While executives have long recognized that well-being is important, the COVID-19 pandemic brought home how significant it really is. Organizations suddenly found themselves called upon to prioritize workers’ physical and mental well-being as a matter of survival, as protecting their health and alleviating their stress became critical to operations. Work and life, health, safety, and well-being became inseparable — they have now been given the grandiosely named title, “the 4 Es.” While at the time of the pandemic it may not have been clear how to wrap those three concepts into one coherent theme, the emergence of corporate wellness programs and the funding of more research has begun to show that health care can be reduced to a checklist of activity, nutrition, sleep, and exercise.
While health care is just the first and smallest aspect of this emerging reality, it has already begun to touch the largest and most vulnerable populations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that approximately 64,000 Americans will die this year from the flu alone, more than double the previous all-time high. Both the influenza and pneumonia vaccination rates have been shown to be high among both children and adults this year, and the public health effort around the swine flu threat was massive.
On top of these developments, the value of health care in its capacity to improve a person’s psychological state has been increasingly recognized. Most notably, a national study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on medical utilization found that, for high-income Americans, minor illnesses that could be effectively treated by a regular doctor’s office are just that: a minor illness. Sixty-three percent of the respondents thought they were merely getting a cold or flu when in fact they were suffering from a minor illness such as bronchitis or a stomach virus.
The Pew Research Center has identified what might be the first indicator of the new economic reality: the rise of a “pleasure” economy. The 1990s and 2000s were the last decade of truly expansive capitalism, when high-growth industries offered jobs to many and rising incomes to the poorest. In contrast, the “new economy” has become very prosperous, but only for the wealthiest. Meanwhile, almost all the gains have gone to the top 1 percent. The wealthy have been able to secure jobs and work arrangements that are more conducive to well-being, in part by avoiding both extreme weather and other stresses of modern life. The “high-pay, high-stress” jobs of the 20th century have given way to high-pay, high-stress jobs that are less strenuous, including unpaid work at home, such as caring for elderly parents or children. As a result, the relationship between stress and health has shifted in the 21st century. As the cost of basic necessities such as housing, education, and healthcare have risen, we have all become more stressed. Perhaps more importantly, we have come to associate stress with a lack of fulfillment — as it should.
With money (and no lack of it) no longer required for well-being, the focus has shifted to money itself. Many of us are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of constant work. What we want is a job that is an enjoyable and fulfilling escape from our everyday lives — the ultimate escape.
People want a new kind of work experience that builds emotional intelligence, connects with others, and challenges our expertise. We want work to matter to our communities and to make us feel not only useful but also that we are making a difference. Rather than fearing work, we should be embracing the possibility of a more peaceful, contented, and engaged life. We have the freedom to create those possibilities — we can create jobs in ways that respect the needs of people, our planet, and our economy.
If we make that shift, we can establish a new paradigm for doing business: one in which we can all make a good living while doing meaningful work.