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Gethin Nadin

Benefex

Chief Innovation Officer, Benefex

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The wild west of workplace wellbeing

What exactly is wellbeing and why does it matter? The truth is, workplace wellbeing is mid-evolution and the commercialisation of the concept is causing confusion. We need to remind ourselves of what workplace wellbeing really is.
a man riding on the back of a brown horse: wellbeing at work

Two of the questions I get asked most when I do conference talks about workplace wellbeing tend to be along the lines of “what exactly is wellbeing?” and “what is the point?” (or why do we care?). 

The truth of the matter is that there is no universally agreed definition of wellbeing, let alone workplace wellbeing. But in my second book, I attempted to create a framework of a definition that appeared to resonate with readers. So I’m going to start here first:

1. Finding a definition for wellbeing at work

In my view, historic attempts at defining wellbeing have focused on a description of wellbeing, rather than a definition. 

It’s a combination of so many overlapping and complex things, which is why a real definition has escaped us. 

Before you are even born, your wellbeing is being shaped by the home you grow up in, the colour of your skin, the resources and experiences of your parents, the socioeconomic status you evolve through (or don’t) in your life. 

Before you even enter the workforce, your wellbeing has been shaped by your life up until that point. 

So in a workplace context, I like to look at the things that are in the control or influence of the employer. At a high level this becomes where your resources meet your challenges. A careful balance of those is where good wellbeing sits. 

There is no universally agreed definition of wellbeing, let alone workplace wellbeing

The right resources

These resources may be psychological, social or physical, but the aim is to always use those resources to deal with challenges to achieve equilibrium. 

One thing this definition offers up that I like is that employees are constantly balancing resources available with the various challenges that come about in our lives. 

It acknowledges that from one day to the next, resources and challenges change. Overnight our challenges can outweigh our resources and problems arise. 

The more resources an employer can help their people to build up, the higher the likelihood that they can meet life’s challenges well. 

2. Why do we care about wellbeing at work?

There is heavy evidence that the higher employee wellbeing is, the better the organisation performs. Across many success metrics, the more happy and healthy employees we have, the better our organisations perform. 

But I’m not talking about the employer, I’m talking about us – the employees. Why do we care about our employer supporting our wellbeing? I suspect it’s a combination of our wellbeing getting worse and traditional support mechanisms disappearing. 

But on top of this, where physical ailments dominated the workplaces of the industrial revolution, mental health is characteristic of modern life. 

While we are no longer mostly doing repetitive work in dark, dangerous and dingy factories, we are more sedentary, lonelier and dealing with the impact of things like social media and connectivity. Maybe mental health is just endemic to the life we currently lead. Either way, we care about it because it’s the problem of the day that needs to change. 

Mental health is characteristic of modern life

A long history of evolution

We are going through significant social change. If we look at research into how social change occurs, it requires both behavioural changes and policy chances to achieve large-scale social change – and they need to happen together. 

During the industrial revolution, more and more people moved from rural areas into towns and cities to work in factories. Conditions in these places were often poor and as workers demanded changes, Parliament responded. Behaviour met policy. 

The Factory Act of 1833 and The Factory Act of 1844 brought improvements to safety and worker welfare. The Mines and Collieries Act 1842 came on the back of a major disaster at a coal mine. Throughout the last 150 years, employees have become activists for change and policy soon followed.

The behavioural changes are coming from people in 2024. They are demanding that employers do more to help them. They are requesting more wellbeing support and better working conditions. For example the legal right to disconnect exists already in France, Spain and Slovakia. A policy response to changes in human behaviour. Again, behaviour is meeting policy. 

Half see wellbeing as a risk issue, half as employee optimisation

Time to recalibrate?

It is clear to me that the fact we are still asking “what is wellbeing?” and “why has it got so popular?” shows just how in its mid-evolution workplace wellbeing is. 

I run a group called ‘The Workplace Wellbeing Action Group’, which includes internal wellbeing loads from large global employers covering almost 1 million people. Half of this group reports to Health and Safety, the other half to HR. 

Half see wellbeing as a risk issue, half as employee optimisation. And recently, a not insignificant number of wellbeing leads at big brands have been made redundant. While at the same time, I’ve been approached to set up and Chair the first Policy Liaison Group for Workplace Wellbeing in the UK to meet regularly with Parliamentarians. 

It’s a confusing time to be in workplace wellbeing, which is why we perhaps need to recalibrate and remind ourselves of the journey we are on and where we are heading. 

As the wellbeing benefits of a shorter week for wellbeing is still hotly debated, let’s look at that evolution for a moment as an example. For 95% of human history, people worked for only 15 hours a week. The advance of the industrial revolution changed that significantly. 

In 1870, most full-time workers completed more than 3,000 hours a year (around 60-70 hours a week). By 2024, we’ve roughly cut that figure in half.

Better balance

For those of us pushing for better wellbeing support at work, what we are really trying to do is bring better balance to people’s lives. 

The promise of the advances in technology and a progressive society are that as more tools arrive to make us produce more in less time, the more time we have to live our lives. US productivity growth means we can produce in 11.7 hours in 2024 what we did in 40 hours in 1950. But during that time, we haven’t worked any less. 

As the evolution of workplace wellbeing continues its 200-year journey, I expect the next big change will be to the length of the working week, already gaining ground for its positive impact on employee life. 

But the point I want to make is that workplace wellbeing isn’t new. It’s always been there, and it’s always been driven by employees. The demands for better conditions at work now might sit quite high on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but they are nevertheless very much there. 

The next big change will be to the length of the working week

Stick to the evidence

But the problem we have with workplace wellbeing and the reason we are perhaps so confused with what it means and why we care, is that it has become heavily commercialised. 

The word ‘wellbeing’ has been tagged to so many products and services nowadays that it’s quite frankly ridiculous. LinkedIn is full of “mental health advocates” and self-proclaimed “wellbeing experts” with little to no real academic background, formal training or decent experience.  

It’s the wild west and many have snake oil to sell. Let us remind ourselves of what workplace wellbeing is; it’s about ensuring our workplaces don’t harm people. That employees are better off because of who they chose to work with.

This isn’t new. It isn’t wellbeing 2.0. It isn’t progressive or left wing. This is modern life; this is modern work. It’s here to stay. It will continue its evolution and workplace wellbeing will always be moulded by people and society. But we have to become far more discerning buyers and believers. 

Wellbeing shouldn’t go to those with the best podcast, the most followers or the most celebrity. You should be making workplace wellbeing decisions based on evidence and on fact. 

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Gethin Nadin

Chief Innovation Officer, Benefex

Read more from Gethin Nadin