Why Wellbeing Matters at Work and Life

In September 2022 the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) published a working paper (you can access this here: https://www.nber.org/papers/w30442) highlighting that mid-life is a peak time for people in the richer nations of the world to suffer sleep problems, alcohol dependencies, extreme depression, stress, and even suicidal thoughts. This is the time when many in the workforce have climbed the ladder and are very close to their peak earning potential. 

Another report, this time by Gallup, was also published in 2022. While some employees were discovered to be both engaged and thriving, which is good news, Gallup discovered that those who are not both thriving and engaged are twice as likely to report anger and half report stress on a daily basis. If you add to this that over 60% are more likely to experience daily worry and burnout, you may start to worry yourself.

Now add that up to 20% of costs related to replacing those who resign voluntarily can be connected to burnout and that 75% of medical bills are mostly from preventable conditions and you can see that poor wellbeing is starting to cost organisations a lot of money. But how much?

That same report suggests that $20 million is lost for each and every 10,000 employees due to lost opportunities connected to employees struggling with poor wellbeing. This adds up to $322 billion lost through lower productivity and greater employee turnover worldwide due to burnout in employees.

To say that these findings are troubling, is an understatement 

So, what can we do about this?

One of the things, as coaches, that we can do is to be aware of these findings, drawn from numerous reports and studies internationally. Another is to focus on wellbeing with our clients alongside their stated goals. 

So, what exactly is wellbeing?

Now that is the million-dollar question! There are thousands of research papers focusing on aspects of wellbeing and how we can influence or measure it. There are also several definitions of wellbeing, depending on the lens that the researcher is looking through. There are even several ways to spell wellbeing, including hyphenating it (well-being). 

The American Psychological Association Dictionary (APA) defines well-being as:

“a state of happiness and contentment, with low levels of distress, overall good physical and mental health and outlook, or good quality of life.”

Now that sounds like a good place to be in life, but what is the evidence that overall wellbeing is beneficial to us? 

Some of the benefits to an individual are simple: 

  • Increased happiness: this is a fairly circular argument in many ways as positive emotions are included in several of the wellbeing models. However it has been found that there is an association between people’s overall levels of wellbeing and how happy they are.
  • Satisfaction with Life: Several of the studies on wellbeing use the Satisfaction with Life survey as a measure. It appears that along with happiness, our contentment with what we have and where we are also improves alongside improved wellbeing. 
  • Improved Relationships: Should we really be surprised that higher levels of wellbeing are also associated with better relationships with others? Happier people tend to be more generous with their time, with the contagion factor of emotion lifting up the mood of those around them. 
  • Better health: Wellbeing has also been associated with fewer health issues and faster recovery from those illness that do affect them. Now here I will issue a strong caveat – We are looking at populations here, not individuals. We are not saying in this blog that if you have better wellbeing you will not get ill – as with all populations we are looking at a bell curve effect. 

So how does this all translate into the workplace? 

While there are many articles in the literature suggesting ways in which activities contribute to wellbeing, there are fewer suggesting how wellbeing in general contributes to the workplace. One review by Warr & Nelson (2018), which is found in a book edited by the late Ed Diener and colleagues does just that. They focus on what they refer to as job-related wellbeing which they suggest can be measured by looking at job-satisfaction, job strain and other similar measures such as absenteeism and organisational citizenship, which is where someone goes outside their specific role by helping colleagues and going above and beyond. 

  • Increased employee engagement: remember what I said earlier about improved wellbeing being associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, well a survey of British government employees discovered that higher levels of satisfaction with life were associated with higher levels of employee engagement. This in turn can lead to lower levels of presenteeism in the workplace and fewer missed opportunities. 
  • Lower absentee rates: Studies have found that higher levels of job satisfaction, or happiness at work are related to fewer absences. In contrast, higher stress levels, anxiety or depression (all indicators of low levels of wellbeing) are correlated with higher absenteeism.
  • Improved performance: this may well be a circular process with better performance leading to more job satisfaction and improved mood and engagement, which then leads to better performance. However, the correlations are there, even if they may flow in both directions causally. 
  • Increased productivity: Higher levels of wellbeing are linked to higher levels of organisational citizenship. This, together with better relationships and collaborations in the workplace, can lead to more innovative ideas and improved productivity. 

These benefits, as you can see, are very intertwined, but also very real. Improved productivity and reduced absenteeism or turnover can really impact the bottom line for any business, which is why I believe organisations should be looking to invest in creating workplace practices that foster improved wellbeing for their employees. 

There has been criticism recently that this investment may have actually caused more harm than good in some organisations, with companies providing surface level benefits such as apps or free yoga or relaxation sessions whilst continuing with the same managerial practices. The expectation that this provision will instantly create workplace wellbeing, actually places more pressure on the individual worker: if they are not thriving then this is seen as a personal failure rather than a failure of the whole system. 

In order to really create a thriving organisation, a systems approach is needed. A few well-placed plants will make a difference, but only when connected to positive organisational scholarship, psychological safety, a strengths-based management style and a culture of appreciation and reward. These, I may add, are just a few of the changes that an organisation might make to improve worker wellbeing. 

How aware are you of your own wellbeing? 

Places you might like to read more about the costs of burnout and workplace wellbeing:

Warr, P., & Nielsen, K. (2018). Wellbeing and work performance. In E. Diener, S. Oishi, & L. Tay (Eds.), Handbook of well-being. Salt Lake City, UT: DEF Publishers. DOI:nobascholar.com Gallup. (2022). Employee Wellbeing Is Key for Workplace Productivity. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/215924/well-being.aspx