What is Wellbeing?

Arguably, no workplace subject is more talked about and misapplied than wellbeing. This is understandable, given the ways work can affect our wellbeing for good or bad and the fact that the subject embraces a wide range of issue and disciplines. Our general wellbeing is defined by our physical and mental health, our relationships (both in the office and out of it), our sense of purpose, our identity and our levels of happiness.

In turn it is a subject explored constantly by management theorists, neuroscientists, physiologists, philosophers, anthropologists and artists and others, whose ideas and findings are then endlessly chewed over by politicians, commentators, managers and each one of us.

One point that seems indisputable is that our particular preoccupation with wellbeing is recent. People have pondered the issue for Millennia but it is only the past 50 or so years that we’ve really absorbed ourselves in its complexities. This is not coincidentally because our lives have become more complex and our work more sedentary and technologically focussed.

Whereas Ancient Greek philosophers and their descendants may have speculated on the roads to happiness and wellbeing; while Victorian philanthropists acted on them for the first time in a structured way in a work context; and the early organisational and motivational researchers of the mid 20th Century may have furnished us with models and ideas that we still use, they were all doing so at a time when work and lives were not as they now are.

We remain on a learning curve about how to address wellbeing in this era, but there is no doubt that we know more about it than ever before. We understand many of the factors that affect our wellbeing and the steps we can take to address them in the way we design offices, create organisational cultures and encourage people to address them in their lives both at work and elsewhere.

Crucially, as organisations depend more and more on the skills and knowledge of people for their competitive advantage and growth, so too are they increasingly concerned about the wellbeing of individuals. They may not have a magic wand to deal with the issue completely, but they do have more awareness and a growing number of tools to help them both understand and address the challenges and opportunities of wellbeing.

Wellbeing is not about money. You can’t make people fitter, happier and more productive simply by making them richer. As Cary Cooper and David McDaid point out in their book Wellbeing: A Complete Reference Guide, wealth removes a specific problem but has no impact on general wellbeing.

“People in higher-income countries generally evaluate their lives in a more positive way than people in poorer countries, yet that relationship does not hold for measures of experienced wellbeing… American economists Deaton and Stone argue that a measure of hedonic wellbeing that shows that the average European is worse off than the average person from Mozambique, Sudan, or Rwanda is basically meaningless… The balance of recent evidence suggests that, on average, more income is better for individuals and that great caution should be exercised before income measures are replaced or even complemented by measures of subjective wellbeing for policy purposes.”

When it comes to work and workplaces, the International Labour Organisation defines workplace wellbeing by how it ‘relates to all aspects of working life, from the quality and safety of the physical environment, to how workers feel about their work, their working environment, the climate at work and work organization. The aim of measures for workplace wellbeing is to complement OSH measures to make sure workers are safe, healthy, satisfied and engaged at work. Workers wellbeing is a key factor in determining an organisation’s long-term effectiveness. Many studies show a direct link between productivity levels and the general health and wellbeing of the workforce.’

One of the defining works on the subject in the UK was published in 2008. In that year, Professor Dame Carol Black, National Director for Health and Work (published her review of the wellbeing of Britain’s workers. In it, she proposed three principal objectives which changed the debate at the time and continue to define its parameters:

  • The prevention of illness and promotion of health and wellbeing
  • Early intervention for those who develop a health condition
  • Measures to address the health and wellbeing of those not in work so that everyone with the potential to work has the support they need to do so.

The CIPD’s Growing the health and wellbeing agenda report, argues that healthy workplaces help people to flourish and reach their potential so it essential to create an environment that ‘actively promotes a state of contentment, benefiting both employees and the organisation’. It should be noted that this definition distinguishes wellbeing from wellness, which is more focussed on physical health.

The report argues that growing awareness of the issue of wellbeing is not always matched by effective actions to address the complexities of the issue in an holistic way. It puts forward a commercial case for looking at the issue of wellbeing that goes beyond addressing specific issues in an unconnected way.

“Investing in employee wellbeing can lead to increased resilience, reduced sickness absence and higher performance and productivity. Put simply – it makes good business sense. However, wellbeing initiatives often fall short of their potential because they stand alone, isolated from the everyday business. To gain real benefit, employee wellbeing priorities must be integrated throughout an organisation, embedded in its culture, leadership and people management.”


Boss Design – January 2019