Many companies jumping on the wellness bandwagon slap a fruit bowl on the conference table and call it good. But helping employees feel engaged in their jobs can lead to a healthier, happier workforce that costs employers less, according to a new Gallup report.

Employees who are invested in their work generally are healthier than those who aren’t, the report found. They’re less likely to have chronic health problems, such as diabetes and obesity, and tend to eat better and exercise more.

Nearly seven of every 10 Maine workers are not engaged at work, ranking the state 19th nationally, according to the Gallup report. Still, that’s an improvement compared with recent years, part of a trend toward a more engaged workforce nationwide.

The report analyzed tens of thousands of worker responses to a 2012 Gallup poll, which asked whether employees felt their opinions were respected at work or if their jobs were important, among other things. On Wednesday, Gallup updated those figures with the results of more than 80,000 interviews from 2014, showing employee engagement nationwide inching up from 30 percent to about 31.5 percent.

Gallup also measured employee “well-being,” categorizing workers as “thriving,” “struggling” or “suffering.” Researchers found well-being corresponded with “dramatic differences” in health care costs employers pay on their workers’ behalf, with thriving employees having 41 percent lower health costs compared with those who are struggling and 62 percent lower costs than those who are suffering.

People who are engaged and thriving make for some of the best employees, the report found.

Despite the promise of lowering health care costs and improving employee performance, “it appears that U.S. employers are doing little to maximize engagement and well-being simultaneously in their companies,” the report said.

In Maine, companies that excel at engaging employees include the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor and Cianbro in Pittsfield, said Roxane Dubay, head of the Wellness Council of Maine, which promotes employee health programs. But many others are taking baby steps, such as the state’s many small businesses, which may struggle to implement wellness programs as they recover from the recession, she said.

Business owners and managers who appreciate their employees as people with lives outside work tend to succeed, Dubay said. The report backed her up, finding employees with happy lives overall are more than twice as likely as those who are struggling to be engaged in the workplace.

“You don’t have a work person and a home person,” she said. “You really are dealing with the total person.”

People who are engaged with their work and thriving overall — physically healthy, enjoying strong relationships, active in their communities and financially stable — are more likely to report excellent job performance and stay with the same company, the report found.

Even businesses reeling from layoffs can help employees recover, Dubay said. Updating job descriptions and setting clear expectations can go a long way toward reducing stress as workers take on more responsibilities with no increase in pay, she said.

“It goes beyond just bringing in someone to do a yoga class once a week,” Dubay said. “That will mitigate the fight-or-flight response for the time being, but without clearly defined responsibilities … it will continue to create that stress at work and carry home as well.”

The report urged business leaders to take responsibility for their workers’ well-being, such as by promoting social and community activities and nutrition programs, along with making it “easy to pick the right choices,” such as offering healthy snacks in cafeterias and opportunities for exercise.

“Coming out of a recession, I think employers are taking a look at their most valuable assets — which are their employees — and looking at how to support them,” Dubay said.


Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...