In one of the latest dramatic acts of employee disgruntlement, in August, JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater — in frustration over a passenger hitting him in the head with a bag — cursed into the plane’s loudspeaker, grabbed a beer and exited the aircraft by deploying the emergency slide. While Slater’s actions were clearly extreme, his outrage sheds light on the importance of employee health.

Worker discontentment is taking a huge toll on quality of life both inside and outside the workplace, according to a series of studies examining overall life satisfaction globally and published in the book “Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements” (Gallup Press, 2010).

Employees who said they like their jobs are twice as likely to be thriving in their lives overall — reporting strong relationships, effective money management, good health and engagement in their communities — as those who are disengaged and unhappy at work. Unhappy employees in the study not only dreaded the work day, but they were also twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression. These disengaged workers also reported higher stress levels than happy workers and were at greater risk for heart disease and other health problems due to spikes in the stress hormone cortisol, which boosts blood pressure and blood sugar levels and suppresses the immune system.

“[For many of us] Our careers are such a foundational part of our identities and how we think about ourselves,” says psychologist Jim Harter, PhD, one of the book’s co-authors and a chief scientist for workplace management and well-being at Gallup. Of course, work is also where most of us spend much of the day and is an important source of socialization, he says.

Psychological, sociological and economic research has also shown that having happy, healthy and engaged workers is also good for a company’s bottom line. (Visit the APA Practice Organization’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program website for a database of research on the topic.) The Gallup study reports that among the least happy and least engaged employees — those with the lowest well-being scores — the annual per-person cost of lost productivity due to sick days is upward of $28,000. The sick-day lost-productivity cost among the happiest and most engaged workers: $840 a year.

“People who are more psychologically well and happier tend to be better producers,” says Tom Wright, PhD, an industrial-organizational psychologist and management professor at Kansas State University who studies the role of psychological well-being in job performance, employee retention and cardiovascular health. Not only can also psychological well-being benefit organizations by reducing lost productivity due to sick days, but organizations can also benefit from the fact that healthy employees tend to work both harder and “smarter” on the job. According to Wright, “psychologically well employees tend to be more focused on work activities and not waste as much time on daydreaming and other non-productive activities.”

The benefits to psychological well-being do not end with performance. In a 2010 Organizational Dynamics (Vol. 39, No. 1) article, Wright found that for every one-point increase — on a seven-point scale — in an employee’s reported psychological well-being, the probability that an employee will stay with their current organization doubled.

Time isn’t money

What works best to promote employee health?

Giving employees some control over their jobs helps, suggests psychological research. For example, a 2009 study by Arla Day, PhD, an industrial-organizational psychology professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, suggests that employers give workers some control over their time and more flexible hours. In the study of 106 Canadian health-care professionals, Day and colleagues found that allowing workers to schedule their own hours and manage how they approach work tasks reduced employee burnout (Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, Vol. 26, No. 1).

It’s also critical for organizations to find a way to give employees a voice, says James Campbell Quick, PhD, professor of organizational behavior and leadership at the University of Texas at Arlington. Although the company has suffered some setbacks due to manufacturing problems, Johnson & Johnson has kept its 114,000 employees connected by keeping a focus on small units within the corporation.

“Johnson & Johnson operates less as a large corporation than as a herd of small companies,” Quick says.

For small workplaces, keeping a focus on employees may mean hosting regular staff meetings where employees can discuss work issues and suggest improvements. Large organizations can do this through anonymous employee surveys. No matter how it’s done, however, “it has to be about talking to people, listening to what they say back and really hearing them,” Quick says.

Harter agrees, adding that individual managers play an important role in engaging employees in the workplace by providing flexibility and helping them craft career-development plans. Providing employees with the opportunity to use their strengths can also help prevent burnout and improve a company’s bottom line, according to global data gathered by Gallup, published in “StrengthsFinder 2.0” (Gallup Press, 2007). Compared with employees who do not get to focus on what they do best, people who have the opportunity to use their strengths at the office are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report excellent quality of life.

“We can minimize a lot of the negative stress by thinking about the whole person and how they can best utilize their strengths and individual talents,” Harter says.

Individual accountability

The onus for improving both worker satisfaction and worker well-being doesn’t rest just with employers. Employees must take the initiative to use such workplace practices as flex schedules wisely and find effective coping strategies — such as exercise and relaxation techniques — for their specific on-the-job stressors. “The individual is the first point of change,” Wright says.

Some organizations put mechanisms in place to help employees decrease their on-the-job strain. In an as-yet-unpublished study presented by Day at the APA-National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health 2009 Work, Stress and Health Conference, employees from 14 organizations spoke with a trained facilitator once a week by phone about how to best manage workplace stress and balance work and life responsibilities. The facilitator led one-on-one discussions on how the employees’ workweek was going, brainstormed ways to defuse stressful situations and encouraged the workers to make time for exercise and relaxation. After 12 weeks, participants reported significant improvements in their engagement, as well as decreased levels of stress, burnout and absenteeism compared with a control group.

“We found that just having these weekly phone calls significantly increased the number of ‘me-time’ activities individuals took part in to recover from a day of draining work,” Day says.

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.

For more information about creating psychologically healthy workplaces, visit the APA Practice Organization’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program website. APA’s 2011 Work, Stress, and Health Conference — Work and Well-Being in an Economic Context — takes place May 19–21, 2011, in Orlando.