Sometimes it’s worth taking a step back from even the most widely discussed topics to consider what we might mean by them. This might be especially true of a subject like wellbeing, which as we have discussed elsewhere is one of those that gets talked about a lot and in such broad terms that we can lose sight of what it is we mean.

Most concerning is the way that, although somewhat nebulous in conception and nuanced and interconnected in outcome, the proposed solutions to a lack of physical or psychological wellbeing are often so simplistic. The truth is that complex challenges demand complex solutions.

The first thing to say is that wellbeing, like productivity, 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.”

Such an enlightened approach inevitably manifests itself in various ways, with a progressive working culture, great surroundings, a commitment to sustainability, better nutrition and an organisation that takes wellbeing seriously rather than just looking for simple solutions. Like many complex issues, the search for wellbeing never ends. There is no destination, just the journey.