As the corona crisis has evidenced, the role our physical body plays in everyday professional life can no longer be neglected. Within that context, themes such as employee vitality are coming more and more to the fore. In the framework of human resource management employee vitality is defined as “one’s conscious experience of possessing energy and liveliness” (Ryan and Frederick, 1997). Problematically, it is not entirely clear within this HRM framework what ‘possessing more energy and liveliness’ actually means for the employee on the one hand, and on the other, it is assumed that employee energy and liveliness is a resource that can easily be managed, enhanced or controlled.
Traditional human resource management approaches for managing employee vitality are enforced for two main reasons. The first more straight-forward reason is that it is cheaper. Employees that burn-out and have to go on sick-leave cost a lot of money for the organization. In the Netherlands, in 2019, the rate of “absenteeism in the public and the private sector due to illness or injury rose to 4.4 percent. This means 44 out of every 1 thousand working days were time lost on sick leave. The rate was still 4.3 percent in 2018 and 3.8 percent in 2014” (“Employee sickness absence”). Secondly, it is assumed that ‘vital employees’ produce more, are highly motivated and more loyal to the organization.
In order to actually affect the attitudes, perceptions and behavior of employees, including those who in times of change struggle to articulate how their bodies adapt to the existing normative framework of employee vitality, a new and revised framework for employee vitality seems to be needed. How can we think of employee vitality primarily as a social and moral obligation for organizations? Secondly, how can we ensure that themes such as employee vitality which are written about in human resources policy documents have a direct and sustainable impact on the lived physical realities and experiences of employees? Lastly, can a revised framework for employee vitality be expanded to also address situations in which the body of the employee does not always perform as is expected of it and more often than not, frustrates the employer and employee’s best efforts to put it to work? In other words, leading a ‘healthy’ lifestyle, exercising enough and eating a ‘healthy’ diet is an effective normative approach to increasing overall vitality in the workforce, but does it always sufficiently address how different bodies react to what a ‘healthy’ life means or is expected to mean for them?
“Employee sickness absence increased further in 2019”, CBS, 16 March, 2020 https://www.cbs.nl/en-gb/news/2020/12/employee-sickness-absence-increased-further-in-2019, Accessed 7 december 2020
Kark, R., & Carmeli, A. . Alive and creating: The mediating role of vitality and aliveness in the relationship between psychological safety and creative work involvement. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30(6), 785–804, 2009
Ryan, R. M. and Frederick, C. On Energy, Personality, and Health: Subjective Vitality as a Dynamic Reflection of Well-Being. Journal of Personality, 65, pp.529-565, 1997