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Benefits Column

Correlating Well-Being to Productivity

Participating in a 26.2-mile endurance hike in the desert offers some insights into the importance of pride, camaraderie and trust in creating a productive environment. It also points to ways HR leaders can optimize their workplaces.

Monday, April 11, 2011
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On March 27, I participated in my second Bataan Memorial Death March -- a 26.2-mile endurance hike in the desert of White Sands Missile Range, N.M. -- with 25 wounded warriors. These veterans with disabilities compete in this marathon as challengers in the "Warfighter Sports Series," which Disabled Sports USA sponsors as part of its Military Sports Program. (Note: I'm on the DS/USA board.)

I wrote about my experience last year and didn't expect to tell the 2011 tale -- until I found myself in a unique situation that held parallels to the workplace.

I hiked with my friends and colleagues, Kirk Bauer, DS/USA's executive director, and Tracie Foster. Bauer is an above-the-knee amputee, Vietnam veteran and experienced extreme athlete.

The Bataan March presents distinctive tests for all participants but especially for amputees, including hiking at altitude, a 1000-foot straight-up gain in elevation, dirt and sand trails, a 2-mile sandpit and -- sometimes -- scorpions, rattlesnakes and windstorms.

This year, the winds showed up in force.

This was Bauer's fifth Bataan March and he is always prepared to finish last. The terrain forces him to average 30-minute miles and the race shutdown time of 8 p.m. jeopardizes his ability to complete the course. 

This year's weather conditions sent record numbers to the medic tents and we witnessed three Medevac helicopters swoop in to cart away dehydrated and injured marchers.

When we got out of the sandpit at mile 22, we thought we wouldn't see the finish line. Bataan was taking its toll on Bauer. But we came up with a plan.

Foster and I indicated we would step out ahead with a 30-minute mile pace that Bauer could follow. We hoped to make it to at least mile 24, which is a course landmark. The reality was we were really setting a 20-minute mile pace and Bauer was too focused to notice.

At about mile 24.5, Bauer was flagging. Another friend and colleague, Dan Arkins, walked back out to meet us after establishing a personal course record. He moved directly in front of Bauer to block the blasting winds. We picked up the pace to a 12-minute mile after a course monitor on an ATV told us to "double-time it," while he set off to stall the sag wagon.

What happened? Bauer made it! He crossed the finish line at 13:18.

Several key elements were associated with Bauer's success:

* Pride. Bauer wanted to participate in and complete the marathon. He established the Warfighter Series, included the Bataan March in the event roster -- and he is proud of this event.

* Camaraderie. The Bataan marathon participants live by a key line in the Warrior Creed, "I will never leave a fallen comrade." Bauer knew that Foster, Arkins and I would do everything we could to get him to the finish line -- and so would key people along the entire race route.

* Trust. Bauer ultimately trusted the race organizers and the military leadership at White Sands Military Range. He knew they would make the best decision for him and the future of the marathon. Ultimately, they broke the race rules to let him finish. And this was the U.S. Army!

As I mulled over these factors, I realized several sounded familiar. In fact, they were essentially identical to the dimensions measured by the Great Places to Work Institute when it recognizes companies for Fortune magazine's annual 100 Best Companies to Work For list.

There are benefits for employers associated with the Fortune list beyond being viewed as an attractive place to work, including higher productivity and profitability.

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In the work I do in and around employee benefits, I constantly hear about "health and productivity management." But, is there another way to achieve higher productivity and profitability other than managing employees' health?

"There is a legacy belief within the benefits world that productivity is only an outcome of health," says Henry Albrecht, CEO of Limeade. "[Our well-being assessment] questions around [employee] productivity are not largely health-related."

Really?

Limeade, whose core purpose centers on improving employee well-being and performance, is a company after my own research-driven heart. They use a content-validation approach to ensure they understand and measure the factors related to desired outcomes, such as a high-performance workforce.

Their analyses point to some eye-catching associations -- and disassociations.

For example, the best predictors of employee well-being are self-acceptance, managing depression, appreciating life, openness, and optimism and positive living. And top predictors of employee productivity are job satisfaction, feeling energized, doing meaningful work, ability to grow in their work, a sense of team, positive relationships with other people and belief in the company.

But the disassociations are even more interesting. The factors that have little connection with employee productivity include exercise and fitness levels. And a healthy weight has no correlation with productivity.

Instead, Laura Hamill, Limeade's chief scientist, says, it is the "organizational culture and its underlying values, norms and beliefs that drive employee performance."

"Culture reflects why we do what we do," Hamill says.

And there's the correlation with my time in the New Mexico desert, which taught me firsthand what it takes to achieve the outcomes HR leaders desire.

The goal of increased productivity and profitability are related to a sense of well-being but not largely from a health standpoint. Fostering a healthy culture may be as simple -- and as complicated -- as being an employer your associates trust, structuring jobs that allow employees to be proud of their work and fostering camaraderie among workers.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.

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