READ the October 2021 issue of our magazine: Well-Being By Design
As people have been locked down in isolation and kept from normal social interactions, cases and issues associated with stress, depression, and anxiety have been on the rise. Many leaders and employers have recognised this challenge and are concerned with employee well-being. While there has long been a focus by progressive HR leaders on the topic of wellness, the topic of well-being has traditionally been used in the fields of medicine and psychology. I have observed many organisations using the term loosely; so it seems beneficial to step back and reflect on both the science as well as the art associated with employee well-being. Let me highlight well-being in terms of patient, public, individual, and employee health before addressing well-being in the workplace.
The well-being concept can be traced in psychology research to better define the state of mental health (i.e. the absence of mental illness, the impact of physical discomfort, degree of depression, etc.). The early application of well-being was in clinical and healthcare settings over the past several decades. One of the most widely accepted medical well-being measures is known as the WHO-5. This measure adopted by the World Health Organisation in 1998 consists of five factors and is often used in medical settings to gauge patient recovery and status. For example, if a person is recovering from a serious accident or surgery, a medical professional may gauge the person’s well-being by asking about feelings in daily life such as being cheerful, calm, vigorous, interested, and rested during the past two weeks. This subjective measure of well-being provides medical professionals with a common way to screen signs of depression and measure medical outcomes.
Well-being can be a concern in society as public health leaders work to address factors that lead to depression with ageing populations, incidents of teen suicide, and general longevity and vitality in geographic communities. Boston University has developed a community well-being index to measure well-being by location in the USA. By combining social health factors of access to healthcare, food, housing, and other resources with individual well-being factors of physical, community, purpose, social, and financial health, they can identify key areas to address in local and regional public health agendas. Similar efforts are being considered by the World Economic Forum to encourage policymakers to think beyond GDP toward a more holistic view of what matters in the lives of citizens.
More recently, Professor Keyes at Emory University introduced the notion that an individual has both positive and negative feelings as well as positive and negative functioning, which created a new perspective on individual well-being. In other words, well-being is a subjective and psychological construct based on the state of mind and a whole life experience. Key factors include positive vs. negative feelings, general life satisfaction, self-acceptance, and social acceptance. Through this holistic individual perspective, psychologists view well-being on a continuum, where a low state of well-being is languishing and a high state of well-being is flourishing. Recent studies, including Gallup’s well-being approach centers on a few key factors related to purpose, social, financial, physical, and community satisfaction.
Research on human capital in the workplace has highlighted the linkages between employee sentiment and company performance as well as links to turnover, absenteeism, and overall labour costs. As a result, employers have taken a renewed interest in the wellness, engagement, and satisfaction of their workforce. ‘The Great Place to Work Institute’ measures a variety of factors to highlight the cultural and managerial practices that provide a positive and healthy work environment. Their best place to work results are highly linked to overall firm performance over time.
While well-being is much broader than one’s employment, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the interdependencies between work life and home life, raising interest and a focus on employee well-being. Further, the pandemic altered how we experience life at work, which oftentimes created a misalignment between individual needs and their constrained environment. Many employers are concerned about not only employee physical health but also about their mental well-being given the disruptions in the lives of people around the world.
What is employee well-being?
When it comes to the well-being of employees in the workplace, there are many dimensions and variables to consider. For simplicity, I have synthesised these into five broad areas that contribute to positive mental health at work. These include:
- Positive effect – This relates to the positive feelings and experiences that build and sustain positive mental energy. Positive attribution can build optimism, energy, hope, and confidence for people, which builds what is known as psychological capital. This positive orientation can greatly influence an individual’s outlook and perception of their surroundings or workplace. An individual who experiences strong positive affect has been shown to better reduce stress and anxiety.
- Sense of purpose – This comes from experiencing a sense of fulfilment, meaning and progress at work. Having a strong sense of purpose has been linked to higher resilience, or the ability to bounce back from setbacks. When an individual’s role is aligned to the mission of the organisation or when the tasks being accomplished can be identified as critical, a higher sense of purpose or fulfilment can be fostered.
- Personal support – Working with others, especially managers, who create an atmosphere that is safe, trusting, and respectful can be an important part of well-being. High levels of support are evidenced when employees have more flexibility, control, and resources to accomplish their goals. Autonomy can be a critical factor in providing a sense of personal support to employees. Managers can also demonstrate support through employee development and career growth opportunities.
- Financial health – When employees lack adequate financial resources, anxiety and fear can affect their outlook. While some might argue that people are never satisfied with their compensation, it is important that employees earn an amount of money to feel financially stable and capable to live freely. Financial dissatisfaction can also arise when there is inequity in the compensation practices within a workplace, which highlights the importance of equality in pay practices.
- Meaningful connections – Social relationships that are supportive can be associated with lower stress levels. Having meaningful and caring relationships with co-workers and leaders is an important part of the work experience, especially when other support personal needs. An environment of equity and inclusion is also necessary to create psychological safety and teamwork, which can foster a sense of belonging.
While overall well-being is a subjective construct based on overall life satisfaction and psychological factors, employers can address mental health at work by creating a climate of well-being. There is a significant body of scientific research behind the measures of well-being and the psychological constructs. At the same time, there is a bit of ‘Art’ in the way that managers and employers can address collective and individual needs in the workplace. By creating a climate that consists of positive affect, a sense of purpose, personal support, financial health, and meaningful connections, business leaders can provide a foundation for positive well-being that allows employees to flourish.