Study: managerial pay vital to workplace wellness

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Melissa Osgood

Giving a boss a pay bump for boosting the bottom-line is accepted practice by businesses across the country. But what about rewards that tie salary increases to efforts to improve the health of employees?

That sort of financial incentive may prove a popular new way to reward innovative ideas as employees increasingly expect a workplace culture conducive to health and wellness. Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab found that linking as little as 10 percent of annual managerial salary increases to implementing wellness actions – such as installing a water cooler, providing healthy snacks at meetings and talking with employees about health goals – is enough to incentivize meaningful changes from managers in the workplace, results that could have a profound impact on employee health and workplace productivity.

For the study, Cornell researchers asked 270 managers in a range of industries, including business and administrative services, hospitality, tourism, education and healthcare, to compare two fictional companies: one that engages its managers in the promotion of good health and lifestyle choices, and another that does not actively do so. 

Participants expressed strong support for the company taking a lead in workplace health, with 68 percent in favor of being of evaluated for their employee wellness actions. And what’s more, managers conveyed enthusiasm for switching to a company that offered compensation for the implementation of their ideas. The research appears in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

“The modern work environment is no longer just a place where people spend eight hours each day performing their job, but a place where employees want to be inspired to improve professionally but also to grow personally and maintain their health,” says lead author Rebecca Robbins ’09, M.S. ’14, Ph.D. ’15. “Employees want to work for companies they feel have their best health interests at heart. Compensation perks energize wellness actions by giving managers a tangible priority to what now is often nothing more than lip service.”

Making bosses directly accountable for the health of individual employees is of course fraught with potential conflicts, according to Robbins, now a postdoctoral research fellow at the New York University School of Medicine. The trick isn’t to make managers responsible for individual health outcomes, a potentially disturbing structure that could lead to bosses snooping on lunch choices or demanding employees get gym memberships. Instead, financial rewards come by providing opportunities for employees to make the choices that improve wellbeing, such as promoting group exercise, reducing time spent in chairs, helping employees balance work stressors, and engaging in conversation with employees about what they do to maintain good health.

“Instead of focusing on individual wellness outcomes, we propose that it would be more effective if managers were incentivized to create healthier overall work environments with simple, easy-to-implement actions such as installing a water cooler, providing healthy snacks at meetings and encouraging work-life balance,” Robbins says.

The researchers cited prior evidence that employees who have a supervisor they generally considered supportive have lower stress and higher job satisfaction compared to those with less supportive bosses. Managers are in the ideal position to implement small changes than can have outsized health impacts, says co-author Brian Wansink, professor and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“Leadership support is essential in any workplace change, including wellness. Most employee wellness initiatives don’t utilize the power of manager leadership – this strategy is unique in that it really taps into the manager’s ability to lead their team to wellness,” says Wansink.

And incentivizing managers to act, Wansink says, unleashes the creative dynamism that spurs innovation while supporting ongoing healthy habits and lifestyle behaviors among workers.

Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media manager for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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