As enlightened employers look for ways to boost employees' health and well-being, a new kind of corporate culture is emerging, one that recognizes that healthy, happy employees, the kind who balance work with play and who nurture both their professional and personal passions, are more likely to make a company great—and to stick around for the long haul.
The push for a more balanced workplace, says Tom Rath, a researcher who studies workplace well-being for Gallup, is motivated in part by rising health care costs. But it also proves to be a good policy all around. "There is emerging science showing that healthier people with higher well-being are more engaged in their jobs and more productive," says Rath. "And people entering the workforce today want a job that contributes to their life instead of just their pocketbook."
Innovative employers agree. "If you invest in employees' personal growth and journey, they'll be better off themselves, do a better job for the company, and help the organization make a positive difference in the world," says Prudence Sullivan, who directs employee development programs at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Waterbury, Vermont.
A pair of employees roaming the halls on a scavenger hunt or an entire team wearing tutus would be outrageous behavior in some offices, but at the Las Vegas, Nevada, headquarters of the online shoe retailer Zappos, these kinds of antics, intended to develop friendships among co-workers, are considered good policy.
When Gallup polled more than 15 million employees and managers to identify the key traits of great workplaces (companies with high productivity, low turnover, and a profitable bottom line), having a best friend at work was consistently associated with higher levels of engagement and productivity. Workers with friends were more likely to give and receive praise, researchers found, and more likely to be committed to the company mission.
Social bonds have been shown to have significant health and stress-reduction benefits, which makes it well worth going out of your way to make friends with your colleagues, says Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage and the CEO of consulting firm Good Think. "Knowing someone cares about you at work causes your brain to perceive deeper social support, which is the greatest predictor of long-term happiness," he says. It could be good for your career too—according to Achor's research, employees who strike up friendships, help their colleagues, and organize office socials are 40 percent more likely to get a promotion within two years.
Clear Your Mind
As evidence mounts for meditation's mental health and stress-reduction benefits, companies have started offering programs to help their employees access the stillness within. Encouraging meditation and mindfulness in the office gives everyone more mental clarity, says Janice Marturano, a former executive at General Mills who founded the company's meditation and mindful leadership program. "It is a universal training that allows each employee to have greater access to the space we need to make clear, conscious decisions about our work and our lives," she says.
General Mills' weekly meditation classes at its 3,000-employee Minneapolis campus are held in a "tranquility room" stocked with meditation cushions and yoga mats. At Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, even the factories where the coffee is packaged have meditation rooms, and workers begin their shift with five-minute "mindful movement" sessions. At Google, a leader in encouraging mindfulness at work, more than 1,000 employees have taken a 16-hour meditation and leadership workshop. Meditation skills can help staffers be happier and become better leaders, says Marc Lesser, a mindfulness meditation teacher and the CEO of Google's Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, which offers the workshop to Google workers and to other companies. "Silence is at the beginning, the middle, and end of everything we do," says Lesser. "Silence provides the space to think, to consider, for a new idea to arise, for a solution to come forth. Silence allows us to see what is unconscious and to have more choice at work, in relationships, anywhere."
In the employee break room at Portland, Oregon-based shoe manufacturer Keen are Hula-Hoops, a tetherball, and a beanbag toss. Inspired by research showing that activity breaks during the workday increase morale and creativity while lowering health care costs, the company instituted a 10- to 15-minute recess every day for its 160 employees three years ago. "It helps with relationships, productivity, and creativity," says Linda Balfour, a manager on the team that developed the program. "When you play together, you connect on another level."
At Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, employees can explore their hobbies in an on-site workshop equipped with tools for welding, woodworking, and tinkering with electronics. Silicon Valley startups are known for having foosball tables and pinball machines as part of the office furnishings. And at outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia in Ventura, California, employees who take surf breaks have a place to store their boards and shower before returning to work.
Play breaks make you more efficient, says Scott Eberle, editor of the American Journal of Play: "Walk away from your desk, whistle 'Moondance,' and spin a yo-yo a few times, and you return refreshed and ready."
Check out keenfootwear.com for bringing recess to your workplace.
Wag Away Stress
The company of a pet has been shown to have health benefits including reducing blood pressure and stress—benefits that some employers are allowing employees to extend to their workday. A recent study found that employees who took their dogs to work had higher job satisfaction and less stress than their peers without dogs.
At Clif Bar headquarters in Emeryville, California, between 10 and 15 dogs come to work with their owners every day. Kate Torgersen, a company communications manager, says"the presence of man's best friend makes work a friendlier place. "Dogs have been a great way for people to connect," she says. "They will drop by their co-workers' desks for a quick hello or a tummy rub."
Follow Your Passion
On Fridays at Etsy, the crafting retail network based in Brooklyn, New York, eco-minded employees load up a bike trailer with the office's food scraps and coffee grounds and deliver them to a nearby farm to be composted. Doing something altruistic can give a greater sense of meaning to your workweek, says Jessica Rodell of the University of Georgia, who studies employee volunteering. It often translates to greater productivity, too. "Employees who volunteer work harder and feel stronger engagement in their work," she says.
A growing number of companies encourage their staff to volunteer on the clock. Ford Motor Company's Volunteer Corps coordinates groups for projects like performing repairs on local schools. Patagonia subsidizes employees to take environmental internships, such as one employee's recent participation in a raptor conservation project in Ireland. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters encourages employees to volunteer up to 52 work hours a year. Last year, 65 percent of the company's 5,800 employees worked on projects like cleaning up rivers and coaching Little League. "It's an opportunity for them to develop skills and to feel more connected to their community," says Liz Dohrman, the company's volunteerism specialist.
Ask if your workplace has a program for volunteering or matching employee contributions.
Be a Standup Employee
Jessica Williams, a communications professional in San Francisco, walked 350 miles in three months without ever leaving her office, thanks to a treadmill desk. With a stream of new studies highlighting the health risks of sitting for long periods (sitting more than six hours a day may more than double your risk of diabetes and heart disease), standing and walking desks are the new must-have office perk. Insurance firm Mutual of Omaha in Omaha, Nebraska, started offering them in 2008 as a preventative health measure. Managers report that those who walk while they work are more energetic and more productive, says Peggy Rivedal, health services manager. For Williams, her treadmill desk hasn't just made her less sedentary. It's also made her feel more creative and decisive. "Maybe it's all the oxygen to the brain," she says.
Turn a treadmill into a walking desk with an adapter kit from trekdesk.com.
Business reporter David Gelles is writing a book on meditation in the workplace.