In August 2013, a 21-year-old intern at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch office in London was enduring a grueling week. The intern, Moritz Erhardt, a native of southern Germany, had worked three full days without sleeping.

Around 5am on the third day, he took a taxi from his office to his flat in East London to shower, change his clothes, and return to his desk. Erhardt never made it back to work. Near the end of the day, another intern raised an alarm, and officials discovered Erhardt’s body in his shower. The autopsy revealed that Erhardt died after suffering an epileptic seizure, possibly triggered by staying awake for 72 hours.

Erhardt’s death is not an isolated incident. Earlier this year, Sarvshreshth Gupta, an employee at Goldman Sachs, died in San Francisco after falling from his apartment building. A few months ago, a 29-year-old banker at Moelis & Company was found dead with drugs in his body after he fell from a building in New York City. Both complained about feeling overwhelmed at work.

Although these tragic cases are extreme, they raise a fundamental question about employee well-being—a topic that has received increased scrutiny over the past few years. Debilitating hours, unrealistic expectations, and a general disregard for work-life balance are just a few issues that threaten employee health. Given a plethora of research showing that healthy employees are productive employees, it has become increasingly important for businesses to help employees avoid burnout and ensure healthy habits. The question is how.

Many organizations, including Bank of America and Goldman Sachs, have begun implementing health initiatives, including free yoga classes and financial incentives that reward particular behaviors. In fact nearly 50 percent of businesses in the United States that employee at least 50 people offer some version of a wellness program.

Do they work? The evidence is, at best, mixed. Research reveals that less than half of employees participate in wellness programs, and that most programs fail to achieve their goals, costing businesses millions of dollars.

A recent 2015 study, led by Joel Goh of Harvard Business School, published in Behavioral Science & Policy, outlines a few solutions companies can take to begin thinking more clearly about employee wellbeing. Goh and his co-authors, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Stefanos Zenios, both of the Stanford GSB, argue that so many wellness interventions fail because they overlook the root cause of employee stress: context. In this view, free gym memberships and yoga class are a nice idea but not the solution. If businesses are serious about employing healthy workers, then they must first maintain a healthy work environment.

Although previous studies have documented how stress adversely affects performance at work, the magnitude of this effect is not known. Goh and colleagues gathered hundreds of previous studies and quantified the evidence measuring workplace stress and health. The authors identified working conditions known to undermine wellbeing, such as long hours and work-family conflict, as well as conditions known to increase wellbeing, such as social support and availability of health insurance.

The results are nothing short of shocking. Across various metrics, including self-rated physical health and actual mortality, Goh and his colleagues found that higher levels of workplace stress lead to significantly worse health outcomes. For example, employees who report higher levels of work-family are more likely to report poor physical health compared to employees with lower levels of work-family conflict. As a comparison, that difference is twice as large as the impact second-hand smoke has on the same measure of health. If smoking warrants federal regulation, such as bans on smoking in enclosed public places, shouldn’t businesses consider regulating stress?

Goh and his colleagues think so. One solution is eliminating workplace practices that most contribute to workplace-induced stress. The researchers recommend, “Limiting work hours, reducing shift work and unpredictable working hours, and encouraging flexible work arrangements that help employees to achieve a better balance between their work life and their family life.”

Another solution is measuring employee wellbeing. Organizations may fail to notice how the environment causes stress because they do not carefully gather data on how workplace stressors affect performance, possibly because psychological scars formed from stress at work are not as visible as physical injuries.

In Young Money, journalist Kevin Roose followed a group of college graduates as they began working in finance for firms like Goldman Sachs and Bank of America Merrill Lynch. It wasn’t uncommon for these spry recruits to work 100-hour weeks. But as one of Roose’s subjects said during his employment, “It’s not the hours that kill you—it’s the lack of control of the hours.” Many young bankers consider it a point of pride to persist tirelessly—the “banker nine-to-five” involves working from 9 a.m. until 5 a.m. the next day—so banks, which must preserve a rigid work culture to appeal to clients, have little reason to measure how long hours affect performance.

Harvard Professor of Business Administration Max Bazerman writes about “failing to notice,” or our tendency to only scrutinize data readily available to us. To avoid more tragic cases of burnout, we must take the opposite approach. Instead of only designing wellness programs with specific goals and measuring data we already have, businesses should begin quantifying all employee behavior, paying close attention how the work environment affects wellbeing and the bottom line. Once businesses understand how the workplace affects employee health, they will be better positioned to improve employee performance, potentially saving millions of dollars as a result.

“Organizations tend to measure a wide variety of financial outcomes, but they’re not very good at considering secondary effects,” Bazerman told us. “We need to study how rewards based on [work] quantity will affect the quality of performance in the long term.”

If a healthy business depends on healthy employees, then wellness programs will continue to play an important role for employers. However, a healthy employee should also be a comfortable employee. Moritz Erhardt didn’t need to go to the gym. He needed to go to bed.

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Jon Jachimowicz is a PhD student at Columbia Business School where he studies choice architecture and self-control. Amongst others, he works with Elke Weber and Eric Johnson. Jachimowicz works in collaboration with governments, public organizations, insurance companies, media/tech companies, the financial sector, and others.


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Sam McNerney is a writer with a focus on behavioral science. His has written for Scientific American, Scientific American Mind, Psychology Today, Fast Company, Fortune, BBC Focus, and several other publications.