Early philosophers, such as Buddha, Confucius and Plato, explored human nature to fundamentally define wellbeing. All of them, in slightly different ways, suggest that wellbeing is determined by good observations, followed by positive acts towards one’s body and mind, relationships with other people, nature and planetary rhythms. Ultimately, ‘wellbeing’ is holistic - it’s difficult to define because it relies on a multitude of factors.
When it comes to measuring it, though, rather than viewing the concept as a whole, it must be separated out and assessed through different ideologies in order for effective intervention. Body and mind have been delineated into the fields of Biology, Psychology, Sociology and Economics for deeper study. And each of these areas proposes its own definition of wellbeing. Here we explore these definitions alongside providing example measurement tools for a workplace context.
Health practitioners primarily describe ‘wellbeing’ as a state where people are physically and mentally ‘well’, having energy, vitality and resilience to distress and disease.
There are clear physiological markers that this field uses to determine wellbeing – heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, BMI etc. With technological advancements, people are using wearables to monitor their own ‘vitals’. This trend is increasing self-awareness, and by noticing a red flag on their vitality scale, they may get help early, or even take a much needed break. This early identification of a problem benefits the individual and teams, and ultimately makes management easier. But people who may need to monitor their vitals, could also be least likely to do so.
Organisations can provide support. Online GP services are on the rise. Providing employees with free access to a service with a professional advisor on the other end of the line may increase uptake. Alternatively, going beyond a weekly masseuse by making a place for a drop-in session with a health practitioner may make discussing state of body and mind convenient for those who ordinarily might not be self-motivated.
Psychologists define wellbeing broadly as being a ‘Hedonic’ experience – assessing how a person feels in themselves – and ‘Eudaimonic’, which focuses on a person’s connection to the spaces around them.
Within the workplace, this can be understood as peoples’ reactions to the work they’re given, or their interactions with colleagues. The best way to measure how a person feels psychologically is to ask them. There are multiple wellbeing checklists that are available for free and can help employees with a self-evaluation from time to time.
Setting up effective and confidential feedback loops, usually though third parties, can be effective in improving how people feel. Many businesses, for example, now include workplace psychologists as part of their team. When trusted, these professionals can be very effective in engaging with employees regularly and continuing them on an ongoing basis for maximum benefits.
People’s needs and frustrations change over time, and if concerns are left to fester for too long, it can be at greater detriment to their wellbeing
Sociologists see wellbeing as a social phenomenon, where a sense of belonging, trust and cohesion are essential. In the workplace, how well a person feels can be measured by how engaged they are with the organisation and with their teams. ‘Team dynamics’ can reveal whether people trust each other, have a sense of belonging, feel fairly treated and, therefore, if they feel well.
Participation in non-work related events and interest in the organisation’s direction, success and leadership is a good indicator of individual or team wellbeing. Curating a wider range of events that consider multiple personality types, interests and cultures may increase participation and contribute towards an increase in the social side of wellbeing. Inviting employees to participate in the office design, structural reorganisations or internal promotions will improve a sense of wellbeing amongst employees.
Economists see wellbeing as a driver to create social capital. In the workplace, satisfaction needs to be pitched against productivity, and quality against efficiency. Measurements of success for managers may need to be broadened. Recognising people who put in more time than forecasted, yet are producing a higher quality product, will lead to a better sense of wellbeing, ultimately leading to greater economic profits too. Sharing profits, equal pay and transparency are all tremendously healthy for minds and bodies.
Sociologists echo Aristotle in seeing wellbeing as a social phenomenon
Looking beyond the norm
WELL Standard considers some vital aspects such as access to fresh air, light and water, but if a company doesn’t care about its employees’ interpersonal relationships, team dynamics, broader definitions of success or office culture, then wellbeing can’t fully be addressed.
Each of the fields listed here is underpinned by the quest to improve our wellbeing – from micro to macro scales. Workplaces are ultimately a microcosm of our society with people from different age groups, cultures and skill sets inhabiting the same place. Businesses can gain tremendously by borrowing and adapting tools from these fields rather than relying on best codes and practices within the design industry.
Practicing what we preach
These are distinct ideas, but boundaries are blurred. In essence, when the body is healthy, it supports a healthy mind, which in turn creates a stable workforce, recirculating its wealth and success into further improving wellbeing at both an individual and team scale.
The source of physical or mental distress could be anywhere, at home or work, but organisations can help by providing a workplace where there is time and space to notice, reflect and find help when needed. And that in turn might provide employees with a reason to stay loyal to an organisation, where they know they will feel better when they leave than perhaps when they arrived. It is, of course, well established that staff retention saves businesses an inordinate amount of money.
Biological, Psychological, Sociological and Economic factors offer up a set of pillars that can bridge a discussion around wellbeing. But, regardless, defining, and measuring wellbeing is only useful if it leads to improving it.
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