The pandemic of wellbeing

Monday, 17 January 2022

Scott Way photo
Scott Way
Director Industrial & Organisational Psychology BDO

    Over the past 10 years, we have seen a steady rise in the use of the term wellbeing in relation to organisational life. This can be attributed, in part, to the growing realisation that mental ill-health at work is more prevalent than once thought, as well as a greater coverage and ‘normalising’ of wellbeing issues in the popular media.

    The unwelcome arrival of COVID-19 and its variants has heightened the discussion and coverage of wellbeing matters to the point where it could be argued we are approaching a saturation point. Just as we are enduring a pandemic, we may also be experiencing a ‘pandemic of wellbeing.’

    Like most concepts and frameworks within psychology, there are varying interpretations of wellbeing. In broad terms, there are three schools of thought: Focussing on hedonistic pursuits, the desire for satisfaction, and a simple listing of factors.

    Unfortunately, this definitional breadth has ‘allowed’ the term wellbeing to be attached to all manner of issues and concerns within a workplace, further adding to the confusion surrounding the term.

    A quick scan of popular media sees wellbeing connected to spiritual, cultural, mental, social, financial, academic, career, physical and environmental issues.

    The work of Professor Martin Seligman is arguably the most extensive and robust and his quick summary is that those who show wellbeing ‘experience positive emotions, are deeply engaged in an activity, have good relationships with others, find meaning in life and have a sense of accomplishment in the pursuit of their goals.’

    What do we mean by a ‘pandemic of wellbeing’?

    We may be over-using the term wellbeing by ascribing it to a range of employee issues such as low employee satisfaction, high staff turnover or rising worker anxiety.

    Applying a broad brush of wellbeing to some workplace issues may mean we end up dealing with a symptom, rather than the root cause. In fact, some poor workplace practices may be fuelling the ‘pandemic of wellbeing’. Below are some examples and scenarios to illustrate this point.

    Mary is a bright law and commerce graduate who aspires to work globally. She has focussed her university studies on getting the requisite grades to be selected by an international practice. Mary’s dreams come true when she is recruited by a high-flying firm and soon commences a graduate program, where she is surrounded by equally committed new starters.

    Mary’s graduate program runs for 12 months and, during this time, she is exposed to all aspects of corporate law. She is also expected to work long hours, deal with tough business leaders and advise on multi-million dollar deals. Further to this, her firm is very task-oriented and has very little of the collegiality she was looking for. Mary gradually realises none of this excites her - in fact, it terrifies her.

    Mary feels her general wellbeing deteriorate. She feels flat at work, watches the clock for the first time and can’t seem to connect with her colleagues. Although it could be rightly said that Mary has some wellbeing concerns, perhaps the real issue is poor attraction and selection processes on the part of her firm. Mary is not the right person for the role and all parties involved need to have a conversation about this misalignment.

    Our second scenario involves Bill, an experienced high school STEM teacher. His passion for maths and science is unlimited and he has been acknowledged by his employer with awards and accolades.

    As the years pass, Bill finds classroom teaching is increasingly sapping his energy. Students seem less respectful, are more easily distracted and seem too willing to take the easy way out. He has also noticed he counts down the weeks to the next holiday period.

    When listening to a podcast on the way to work, Bill hears a popular media figure talk about how to improve wellbeing. Bill starts practicing mindfulness, returns to the piano he learnt as a child and enrols in pilates - but to little or no effect.

    While chasing wellbeing, Bill may be overlooking the real issue - he loves the subjects he teaches but not the classroom environment, coming to the realisation he may have chosen the wrong career. But with a family, a mortgage and other financial commitments, Bill feels stuck.

    This is another example showing Bill’s wellbeing isn’t what it could be but, to really address it, he needs to explore a different career path.

    What can directors do about wellbeing?

    Given that wellbeing is fast becoming a mainstream element of contemporary employee relations, directors should ask to see a wellbeing plan that is designed to suit the needs of employees and the idiosyncrasies of each workplace. Importantly, this plan should not ‘over-reach’ - it is not the role of employers in Australia to provide a health service, so the plan needs to recognise the limits and resources of workplaces, many of which are small to medium in size.

    Associated with this plan would be a quarterly measure of employee wellbeing, presented to senior leaders and board members. This indicator will facilitate discussion around what is usual or unusual for that workplace as well as current and emerging trends. This thoughtful and data-driven approach may also reveal what is driving ‘wellbeing’ and how it can be effectively and sensitively managed.

    Finally, becoming more systematic about wellbeing will also clarify what is within this sphere - and what is not. This will enable root cause issues such as recruitment, training and career issues to be dealt with properly rather than superficially, benefiting the employee concerned and ultimately the organisation.


    Scott leads the Industrial & Organisational Psychology team in South Australia and is passionate about improving the performance of organisations and their people, which can have a clear impact on the bottom line. This passion has seen Scott work with public and private sector clients across Australia, Asia, New Zealand and, most recently, in the USA.


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