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Let’s be brutally honest: Would you stick with your company if it failed to prioritize your wellbeing? You’re not alone if the answer is a resounding “no.” Workers are sending a clear message to the corporate world — wellbeing is non-negotiable. Forget the antiquated notion that a hefty paycheck is the ultimate carrot on the stick. The data is in, and it’s irrefutable: workers really care about their wellbeing and flexibility, and corporations better listen if they want to win the talent wars.
Workers are working less voluntarily
The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis recently released a paper that delves into why the U.S. labor market has tightened post-pandemic. It focuses on two prongs of this phenomenon: The declining number of workers and the receding number of hours those workers are willing to commit to their jobs.
In the realm of academic endeavors, one line from this paper feels like a bombshell: “Circumstantial and direct evidence indicates that the hours reduction among workers [from 2019 to 2022] is voluntary. In addition, although the reduction may have been caused by the pandemic situation, it is expected to persist.” This is not a fleeting, reactionary change. Rather, it’s an enduring shift in worker behavior and priorities, revealing a collective reassessment of what’s truly valuable in life.
This shift is most pronounced among men, particularly those with college degrees and those in their main working years. It signals that the individuals who traditionally occupied power seats in the corporate world are stepping back, reassessing their options, and consciously opting for a reality that allows them to live fuller lives outside their cubicles. And here’s where it gets interesting: It’s those men who were already logging in more hours and earning more who have chosen to pull back the most. What does that tell us? These are not decisions of necessity but are based on the realization of an unspoken need for balance, wellness and, dare we say it, happiness.
What was merely a hunch or a buzzword in corporate seminars is now backed by empirical evidence: Workers are not just saying they desire more from life than work — they are manifesting these desires through tangible actions. This act of self-determination is altering the landscape of labor availability, making this a two-edged sword. On one hand, we are moving toward a more balanced and humane concept of work; on the other, it brings about challenges of labor shortages that cannot be ignored.
In the corporate arena, this leads to a potentially seismic shift. If you are a business leader failing to account for this fundamental transformation in worker attitudes, prepare for a rude awakening. Worker wellbeing is no longer a “nice-to-have,” it’s a “must-have” if you hope to attract and retain the top-tier talent needed to fuel innovation and growth in an increasingly competitive market.
This paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis doesn’t merely add an interesting viewpoint to the dialogue about the future of work. It serves as a clarion call for the immediate reevaluation of long-held assumptions about what motivates people to commit their time and energy to an organization. The time to act is now because, as the Fed suggests, this is not a temporary phenomenon; it’s a deeply rooted, long-lasting transformation that is expected to endure. Ignore it at your own peril.
Related: Workers Are Disengaged. Here’s How Employers Can Win Them Back.
The numbers don’t lie
Gympass’ annual State of Work-Life Wellness Report this October has gifted us some startling figures from a survey of over 5,000 global employees that reinforce the Fed’s findings. A whopping 87% said they would consider jumping ship from a company that disregards employee wellbeing, a notable increase from 77% just a year ago. Moreover, 93% equate wellbeing with salary in terms of importance, up 10 points from last year’s 83%. The clincher? An overwhelming 96% will consider only those companies that give prime importance to employee wellbeing for their next job hunt.
When it comes to wellbeing and the workplace, there’s a myth that has long been shattered: One size fits all. In reality, our surroundings wield considerable influence on our emotional and psychological states.
Employees operating in work environments that don’t resonate with their preferences for flexibility — such as remote-capable workers forced to do in-office work due to a top-down mandate against their will — are not just mildly inconvenienced: many are categorically struggling. According to Gympass, workers who find themselves in such discordant settings are twice as likely to describe their condition as “struggling” or “really struggling” than those fortunate enough to be in their ideal work environments. Let’s pause to consider the weight of that statement. It means that a vast swath of employees are grappling with a work setup that not only affects their daily satisfaction but potentially curtails their longer-term mental wellbeing.
But the report doesn’t stop there; it draws a stark picture of how drastically our sense of wellbeing can be impacted. While 77% of employees working in their preferred flexible environments feel equipped to take care of their wellbeing, this percentage nosedives to a startling 65% for those who don’t have the luxury of such alignment. That 12% differential isn’t merely statistical noise; it’s the loud cry of an unsatisfied and disengaged workforce. And more than a third of employees wish they worked in a different work environment that aligns with their preference.
Let’s call it what it is: this is a seismic shift in employee expectations. Flexible work arrangements are no longer just attractive benefits to be dangled in front of potential hires. They have transitioned into non-negotiable components of an employment package. Why is this so vital? Because of the nexus between flexibility and wellbeing underpinning workplace satisfaction, engagement, and productivity.
And herein lies the vulnerability to cognitive biases that can hamstring effective decision-making. One major obstacle is the status quo bias, an innate preference for keeping things the way they are. Business leaders clinging to conventional work arrangements risk not just falling out of step with current trends but also substantially diminishing their appeal to top talent. Another cognitive trap is the empathy gap, wherein decision-makers underestimate the emotional needs and responses of others—particularly their employees. This bias could lead to underestimating just how essential flexibility is to staff wellbeing.
Related: Back In The Office? Why Your Company’s One-Size-Fits-All Approach Is Destined to Fail.
Strategies for a wellbeing-centric, flexible work ecosystem
Many corporate leaders are acutely aware of the shifting sands but often stumble when it comes to implementing concrete measures. In my consultancy, Disaster Avoidance Experts, I’ve honed in on specific strategies that businesses can adopt to make a tangible difference. The confluence of wellbeing and work flexibility is more than a passing trend; it’s the new cornerstone of sustainable, profitable operations. Here are some action steps that I strongly advocate for when serving clients.
First, it’s time to let go of your traditional “nine-to-five, in-the-office” mindset, a relic that is increasingly at odds with today’s dynamic workforce. For those still clinging to a rigid structure, this might feel like a leap into the abyss. However, the alternative is a debilitating anchoring bias — relying too heavily on the first piece of information encountered (in this case, traditional work models) when making decisions. Shake off this outdated mooring and embrace hybrid and even fully remote work options. Use this as an opportunity to gather data on productivity, engagement and wellbeing, adjusting your course as needed.
Second, pivot to a team-led model for flexibility, where collective decision-making takes precedence over a one-size-fits-all approach. Allow teams to collaboratively determine their work environment — be it remote, in-office or hybrid. This not only fosters a sense of ownership and engagement but also optimizes the unique strengths and requirements of each team. Teams can decide when face-to-face interactions are most beneficial for creative brainstorming or complex problem-solving and when remote work can maximize individual focus and productivity. This approach transcends mere optimization of individual roles; it creates an ecosystem where the team, as a cohesive unit, is empowered to make decisions that maximize its collective effectiveness.
Third, invest substantively in employee wellbeing through targeted financial support. In an era where 93% of employees view their wellbeing as equally important to salary, your investment in wellness programming is more than just an employee perk — it’s a strategic imperative. Consider offering stipends for mental health support, from licensed therapy to mindfulness apps. Subsidize fitness memberships or offer in-house wellness programs ranging from nutrition seminars to stress management workshops. Financially support ongoing education, not just in terms of professional development but also in areas that contribute to general wellbeing, such as financial literacy courses or parenting classes. By dedicating actual dollars to these initiatives, you’re not only enhancing the quality of life for your employees but also setting a cultural tone that prioritizes wellbeing as much as quarterly earnings. After all, when employees feel their wellbeing is taken seriously, they’re more engaged, productive and less likely to seek opportunities elsewhere.
Finally, for those concerned about the economic implications of reduced hours, as highlighted by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, it’s important to recognize that wellbeing and productivity often exist in a symbiotic relationship. My advice? Focus on outcomes rather than hours. Assess performance through deliverables and milestones instead of the antiquated metric of “time spent at the desk.”
These steps are not mere suggestions; consider them a call to action. Given the skyrocketing significance workers are placing on wellbeing and flexibility, executives and decision-makers can no longer afford to be passive bystanders. Your company’s relevance, appeal, and, ultimately its success are bound up in how adeptly you navigate this paradigm shift. It’s a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces, but the picture it forms is unmistakable: a more humane, flexible and productive future of work.
It’s not just about beanbags, free lunches or casual Fridays anymore. The Fed and Gympass data illustrate that wellbeing and flexibility are directly proportional to how engaged, happy and productive employees are. After all, who wants to give their best to a company that treats them as expendable? Your workforce is your most invaluable asset; treat them as such. It is simply illogical to expect top-tier performance from employees who feel neglected and undervalued.