Wellbeing has simultaneously become the greatest threat and opportunity facing our businesses.

Amongst the professionals and academics pioneering the field of workplace wellbeing (WW), our research and understanding has evolved significantly in the past few years. It is my forecast that 2023 will be the major turning point as this evolution spreads, and tips the scale towards a new, more sophisticated, and transformative era. For those in attendance at the World Happiness Summit in March 2023, there was one message being repeated by all speakers; there are exceptionally promising times ahead if we work together to achieve them. 

To understand where this is going, we first need to understand where we are today. WW 1.0 is what we at WellWise call ‘yoghurt and yoga’. It rose into the general business consciousness about two decades ago. It is predominantly a tactical approach, with the intent of being an antidote to poorly organised work, struggling corporate cultures, and the challenges of daily life increasingly distracting our employees. It is well-intentioned and yields some positive outcomes; employees and organisations have become more aware of the relationship between wellbeing and work, and they have focused on awareness raising and habit-building across nutrition, exercise, and health, both mental and physical. In response, an ever more varied array of apps, webinars, retreats, health screenings, and other interventions have entered the market, albeit with varying degrees of efficacy. 

For a short while, we have revelled in our collective progress. Unfortunately, there is one substantial problem with WW 1.0; it doesn’t work! This has become glaringly obvious to employees at all levels, and as a result engagement has waned. Leaders also perceive their investment as a luxury, one which they can ill-afford in the current economic climate.

Despite increased awareness and investment, research by the OECD, ONS, World Bank, Carnegie and others demonstrates that wellbeing within the working population is decreasing. Moreover, for most organisations, there is little evidence that their wellbeing investment is yielding the returns that were promised. The metrics of engagement, productivity, retention, absenteeism, and health insurance premiums are all moving in the wrong direction. It has dawned on us that the current approach is not going to hold back, let alone reverse, the workplace wellbeing crisis that is now at play. This was true even before the recent global pandemic exacerbated the problem.

So, where did it all go wrong? In my view, it didn’t. I believe we needed WW 1.0 to evolve WW 2.0. I genuinely applaud the efforts and innovations to date and believe that they have created a good launchpad for the momentous advancements now available. It is now our collective responsibility as both employers and employees to let go of what is not working and make room to adopt the new.

For employers, it is critical to acknowledge that the way in which we are currently organising work is creating languishing wellbeing, with profound consequences, as explored in a 2022 study by Deloitte;

“Workers are fed up—with the idea that they should be willing to sacrifice their health and their personal lives for their job. 70% of the C-suite are seriously considering quitting for a job that better supports their well-being. Most employees (83%) and executives (74%) say they’re facing obstacles when it comes to achieving their well-being goals—and these are largely tied to their job.”

Wellbeing has simultaneously become the greatest threat and opportunity facing our businesses, economies, and societies. The latest best practice is designed to empower organisations with data and insights on where their current approaches are yielding financially and emotionally expensive outcomes, and then provides strategies for creating a powerful upwards spiral of increased performance through optimised wellbeing. Success requires an open-mind, open-heart, and sustained commitment to reflection and change.

For employees, we must also take personal accountability. If we want to increase our wellbeing through work, we cannot expect all the heavy lifting to come from our employers and leaders. Thriving is a team sport, and everyone must participate to achieve it. This requires deliberate action to improve the personal basics of sleep, nutrition, and exercise as well as a commitment to continuous learning and development. Furthermore, it needs us all to diligently identify and feedback on the challenges, but also to contribute ideas and solutions for addressing them.

Together, we must challenge our mindset that profitable business must come at the expense of our wellbeing, and instead strive towards the reality that work can and should be a contributor to our individual and collective thriving and prosperity. Rather than pitting work against wellbeing, we should create collective contracts in which organisations provide the space and conditions in which optimised wellbeing can flourish. One way in which this can be achieved is by adding wellbeing to our corporate mission statements. As with any corporate objective, we must establish the expectation that every employee should be working towards achieving it by reducing and eradicating the barriers that stand in our way and introducing new ways of working that enable better work, fit for a future we all aspire to. 

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