Research - 25.06.2024 - 11:30 

Social health@work: Long-term study identifies success factors for successful modern work

How must modern work be designed so that it is equally successful for employees and companies? Consciously shaping the framework conditions and leadership behavior are key factors. For example, inclusive leadership plays a decisive role in times of increasing home office work, as a recently published long-term study with around 8,000 respondents in Germany shows.

A team from the Center for Disability and Integration (CDI-HSG) at the University of St.Gallen has published the long-term study "social health@work", which was commissioned by the German health insurance company BARMER. The team investigated how modern work needs to be designed to be healthy, sustainable and successful. The researchers also looked at the question of which skills are important for employees and managers in this context. "The term 'social health@work' describes a state of social well-being in the work context in which people develop and use healthy behaviors and working relationships," says HSG Professor Stephan Böhm. Böhm have investigated the corresponding success factors in a representative long-term study since 2020. Around 8,000 representatively selected employees were regularly surveyed for this purpose. This study design enables analyses of developments and interactions over time as well as causal interpretations. 

Mobile work – a stress factor

Hybrid working has become firmly established as a working model, particularly due to the coronavirus pandemic. This presents both opportunities and risks, as the study shows. For example, mobile workers feel more productive, but they are at risk of overwork as it becomes more difficult to "switch off". The proportion of respondents who, according to self-declaration, were able to forget about work in their free time has fallen from just under 53% to around 47% since 2022. The proportion of people who feel emotionally exhausted after work has risen slightly and now affects almost a quarter of the working population. 

Working from home blurs boundaries and leads to exhaustion. The study has identified a mechanism of action that can explain the negative effects on employees' well-being: The increasing proportion of mobile work increases the risk of boundary violations between work and private life. While work at the company is clearly defined in terms of location and time, this is much less the case when working from home. If such boundary violations increase, this increases the perceived pressure for employees to be constantly available and to respond quickly to work demands. This can increase emotional exhaustion, a significant risk factor for burnout. However, this does not necessarily mean that mobile working always has a negative effect. What is more important is how individuals, managers, teams and organizations deal with it.

Managers are strongly challenged

Managers have a major influence on a successful working environment. This is all the more true in a hybrid context. The effects of mobile working on health, collaboration and success depend to a large extent on how the framework conditions are designed. There is room to manoeuvre at the individual, management and organizational level. For example, an inclusive management style that recognizes and seeks to make targeted use of the diversity of team members and promotes a strong sense of togetherness helps. This counteracts possible feelings of loneliness and isolation when working from home. Inclusive leadership takes different perspectives into account, involves team members in decisions and ensures fairness and impartiality.

Inclusive leadership can also help to support employees in their career development, especially given the significant differences that still exist between different groups of employees. Currently, 54.3% of men say they are satisfied with their career success to date, compared to 49.9% of women. These differences increase further when comparing people with parental responsibilities: 52.2% of mothers are satisfied, compared to 60.4% of fathers. There are also significant differences between employees with and without disabilities: 43.9% of employees with disabilities are satisfied with their career success, compared to 53.8% of those without disabilities. If employees perceive their leadership as increasingly inclusive, their perceived career success increases downstream.

The digital competence of the manager also plays a role. Digital skills are required to effectively lead one's own team both in person and virtually. This includes the effective use of technologies for virtual communication as well as providing team members with clear and unambiguous information on current topics, including in virtual space. Since the study began, managers have developed further in these areas: The percentage of employees who attribute good virtual leadership skills to their managers increased from 52.2% to 61.8%. The study also shows that mobile employees whose managers use virtual communication options competently and effectively rate their productivity as 10% higher and their job satisfaction as much as 48.3% higher than those whose managers do not have the relevant skills.

Artificial intelligence boosts productivity

Finally, the study also examined the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and drew initial conclusions about its impact on social health. The proportion of respondents who use AI has risen steadily over the course of the survey waves. The longitudinal data also shows positive effects of AI use on productivity: when employees use more AI, their commitment to work, their subjective work performance and their ability to deal with the psychological demands of work increase. These research findings highlight the potential of AI for productivity and efficiency gains in the working environment. In the future, however, the effects of AI use on employees and their productivity and health must be researched further.

The study (in German) edited by the SZ Institute and a set of slides with the most important findings can be downloaded from the BARMER health insurance website.

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