What the heck is “wellbeing”?

Wellbeing – you hear a lot about it these days, from the “economic wellbeing” of the nation to our own “mental wellbeing”.  It’s one of those words like “holistic” that we are pretty sure we know what it means, but rather hope nobody asks us to explain it.  In this article we look at what “wellbeing at work” is all about.

The dictionary definition for wellbeing is “a state of being comfortable, healthy or happy”.   The Social Audit Network says: “You can think of someone as having high well-being if they function well, have positive feelings day-to-day and overall and think their lives are going well; we call this ‘flourishing’.”    By that definition most of us might enjoy wellbeing about once a week.

So far so good, but what does it mean in the work place?  The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says wellbeing is about: “Creating an environment to promote a state of contentment which allows an employee to flourish and achieve their full potential for the benefit of themselves and their organisation.

The definition might sound like motherhood and apple pie, but the origins of the wellbeing agenda in the UK can be traced back to the early 2000s and the convergence of three very real, hard-headed public policy issues:

  1. Unsustainable numbers of people on Incapacity/Sickness Benefit.
  2. Increasing costs to business and, more acutely, the public sector, of sickness absence and an increasing proportion sickness due to mental health problems.
  3. The demographic implications of an ageing population that are going to require people to work longer into their old age.

In short, keeping people healthy and at work was becoming a critical issue for the wellbeing of the nation.  

 It also became clear that achieving the objective of keeping people at work and productive would involve action across a wider range of issues than just pay, conditions and traditional health and safety.   The wellbeing movement recognised that employees are more likely to stay at work and be more productive if they are:

  • physically and mentally well;
  • content and happy about their work;
  • engaged and motivated;
  • continuously learning and developing;
  • feeling good about the organisation they work for.

Thus, wellbeing is a strategic and wide-ranging programme focused on people’s wellness at work.  It involves organisations working across a number of areas including:

Physical health
Promoting exercise, e.g. cycle to work schemes and subsidised gym membership, promoting healthy eating, improving the working environment and encouraging staff to stop smoking.

Mental health
Managing stress, training in mental health, mindfulness training, access to counseling and encouraging good work life balance.

Personal Development
Mentoring, development plans, career breaks, training accounts.

Company culture
Developing a company culture that employees feel good about and engaged with, e.g.  through strong values and ethics, Corporate Social Responsibility, diversity, equality and anti-bullying policies.

Organisation of work
Flexible working, giving employees greater autonomy, management of change.

The key measures of measures of success for wellbeing programmes are through metrics such as sickness absence days, staff turnover, the results of staff surveys and improvements in customer satisfaction and productivity.  Although the number of organisations adopting the wellbeing agenda is growing rapidly, there is limited published data available, but decreases in sickness absence of between 10% and 40% have been reported.

Further reading:

What’s happening with Well-Being at Work?, CIPD 2007

Growing the health and well-being agenda: from first steps to full potential, CIPD, 2016


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