Well-being is inherent to companies, not just to individual employees

Well-being is inherent to companies, not just to individual employees
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Work-related well-being has received considerable public attention since the onset of COVID-19. Debates around remote working, flexible working and the importance of work-life balance have gained a lot of attention as people and organizations around the world adapt to an unprecedented historical moment and begin to reassess how they want to work (and live).

While simply discussing work-related well-being is a step in the right direction, popular and academic understandings of well-being in the workplace have room for improvement. This is because well-being is fundamentally understood as a characteristic of individual workers. However, researchers know that people’s work-related well-being is highly dependent on workplace variables such as job security, work schedules, and social climate.[1] It would be difficult anyone being “good” at a job that requires, for example, extremely long and unpredictable hours.

Wellness programs are often ineffective, in part because because companies tend to treat work-related well-being as an individual characteristic. Corporate wellness policies tend to focus on offering resources (such as gyms, wellness subsidies, and weight management programs) to support the physical health of individual employees.[2] However, for workers working 60-hour work weeks, access to the gym is not very useful. Also, once-a-year sums of money to buy health-promoting products do not help workers fighting racism or sexism in the workplace.

How can we as a society change the conversation to make companies more accountable for the well-being of their employees? And what can we do moving forward to better promote a positive work experience?

We propose to reconceptualize well-being as organizational issue is an important point of departure: instead of emphasizing the “well-being of the worker”, we can focus on “workplace well-being.

The shift in focus to ‘well-being in the workplace’ reflects the recognition that work-related well-being does not just come from individual workers. Yes, employees experience it. However, work-related employee well-being is largely created (or prevented) by workplace dynamics. Workplaces can create wealth through conscious effort. They can also, as they often do, harm welfare by maintaining practices that harm workers and perpetuate social inequality, even if that is not the goal.

Conceptualizing well-being as an organizational problem helps us identify how business organizations can better support the holistic well-being of employees through collective, structured efforts. Companies can generally improve well-being by aligning and reaching out to both workers and the employer’s goals (as opposed to the employer’s goals being prioritized at the cost of the employees’ goals). To achieve both employee and organizational goals, workplaces must meaningfully implement diversity, inclusion, and equity—what we identify as the three “pillars” of workplace well-being.

“Diversity” can be achieved by fully representing social groups, intersecting identities and perspectives. “Inclusiveness” can be created through an environment that provides a sense of safety and belonging to individuals and social groups. Finally, “equity” can be created by ensuring fairly distributed opportunities and outcomes, thoughtfully designed and applied job requirements, evaluations, support, and rewards.

In order to meaningfully implement the pillars of well-being, business organizations must:

1) adopt appropriate official policies and procedures,

(2) integrate formal policies and procedures into the organization’s culture and daily practices, and

(3) ensure the effectiveness of steps 1 and 2 by asking employees (especially members of marginalized groups) about their assessments and perspectives on well-being in the workplace and then making adjustments as necessary to eliminate negative feedback.

These steps can also be used to measure the well-being of any particular workplace. Wellbeing analysts can assess workplace wellbeing by examining formal policies and procedures, organizational culture and practices, and employee assessments and perspectives related to diversity, inclusion and equity.

If companies begin to meaningfully implement diversity, inclusion and equity, they can promote well-being at the organizational level, reducing social inequality in the workplace and creating a level playing field where their employees can perform better. At the same time, it would improve things like employees’ perception of ‘fit’, the social climate of the workplace, and employee overload and work-life conflict.[3]

By prioritizing employee goals over organizational goals, workplaces can support employee well-being and become more competitive organizations. When people feel they are treated with respect and fairness at work, they are more satisfied with their work and are more committed to their workplace.[4] When organizations have more satisfied employees, they tend to achieve better financial results.[5]

Our ‘well-being at work’ framework contributes to academic research by integrating previously unrelated fields of work and indicating how well-being can be measured in business organizations. In addition, it supports the development of organizational change initiatives that can better address workplace inequality.

We also hope that the term ‘well-being in the workplace’ can find a home in popular discourse. Talking about ‘wellbeing in the workplace’ helps people to emphasize and constantly remind each other that work-related wellbeing can often be attributed to the policies, procedures and culture of business organisations. If we want to increase work-related well-being, we need to do more on behalf of companies, not just individual workers.

read more: Annika Wilcox and Amanda Koontz. “Well-being in the workplace: Moving from the individual to the organizational system. Compass of Sociologyin 2022

[1] Schneider and Harknett, 2019; Sloan, 2012

[2] Kelly and Moen, 2021

[3] Maranto and Griffin, 2011; Kelly and Moen, 2021; Wilton et al. 2020

[4] Maume et al., 2014

[5] Bryson et al., 2017

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