Wellbeing Reframed

Are you hearing a lot about ‘wellbeing’ at the moment? It is the flavour of the month, or a fundamental strategy? 

I had conversations with two different client organisations last week, both centring on wellbeing. Their two lenses couldn’t have been more different.

For one client, their wellbeing agenda was a list of activities that their organisation might provide for their people to look after themselves. It included yoga at lunchtime. In the wake of the pandemic, it’s an understandable initiative. It’s vital to have a healthy workforce. We need to look after our people.

The central question here was: are we doing enough to look after our people and ourselves?

For the other client, the wellbeing agenda was about what it takes to create a situation where our organisation, community, society and the environment flourishes. How to contribute to human and ecological wellbeing at scale. Including looking after its people.

The central question here was: what sort of systems, structures, leadership and culture do we need to create for us all to thrive in the long term? 

Both questions matter. 

Yet, right now, I reckon there’s too much focus on the first type of wellbeing, and not enough on the second. I frequently hear wellbeing referred to as a mental health risk that needs to be managed. (Google ‘wellbeing’ and you’ll see what I mean’). When wellbeing gets framed in this narrow way, we’re at risk of missing the point entirely. We’re focused on simply managing risk, rather than releasing potential, we fail to address the more systemic issues at play. The problem just keeps coming back. Where we look is where we go. And where we need to look more closely is the system at play.

What if instead we framed wellbeing as something that’s not just about yoga at lunchtime, but instead we made it the point of everything we do? Then our decisions and priorities would change:

  • We’d see how our organisation’s purpose is inextricably linked to the idea of human wellbeing, and so we make it central to our strategy. 
  • We’d see that by helping our people to live their lives in ways that they value, organisational performance can be sustained in the long-term
  • We’d see how critically important it is to design the conditions for people to do their best work and contribute to their full potential

Deloitte has recognised this in their 2021 Human Capital Trends report. Whole economies are slowly being transformed to put people and planetary wellbeing at the centre. This is not small stuff.

So what?

Let’s move beyond framing wellbeing as a list of things we can give people to do to look after themselves so they don’t burn out. I love how my colleague and flexible work expert Gillian Brookes puts it: creating wellbeing requires us to let go of control, and to create the conditions for people to be at their best. 

Last year, I wrote a piece called People Leadership for the Long Haul. It outlined the conditions that we all need to thrive in the face of uncertainty. One year on, uncertainty is still with us, and it’s not going away anytime soon. As I’ve shared this model with hundreds of leaders, it seems to strike a chord. If, as leaders, we can create the conditions for our people to have a strong sense that they belong, to bring their talents and apply them to meaningful work, and to help them to become better versions of themselves, we are on track to create a true sense of wellbeing for all.

That is the work of leadership in the 21st century.

What might you do today to enable more wellbeing in your world?

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