Workplace well-being: Identify key stressors, shift the culture, and reimagine the workplace

UAB Assistant Professor Katherine Meese, Ph.D., discusses her findings on workplace well-being and what leaders can be thinking about while reimagining work.

Katherine Meese 2Katherine Meese, Ph.D.Katherine Meese, Ph.D., assistant professor with the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Health Professions, says with high-stress on-the-job duties and daily pressures in life, it is easy to jump to conclusions about what keeps people from having the well-being they desire.

Defining well-being

Meese views well-being by using the jobs-demands resources theory, which suggests that well-being occurs at the demands of the job and resources you have to meet those demands.

“It’s really a balance of those two things,” she said. “It’s not only having resources, but also addressing the demands.”

Meese began research on health care workers in June of 2020 in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. She wanted to understand what experiences these workers were having and wanted to understand what is driving the overall distress.

“We assumed the main factors were exposure to COVID-19, lack of personal protective equipment, exposure to COVID patients, school closures and other home factors; but the most shocking thing to me was that the actual work was the main concern — things that were not specific to COVID,” Meese said. “We also found that, in 2020, while it was statistically significant, personal resilience explained less of the change in distress than reporting heavy workload or long hours.”

In subsequent studies, Meese and her team found lack of autonomy and lack of trust and perceived organizational support were increasingly important factors to distress in the workplace in 2022.

Meese suggests having an objective measurement to get to the heart of the issue.

Starting point for change

According to Meese, some of the things she is finding in the three years of data collected is that what people say is the thing that stresses them or will make them leave their job is not actually what is statistically predicting changes and measures.

“For example, one of the most common things we heard in our surveys was ‘I need to get paid more’ or ‘I don’t make enough,’ so as a leader it’s easy for me to hear that and to say, ‘OK the solution is pay,’” Meese said. “That’s typically what we do; but when we actually look statistically at what was predicting someone’s turnover, money didn’t even make the Top 5 list.”

Meese adds that trust, recognition, burnout, support and a sense of belonging were bigger factors.

“So, when people say it’s the money, what they might actually be saying is ‘You don’t pay me enough to put up with all this other stuff at work right now, like toxic culture or feeling unsupported,” Meese said.

“In general, people are zooming out and saying, ‘Wow, life is short. What am I going to spend my time doing? It’s not all of these inefficient non-value-added processes,’” said Katherine Meese, Ph.D.

Redesigning work for the future

Meese says that, in a post-pandemic society coupled with low unemployment and inflation, more people can get promotions or get into jobs without all the training, experience or degrees that they might have needed a few years ago.

“Many people close to retirement stepped down from their positions, so the war for talent is all the more competitive than in the past,” Meese said. “I think as a result, in aggregate, people’s tolerance for putting up with broken work is much lower than it was before, so they are going to walk out the door and find that organization or that group that has already figured things out.”

She adds that, understanding people have now had a taste of flexibility in their work, that is an expectation moving forward for job seekers.

“I think organizations should prepare for redesigning and for flexibility in work but also recognizing that there are also needs for in-person interactions,” Meese said. “Health care is a great example because you can’t be at the bedside from far away. It’s a tough balance.”

Meese offers these four tips for dealing with stress and work issues:

• Get enough sleep.
• Exercise is a great stress reliever.
• 4-7-8 breathing. Breathe in for four seconds through your nose, hold breath for seven seconds and then breathe out for eight seconds.
• Address any symptoms of trauma or PTSD by seeking help.

Quiet Quitting

Meese says quiet quitting has been known by many different names but has similarities to disengagement.

“I think the important thing for leaders to ask is whether the activities that people are ‘quietly quitting’ are really mission-critical,” Meese said. “We have a greater tendency to add things over time — training, paperwork, meetings, activities, reports — but rarely do we carefully eliminate or remove things that are perhaps no longer adding value.”

She says, if people are quiet quitting non-value-added activities, they are doing leaders a favor in a sense — helping you identify what needs to go in the quest to pursue the highest and best use of your employees’ time and energy.

“They may be doing leaders a favor in re-prioritizing their time for maximum impact,” she said. “Our research showed that people are exhausted with the many tasks, activities and requirements that do not seem to be necessary for doing their core job functions. If they are quitting the core job functions, we have a different issue on our hands.”