We need to re-think workplace well-being for the age of burnout
Three mind shifts for wiser and more impactful organisational wellbeing approaches
The word “wellbeing” is everywhere. From the glossy magazine advertising luxury retreats to the tattered pamphlet in the GP waiting room promoting a local walking club. Similarly, in the world of work, we are seeing a rise in corporate wellbeing initiatives. But, despite their ubiquity, workplace wellbeing strategies are suffering from a lack of understanding of what wellbeing really means and how to go about cultivating it. Without this, we fail to engage with the underlying dimensions at play and will at best provide only short-term sticking-plaster solutions. Here are three shifts in thinking or “re-frames” that can take us beyond a superficial engagement with wellbeing:
Re-frame 1: Wellbeing as Dynamic
Most definitions of wellbeing imply it is a feeling of happiness or health to aspire to. This leads us on an unsustainable path. Instead, Dodge et al (2012) define wellbeing as a state of equilibrium. Wellbeing is the balance point between an individual’s resource pool and the challenges they face. When faced with novel challenges, our resource pool can grow. Without novel challenges, stagnation can occur. But when we lack adequate inner or outer resources, the balance tips and we experience a lack of wellbeing. The authors quote Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation:
Wellbeing is not a beach you go and lie on. It’s a sort of dynamic dance and there’s movement in that all the time and it’s the functionality of that movement which is true wellbeing (Nic Marks, Radio 4, 7 January 2012)
Based on this definition, enabling functional and dynamic movement between the resources of employees and the ever-changing challenges they face is key. If we implement wellbeing initiatives in a culture of organisational stuckness, rigidity and stagnation they are not likely to make a significant long term impact.
Re-frame 2: Dis-ease as a symptom of a dying worldview
Wellbeing needs to be seen in the context of the times we are living in. In the 21st century, we are facing overwhelm, burnout, anxiety, stress, addiction and depression which, at least in part, can be correlated to the way we live today. Hanlon et al (2010) describe these afflictions as “dis-eases” of Modernity. A Modernist worldview has led to a way of working which emphasises “doing” rather than “being” and focuses on productivity, standardisation, routinisation, measurement, prediction, command and control. These features stem from seeing organisations as machines. Whilst many of the cognitive tools of Modernity are still useful in the right context, the predominant worldview from which they stem is now yielding diminishing returns and generating adverse effects. In short, the way we are working is no longer working. At the level of theory, many leaders now recognise that organisations operate less like machines and more like complex adaptive systems. However, at a cultural level, there is a reluctance to truly enter into a way of being that is aligned to a complex systems metaphor. Rhetoric does not yet match reality and the impact of this gap can be seen in soaring rates of stress, anxiety and burnout. Any wellbeing strategy that puts all the emphasis on individuals finding ways to stay well without addressing unhealthy and outdated systemic and cultural ways of working is at best unsustainable and at worst profoundly unethical.
Re-frame 3: Human beings not human doings
At an individual level, a Modernist and mechanistic worldview tends to focus more on what we do – behaviours and actions -rather than our interior subjectivity – being, feeling and thinking. In fact, we often have a blindspot for “the inner place from which we operate” (Scharmer 2016). This blindspot is reflected in workplace wellbeing strategies that are packed with behavioural change initiatives (e.g. steps challenges, healthy eating advice) but almost completely neglect the domain of thoughts and feelings. As one round-table discussion found, ‘almost everyone was completely blind to individual interior change’ (Complete Coherence). Even workplace mindfulness can become seen as just another activity to tick-off the list as we are so steeped in our focus on doing rather than being. To address this blindspot, organisations might focus more on the mindsets, beliefs, thoughts and feelings of employees in relation to their wellbeing. What energises and drains them? With what mindset are they approaching their challenges? What gives them a sense of meaning and purpose? This stuff isn’t just fluffy or nice to have. Our beliefs directly affect our wellbeing. For example, new research has found that our biological response to stress is mediated by our mindset.
A wiser way forward
A wiser way forward for workplace wellbeing will be grounded in a recognition of the organisation as a complex adaptive system and will entail looking at the deeper roots of stress, burnout, anxiety and depression rather than just addressing surface symptoms. It will require an integral approach that offers initiatives at the the level of individual behaviour change, individual inner change, and shared systemic and cultural practices.