance, higher retention rates, stronger recruitment records and greater satisfaction with services. 

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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