Wellbeing at work

| February 27, 2015

Health and wellbeing are not the same. Health is determined objectively, by scientific measurements, while wellbeing is purely subjective. Joanne Abbey explores what this means at the workplace.

Interest in wellbeing has spawned many claims about its causes and outcomes. Recently, the UK ‘What Works Centre for Wellbeing’ was set up to focus on policy and delivery of interventions to improve wellbeing. Australian private and public sector employers are also keen to improve wellbeing with hopes of personal performance and workplace productivity gains.

I call wellbeing in work settings ‘work wellbeing’ to differentiate it from other contexts like schools or communities. Work wellbeing is more complex and wide-ranging than is generally assumed. It’s distinctively different, yet also similar, across workplaces.

Two assumptions about work wellbeing and how it’s measured don’t hold up under scrutiny. One assumption is that wellbeing and health are identical. The second is that measurement is possible without first knowing what wellbeing means to employees in a specific organisation. Evidence supports neither of these assumptions.

Meaning first, measurement second

Psychologists have developed many scales and questionnaires to measure wellbeing.  Most often they neglect the first step: discovering what wellbeing means in a specific context.

Wellbeing is based in personal values. Values express a person’s preferences or desires, what they like. Everyone has preferences; some are unique to an individual and others are shared. Commonly held values are health, freedom, happiness, and having friends.

Our values are influenced by personal experience and context. Employees’ values are formed in part by their experiences at work. Examples of values are the kind of work they prefer, how they want to be managed, whether they like to work alone, in teams, or a mixture of both, how they want to be treated, and what values they want the organisation to publicly represent. When employees describe the meaning of work wellbeing, they are describing their personally held values.

Health is not wellbeing, but wellbeing can include health

Health is not wellbeing, although it can contribute to work wellbeing. Health is determined objectively, by scientific measurements of factual data, e.g., blood pressure, a broken leg, or the presence of disease. Wellbeing is subjective, so no one can decide what creates wellbeing for anyone else. This is apparent in personal and cultural preferences for drug taking, exercise, food, style of clothing, leisure activities, etc.

Work wellbeing values

Four clusters of values appear consistently in workplaces; others are unique to a workplace. Consistent ones focus on human development, self care, and the quality of work relationships.

Most employees want to learn, grow, and achieve – to expand their skills and realise their potential.

Most want to care for their physical and mental health (e.g., through exercise, diet, manageable workload) at work.

Most care about relationships, being respected, and recognised for their contribution, effort, and successes. Employees prefer decent, supportive, congenial relationships where they are acknowledged as fully human, not cogs in a machine.

Where do organisations diverge on the meaning of work wellbeing? Values reflect differences in local factors such as sector, purpose, and mission. Employees in a property development company might be concerned with social impact issues e.g., the impact on the local community, and sustainability. Finance sector employees might value their employer’s ethical, transparent processes when providing advice to customers.

In drawing attention to their deeply felt values about how the organisation ought to behave – towards employees, in the market, as a global actor, or towards consumers of their services – employees also reveal where the employer fails to deliver. By highlighting perceived gaps between values and actual behaviour, employees reveal where they feel compromised and disappointed. It’s these areas of let-down that undermine employee commitment, confidence, and wellbeing.

Work wellbeing needs to be grounded in meanings discovered in the employees’ workplace. Simply measuring wellbeing cannot provide sufficient support for choosing interventions. Hoping that health initiatives (like massage, gym membership) satisfy genuine wellbeing needs is wishful thinking.