Work often works against well-being. What can C-suite leaders do about it?
There’s no question that well-being is at the top of the C-suite agenda right now. While the pandemic brought worker safety into the spotlight, there’s also been an increased focus on the overall poor state of workforce well-being and the role that organizations play in determining quality of life for employees and their families.
In fact, most companies now recognize the need to invest more in the holistic health of their employees, because it’s clear that workers are fed up—with outdated norms like the nine-to-five schedule, the expectation that they should be “always on,” substandard wages and benefits, and the idea that they should be willing to sacrifice their health and their personal lives for their job.
C-suite executives themselves are not immune. Although far less attention has been paid to well-being among the C-suite—how they’re faring, the increased demands placed upon them, and whether these factors are influencing their desire to stay in their leadership roles—some recent research points to increasing quit rates among executives.
And as we’ve seen with the Great Resignation, many people are no longer willing to tolerate jobs that leave them unhappy and in a constant state of stress and fatigue. Indeed, there’s been a notable power shift over the past few years, with workers demanding more from their employers than ever before and companies scrambling to adapt their employee value proposition to avoid a looming talent shortage.
How can C-suite leaders improve both their employees’ and their own well-being? To understand these issues and trends better, Deloitte partnered with independent research firm Workplace Intelligence to survey 2,100 employees and C-level executives across four countries: the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. The survey results revealed eye-opening findings, including that nearly 70% of the C-suite are seriously considering quitting for a job that better supports their well-being.
In fact, we uncovered that both employees and the C-suite are struggling to prioritize their well-being—and for most people, work is to blame. However, executives are significantly overestimating how well their employees are doing and how supported they feel by their leaders. And there are other disconnects as well, indicating that the C-suite should be doing much more to understand the needs of their workers and demonstrate that they truly care about their holistic well-being.
Fortunately, our research confirmed that health-savvy executives have the ability to turn things around and reimagine well-being for themselves and their people. But it won’t be easy, and they should consider relying on other leaders and health experts to help chart a new path forward for well-being at work.
It’s well known that the pandemic has had a negative impact on our collective mental as well as physical health. Well-being may now be at an all-time low among both the C-suite and rank-and-file employees: In our research, more than three-quarters of the C-suite (76%) said that the pandemic has negatively affected their well-being, and fewer than two out of three employees rated various dimensions of their health as “excellent” or “good” (figure 1).
Moreover, a substantial proportion of both groups reported experiencing fatigue and a variety of mental health issues (figure 2), with C-suite executives identifying most of these issues just as frequently (or in some cases more often) as employees—proving that well-being, or the lack of it, does not discriminate by rank.
However, despite struggling with well-being themselves, it’s clear that the C-suite doesn’t appreciate the extent to which their employees feel the same way. In contrast with what employees reported, more than eight out of 10 global executives believe their people are thriving in all aspects of their well-being (figure 1).
Many employees don’t feel that their executives have been supportive during the pandemic—but the C-suite sees things much differently. For example, only 47% of workers believe their executives understand how difficult the pandemic has been for them, yet 90% of the C-suite say they do recognize how challenging it’s been. Similarly, while only 53% of employees feel that their company’s executives have been making the best decisions for their well-being during the pandemic, 88% of the C-suite believe their decision-making has been exemplary.
Perhaps most alarmingly, we discovered that only 56% of employees think that their company’s executives care about their well-being. However, the C-suite sees things in a much different light: Ninety-one percent believe that employees feel their leaders care about them. It’s a notable gap, one that the C-suite must work to address.
Only 56% of employees think their company’s executives care about their well-being, while 91% of the C-suite think their employees believe they care about it.
Despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic—or even partly because of them—people across the globe are laser-focused on their health in 2022. The vast majority of respondents (91%) have goals for their well-being, and 75% of employees and 89% of the C-suite say that improving their well-being is a top priority for them this year. Most people noted that right now, this is more important to them than progressing their career!
Sixty-eight percent of employees and 81% of the C-suite say that improving their well-being is more important than advancing their career.
Although respondents are motivated to improve their well-being, the path forward won’t be easy. Most employees (83%) and executives (74%) say they’re facing obstacles when it comes to achieving their well-being goals—and these are largely tied to their job. In fact, the top two hurdles that people cited were a heavy workload or stressful job (30%), and not having enough time because of long work hours (27%).
To further explore the link between work and well-being, we asked respondents to indicate how often they’re able to engage in healthy habits and behaviors (figure 3). While some of these practices are not directly tied to work, in today’s increasingly remote workplace there’s much more overlap between people’s personal and professional lives and the boundaries here continue to blur.
The results revealed that although executives are better off than their employees, both groups are finding it difficult to make time for their well-being. For example, only around half of employees and two-thirds of the C-suite use all of their vacation time, take microbreaks during the day, get enough sleep, and have enough time for friends and family.
Overall, 63% of employees and 73% of the C-suite reported that they aren’t able to take time off and disconnect. When asked why, respondents said that they have too much work to do (24%), they want people to know they’re dedicated to their job (22%), and no one would be able to cover for them while they’re away (22%). One out of four executives said they don’t disconnect because their workload would be unmanageable when they return (25%) and they’re afraid they would miss out on important messages or emails (24%).
In one respect, the C-suite does enjoy an advantage over employees: in the way that work affects their physical, mental, and social health. Not surprisingly, 91% of employees and 97% of the C-suite say their job plays a role in determining their well-being, but whether this is a positive or negative effect differs significantly between these two groups. Perhaps also not surprisingly, employees were far less likely than the C-suite to say their job is beneficial for their well-being (figure 4).
But even though the C-suite executives were more positive about their job’s role in their well-being, they were more likely than employees to say they’d leave their role for a job that better supports their well-being. While 57% of employees are seriously considering quitting for a more supportive job, nearly seven out of 10 executives are thinking about taking this leap (figure 5).
One reason for the difference may be that compared to employees, executives are often in a stronger financial position that affords them the ability to seek out new career opportunities at their own pace. And as our research uncovered, many may soon choose to do so. It’s a stark reminder that the C-suite is not immune to the Great Resignation.
Regardless of whether C-suite executives recognize the full extent of employees’ well-being issues, most are taking ownership of workforce well-being. In fact, the vast majority of the C-suite (95%) agree that executives should be responsible for employees’ well-being, and 96% already feel responsible in their current roles. Over the next one to two years, 83% say they’ll become more responsible. But feeling responsible for well-being isn’t the same as actually taking accountability—and that’s where health-savvy leadership comes in.
The health-savvy executive appreciates that decisions relating to well-being can have a significant impact on the culture of the organization, the way in which work gets done, and the people and places beyond the organization’s four walls. These executives are finding ways to lead their organizations through extreme complexity and uncertainty, protect and support their workers’ and stakeholders’ well-being, and bolster strategic outcomes in the process.
In our survey, 77% of employees and 94% of the C-suite agreed that it’s important for executives to be health-savvy. Nearly nine out of 10 leaders are already taking action, for example by defining their executive ambition around health (88%), designing their personal learning strategy around matters of health (87%), leveraging their organization’s understanding of workforce drivers of health (87%), and ensuring a systemic approach around health (86%).
It's no surprise, then, that 81% of the C-suite described themselves as health-savvy. However, 68% also admitted that they’re not taking enough action to safeguard employee and stakeholder health. And since only 31% of employees agreed that their executives are health-savvy, it’s evident that they also believe these leaders should be taking greater initiative when it comes to matters of health.
Let’s take a look at where they should begin.
Sixty-eight percent of the C-suite admit that they aren’t taking enough action to safeguard employee and stakeholder health.
Translating the concept of health-savvy leadership into concrete actions certainly isn’t easy, but it’s what today’s workers are demanding. Not surprisingly, many executives are starting with benefits: Eighty-three percent say that over the next one to two years, they’ll improve or expand their organization’s well-being benefits. It’s a smart move since only 61% of workers are satisfied with their company’s current offerings.
But employees want more than just a health promotion program or a wellness stipend. In fact, we found that most workers expect their organization to challenge societal norms, support their holistic health, and be more future-oriented than ever before. This is a tall order, however, and it’s clear that some companies are lagging behind (figure 6).
We also uncovered that only 56% of employees say their company helps them incorporate well-being into the flow of their daily work and activities, and a similarly low number feel that their company does a good job of embedding well-being into the workplace culture (59%) and their job (55%).
Less than six out of 10 employees say their company embeds well-being into the workplace culture and people’s jobs.
To understand whether the C-suite is attempting to promote a culture of well-being, we asked if they’ve taken any steps (including several drastic measures) to encourage their staff to take more time off or disconnect more frequently. Fewer than four out of 10 executives said they’ve put the following practices in place at their organization, so it’s clear that while some organizations are moving in the right direction, these efforts may not be enough:
It’s helpful that the C-suite is taking greater ownership and action around matters of health, but there’s also a compelling need for these leaders to be more transparent with their workforce. People at all levels of an organization need to feel they can be open about their well-being, especially as it relates to their work. And whether or not they recognize this, the C-suite sets the example for everyone else.
To understand the global culture around transparency better, we asked employees and executives to reflect on their openness around matters of health. Only one-third of workers (33%) say they “always” or “often” share information about well-being with their managers—for example, how they’re feeling, if they’re struggling with their well-being, or if they’ve set any personal wellness goals.
But there’s even less transparency coming from the C-suite, with only 22% of employees reporting that their executives share information about their well-being with them. Again, there’s a large disconnect between executives’ and employees’ perceptions: Seventy-three percent of the C-suite say they do share this information with their people! If they are, it’s clear that employees aren’t seeing these efforts, or they’re getting lost in today’s information-overloaded workplace.
Seventy-three percent of the C-suite say they’re transparent about their well-being, but only 22% of employees agree.
Fortunately, the vast majority of the C-suite (84%) are taking steps to be more transparent, like holding forums or discussions with employees, managers, and other executives (54%). And 84% agree that when executives are healthy, their workers are more likely to be healthy too—a sentiment that was validated by other key survey findings. We discovered that among employees whose executives are transparent, 72% reported above-average well-being, versus only 57% of those whose executives are not transparent.
But in order to optimize these outcomes, C-suite leaders will need to do more than just boost their transparency. They’ll also need to be aware of and empathetic to their workforce’s level of resources and access, so their own stories will resonate with their teams and be accessible.
Furthermore, leaders should recognize that greater C-suite transparency doesn’t just benefit employees; it can also encourage other executives to prioritize their health. The vast majority of C-suite respondents say that it’s important for them to see other leaders taking care of their well-being (84%) and that seeing this would motivate them to improve their own well-being (82%).
Organizational transparency around workforce well-being is also growing in importance: 55% of employees and 77% of executives believe companies should be required to publicly report their workforce well-being metrics.
Given evolving employee expectations and the clear benefits of prioritizing well-being at work, why is it that 68% of the C-suite aren’t taking enough action around employee and stakeholder health? Executives reported several key reasons: Twenty percent are overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, 18% don’t feel qualified to take ownership of these areas, and some don’t have enough funding (17%) or support from other executives (16%).
Nearly eight out of 10 leaders also highlighted that the expanded focus on health has personally affected them, with respondents reporting both positive and negative outcomes (figure 7). While one out of five feels that it’s made their job more difficult and it’s worsened their well-being, a significantly higher percentage believe that this shift has benefitted them personally and professionally.
To make more progress in this area, 86% of executives say they’d welcome some type of support. Nearly half (48%) would like an executive training program focused on matters of health, 44% would benefit from seeing other executives prioritize matters of health, and 40% need more support from health experts within their company (e.g., a CHO).
The #no. 1 tool that would help the C-suite is an executive training program focused on matters of health.
While all C-level decision-makers need to reexamine their approach to workforce well-being, our survey revealed that in many areas Gen Z and millennial executives are leading the charge. They were significantly more likely than their older counterparts to report that they’re prioritizing well-being and work-life balance for themselves and their people, and they were also more likely to say that they’re transparent with their workforce (figure 8).
Leaders who belong to Gen X or Baby Boomer generations should take note of these differences and reflect on whether they could be doing more. It’s clear that some aren’t setting the right example for their workforce, they’re not focused on their own well-being, and they may not be taking the necessary steps to attract and retain talent.
Even though well-being is a top priority for workers and executives, few companies have attempted to address the underlying cultural issues that can affect well-being at work. It’s true that many executives are taking action around matters of health, but 68% admit they’re not doing enough, and many don’t recognize how much their people are struggling.
But the time for action is now since the requirements around this will only continue to grow as empowered workers demand more from their employers. In fact, the long-term success of many organizations may depend on whether they can rise to the challenge of addressing workforce well-being, given that 57% of employees said they may soon quit for a more supportive job.
The journey to health-savvy leadership certainly won’t be easy. However, it’s not just workers that will benefit—executives also stand to gain a lot by embracing this new reality. Not only can they become better and more purpose-driven leaders, but they may discover that they’re finally able to prioritize their own well-being. It’s a critical shift that could help them stay the course in their role and become steadfast ambassadors of a better tomorrow.
Research findings are based on a survey conducted by Deloitte and Workplace Intelligence in four countries: the United States (57% of respondents), United Kingdom (14%), Canada (14%), and Australia (14%). The survey was fielded between February 8 and February 21, 2022, and it targeted executives and employees who were working full-time and between 18 and 76 years of age. In total, 2,100 people were surveyed: 1,050 C-suite leaders and 1,050 employees.
Respondents were invited to take part via email and were provided with a small monetary incentive for doing so. All panelists had passed a double opt-in process and completed on average 300 profiling data points prior to taking part in this survey.
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