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Work and Well-being: Can you have it all? A question for employees and employers alike

13 December, 2019

Employee health and well-being often are treated synonymously with work/life balance and flexibility, with the ultimate question: “can you have it all?” In these conversations, the “you” -- typically the employee -- strives for balance, weighs priorities, and ultimately makes decisions (and often, sacrifices) about the most important aspects of work and personal life.

But what about the same question from the employer perspective: can an organization have it all? Increasingly, companies realize that health and wellness matters to their employees, and that in order to stay relevant and competitive, they need to address this aspect of employees’ lives and demonstrate an alignment on these values.

Over the last several years employers have been supporting the belief that healthier employees are better employees - they are more engaged, more present, more productive, and more willing/able to go above and beyond. It stands to reason that an increased emphasis on this area should be mutually beneficial, with healthier employees reaping the rewards of increased personal well-being, while serving their organizations more effectively.

Research points to two key areas most associated with employees who feel they are able to balance a healthy lifestyle with success at work - flexibility (healthy lifestyle) and career development/opportunities (success at work).

Data from PwC’s Annual Employee Landscape Study, which surveyed over 7,500 full-time employees across industries and regions, indicates that only 58% of employees agree that it is possible to have a healthy lifestyle and be successful at their job. When it is present, several organizational factors contribute to this balance, including:

  • Having leaders who are considerate of their employees’ life outside of work
  • Feeling trusted to use flexibility options without compromising the quality of work
  • Believing that career goals are taken into consideration when staffing decisions are made
  • Being supported in identifying and being identified for development opportunities

In other words, feeling that one can have a healthy lifestyle and be successful at work doesn’t just happen. There is active focus by the leaders and the organization to provide support for both.

Despite widespread agreement about its benefits, why does “healthy lifestyle” remain such a challenging concept for organizations and managers to address? One issue is some ambiguity as to what constitutes “healthy,” and the extent to which it is the employer’s place to play a role. Historically, health-related efforts in the workplace focused largely on physical health - subsidized gym memberships, free fitness classes on site, information on healthy eating, and weight loss challenges.

The conversations evolved from a physical well-being focus into the intersection of work and well-being centered around work/life balance, or the goal of balancing time devoted to work and time devoted to other aspects of life such as family, hobbies, and social activities. However, with the rise of technology and the increased difficulty of drawing clear lines between “work” and “life,” this conversation, somewhat controversially, has shifted to the idea of work/life integration - the goal of creating more synergies between aspects of work and life, rather than aiming to strike a perfect balance between the two.

An overlay to both these concepts is the idea of flexibility, generally used to refer to the ability to get work done anywhere and at any time, as contrasted with needing to be at a desk at the office between certain hours to be effective at a job.

On the one hand, some corporations have been praised for their increasingly flexible nature - working parents can be present for dinner and bedtime routines and get back to work later, those with caregiving responsibilities can attend appointments with loved ones guilt-free, and aspiring athletes can train for marathons while fulfilling full-time work responsibilities at hours that fit their training schedules.

On the other hand, “flexibility” is increasingly criticized for its contribution to the encroachment of work on every aspect of employees’ lives. The more we are able to work anywhere/anytime, the more we are expected to work anywhere/anytime, creating the “always on” work week.

Although debate over the best approach to work/life balance and flexibility remains (and therefore the question of whether everyone can have it all), the conversation on work and well-being has gone a step further as companies are now taking active measures to understand, participate in, and contribute to employee health and engagement.

Furthermore, the world has shifted towards more awareness and acknowledgement of mental health issues (and reducing the stigma traditionally associated with them), and now employers are beginning to follow suit. PwC’s “Be Well, Work Well” effort, for instance, focuses on four aspects of employee health - physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. As the appetite for support in these other areas has increased, organizations must meet the demand while grappling with the challenge of delineating the employer’s place in what often is considered a very personal aspect of people’s lives.

In our work with clients on their employee survey programs, some clarity can be found by having measures that help define what “healthy lifestyle” means to employees. Additional measures in the survey can then be used to provide deeper understanding on what the organization can do to support this and drive overall performance at the same time. In short, ensuring that wellness efforts are focused on the right things and having the desired impact.

As employees continue to ask themselves “can I have it all?”, so too should organizational leaders. The choices they make about if and how to play a role in their employees’ efforts toward a healthy lifestyle might mean the difference between the status quo and a workforce that is agile, driven, loyal, and engaged.


Jeffrey Jolton, Ph.D

Director, PwC US