Following the COVID-19 pandemic, conversations about well-being in the workplace became more mainstream, and in some cases, encouraged. Reflecting on the workplace 50 years ago, we’ve certainly made progress on this topic — and we have much more to learn and do.
To many, the term ‘sustainability’ is tied to environmental impact, though it also includes how organizations consider the well-being of their teams. As we all continue to collectively author the future of work, there is an opportunity to learn from practitioners bringing fresh thinking to these spaces. I recently connected with Dr. Parneet Pal, a Harvard- and Columbia-trained physician working at the intersection of business, lifestyle medicine and behavior change. She offers expert insights into how our individual well-being is tied to the health of the planet, as well as steps leaders can take to optimize the well-being of their teams.
Laura: Your work centers on creating a well-being economy where health is the default, and the connection between personal and planetary health. This is so important for leaders and teams – and the world’s sustainability challenges. What has been the most exciting about your work recently?
Parneet: The most exciting aspect of my work currently has been to create and speak about a paradigm shift and new narrative when it comes to health and sustainability.
For too long, this conversation has been a unidirectional and disempowering one, focused only on the downstream deleterious effects of climate change and biodiversity loss on our health. It is time for a new story, that focuses on the opposite direction: by starting with, and taking care of our well-being, we can make our personal health an asset, not liability, in the sustainability transformation.
This sense of agency is based on a few scientific observations. First, our personal health is interdependent on, and a fractal of planetary health; change in one is reflected in the other. Second, improving our health by decreasing cellular inflammation (which causes the majority of chronic disease) also improves our decision-making capacity for ourselves, our business and planet. Finally, research such as the Earth4All report shows that we have all the financial and technological resources to create well-being for all on a stable planet within one generation. One key reason we are not moving at the speed and scale required to enact this turnaround is our biology: we are currently stuck repeating old behavioral patterns of short-termism that perpetuate unsustainable economic and business models.
The good news is that when we take better care of our health, it becomes easier to disengage from these automatic behaviors and show up differently to transform our business, political and economic systems.
Laura: I’ve been very interested in the evolution of work broadly and how we can learn from the past to create a more human-centered future of work. Your work is so critical to this. In your work with organizations, are you seeing more openness to the topic of well-being in the workplace, particularly since the pandemic?
Parneet: The pandemic – and the aftermath of the Great Resignation, Great Reset and Quiet Quitting – definitely increased openness to the topic of well-being in the workplace. It amplified the dysfunction in organizations that has existed for a long time but has often been disregarded or downplayed. Many businesses have recalibrated their well-being strategies and policies to emphasize mental and physical health for their teams. They are realizing that the best talent – especially Gen Z and Millennials – are prioritizing well-being and mission-based, sustainable businesses over financial compensation and business-as-usual.
However, we have barely scratched the surface of the problem.
Reports such as the Deloitte 2023 Well-being at Work Survey among others, continue to show increasing rates of workplace stress, burnout and related disengagement and healthcare costs. Though leaders and teams agree on the importance of creating well-being cultures, there is a huge gap between intention and action or investment in change.
I can empathize with the financial and stakeholder constraints that C-suite leaders and organizational decision-makers face – many of whom are also struggling with the same well-being challenges in their own lives. Again, a shift in perspective shows there is a massive opportunity here. For example, even if we only consider productivity and performance, the data clearly show that allowing your teams to take time for rest and recovery on a regular basis (instead of punishing workflows and schedules) enhances their energy, focus and creativity, which means better quality of work done for the business.
Laura: If you had to choose, what one or two things can leaders do to best help their teams optimize their health, and ultimately their performance?
Parneet: The first thing leaders can do is to take care of their own selves to role-model well-being for their teams. I would recommend they get curious about the research on how their lifestyle – what they eat, how they move, sleep and manage their stress – affects their health, performance and relationships. Understanding the biological basis – right down to the cellular level of inflammation – of the burnout and personal energy crisis that they might be feeling is empowering because the science is clear on what works. They can then begin to experiment with individual strategies, depending on their needs. A great place to start (because it is often the most deficient) is to ensure they get the right amount of sleep for them each night. This will improve their energy, memory, emotional regulation and decision-making capacity.
The second thing leaders can do is create systems at work that nurture health and well-being for their teams. There are no cookie-cutter solutions here since each organization is unique. But the principles are universal. Start by surveying your teams and bringing them into the conversation on what the current gaps might be as they relate to health and well-being. Then the system shifts can begin, including offering expert programming on the most effective evidence-based tools; reevaluating workloads and redesigning workflows; enhancing skill sets that build psychological safety, connection and inclusivity; and regular communication that aligns projects with the overall mission and purpose of the company. The data shows these are the most powerful levers to decrease stress, protect against burnout and elevate performance.