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What is wellbeing – and what is it to you?

The following insight is from IOSH

Understanding abstract human concepts such as wellbeing can feel a little like knitting fog. Our Thought Leadership Manager, Dr Christopher Davis, helps clear the mist.

It’s safe to say that debate about the meaning of wellbeing and its place in the modern world of work is still fertile. However, to some extent, I find the ongoing lack of agreement frustrating, not least because it constitutes an unnecessary blockade in the pursuit of better work for all. Personally, I consider wellbeing to be the principal aspiration of work. After all, if you strip the term of its conceptual baggage for a moment, you are left with a word that captures the very essence of what it means to be human: being well.

Over time, different actors in the wellbeing arena have approached it from different perspectives. The academic community has focused its attention on developing a methodologically rigorous definition of wellbeing. In the business and investment community, driven as it is by data, attempts have been made to distil wellbeing down to something simple and straightforwardly quantifiable. At the workplace level – a stage upon which wellbeing actually plays out in practice – understanding and application are perhaps at their most patchy. Indeed, while these days it is firmly (and rightfully) part of the everyday work conversation for many, ambiguity about the what, how and why of wellbeing persists.

So, which is the right way to look at it? As a starting point, I think that any consideration of wellbeing has to begin in the personal realm. In other words, what does it look like for an individual to be well? And more specifically, what does it look like for an individual to be well at work?
Influential factors

Consider for a moment, if you can, a time in your adult life when you found work to be engaging, fulfilling or satisfying. Consider when you felt most stable, supported or valued at work. At the very least, think about when you felt safest, healthiest or most comfortable. And then cast your mind back to the factors that you think contributed most to you feeling this way. For those fortunate enough to be able to draw on such positive memories of work, those feelings generally encapsulate what wellbeing is all about – a state of positivity towards, and healthiness derived from, work.

And those influential factors that you recall contributing to your sense of workplace wellbeing – be it good line management, supportive colleagues, organised and well-maintained working environments, inspiring leaders – these are all areas that organisations can prioritise in the pursuit of a broad wellbeing culture.

Of course, what wellbeing looks like to one person will differ from the next, just as two people’s wellbeing priorities will invariably look different. For example, a worker in a high-hazard or physically demanding job may attach greater weight to their feelings of safety and comfort than someone in a clerical position. But both would no doubt wish to feel valued and supported, albeit perhaps in different ways. And, of course, my example here is based on generalisations that might not be accurate in practice.

The salient points are this. Firstly, the experience of wellbeing is deeply personal and changeable. Secondly, the efforts of organisations to develop broad wellbeing cultures must reflect both the context of work and the individual needs of workers. And finally, a holistic sense of feeling well at work is not the preserve of a privileged few, it is the natural aspiration of any working-age adult globally and should thus be treated as such.