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Employers Take Note: The Important Distinction Between Wellness Solutions and Employee Well-being

A few days ago, a young lady I know showed me her organization’s many ‘perks’ launched recently to ensure employee well-being. I was impressed. She could purchase a Fitbit or a sleep-well pillow; take meditation classes or buy a unique gratitude journal; order an ergonomic chair, and if required, a stand-up desk. I asked her what she was planning to do – to which she replied that she was going to take advantage of the offer. But, after a brief pause when I could see her face frown in thought, she asked me, “Is well-being a ‘perk’?” She said that she felt that well-being should be seen not as a perk but as a responsibility of an organization. I agreed with her.

Well-being has been receiving a lot of attention since the pandemic. As employees bore the disruption to their lives and work, issues relating to well-being shot up. Work-family conflict, stress levels, and other tensions, uncertainty, instability, and insecurities have added to many employees feeling low. Further, recovery options are reduced as people cannot go out, vacation, entertain – all ways to recuperate and replenish one’s energy. The home, which once used to be restorative in its function, has now become a workplace.

Well intentioned entrepreneurs have jumped in to offer quick-fixes to address the well-being imbalance. Sleeping better (a special pillow helps, as does the sleep app), exercising more, mindfulness breaks (there is an app to set such breaks in advance) are helpful ‘new’ interventions that can aid you in the well-being. In fact, workplace wellness programs are part of a $8 billion industry. I have tried many of these, and unfortunately, contrary to the sales pitch, I find my sense of well-being only takes a further beating! On any given day, I find myself sleeping less than my eight hours, not exercising for the 10000 steps, or not taking my preset mindfulness breaks as my calls inevitably run over. At the end of the day, when I total up my attempts at ‘being well,’ I fall far short of my goals, triggering a new kind of stress, for which I have not yet discovered an app!

While science shows clear evidence of how well-being positively impacts workplace performance, the popular approach to well-being these days is not adequate. There’s nothing wrong in trying to better one’s physical and mental health. But the medicalization of the phenomenon has resulted in well-being being seen as a solution to distress and dysfunction to be ‘treated’ with apps, counseling, and other props. These narrow confines that we are being boxed into by commercially oriented well-being solutions do not do justice to the concept. Beware of well-being pills offered as a cure!

Then, what exactly is well-being? Well-being is a state of being that every individual aspires to, not a solution. It arises as a consequence of the right actions – it isn’t an action in itself. The net positive effect when we bring in the best version of ourselves is well-being. Mark the words ‘net positive.’ This implies that there will be challenges, distress, dysfunctionalities, and headwinds that we do not control – as humans, we cannot do away with those. Instead, well-being happens despite those limitations when we can transcend them and craft a journey that results in, yes, a net positive. It is an individual construct – where every person defines it within their context, opportunities, and limitations.

Well-being as a quality-of-life construct is only part of the equation; equally important is the quality-of-work equation. The two together make-up well-being. Most of the interventions organizations proffer center around quality of life and health and do not reflect work quality changes. A toxic boss does more damage to your sleep than a lousy pillow. An organizational culture that treats you as a mere instrument increases your stress levels as much as a lack of exercise. While I have no objections to Fitbits, ergonomic chairs, and stand-up desks (and free counseling sessions to shake off a toxic boss), these are necessary but insufficient aspects of addressing well-being.

In looking at well-being, one approach is to look within ourselves. What is it that we can summon from within that is restorative and replenishing and creates a sense of well-being? Of course, there are physical dimensions that we all know about: exercise, sleep et al., which we have already covered. But there are also cognitive and emotional energies that can be harnessed to create a sense of well-being within ourselves – our own ‘medicine’ for well-being.

Organizations can train their employees on how to develop these energies and create conditions wherein they find themselves in a state of well-being through their work. Our research at Mentora has identified five energies for building one’s journey to well-being: Purpose, Wisdom, Love, Growth, and Self-Realization. When organizations consciously cultivate these five energies among their employees, it creates employee flourishing and organizational flourishing. Flourishing equates to a sense of well-being. It results in a net positive effect. Here are the five energies, described for their impact on well-being.

  1. Purpose is about giving meaning to whatever you do, aligned to your values and beliefs. Pursuing your Purpose in your life automatically creates a pathway to well-being. You come alive; knowing what you are doing will make a difference to yourself, your work, and to the world.
  2. Wisdom is about harnessing your thoughts and emotions to serve your purpose. It allows you to go deep and discover truth in all matters. Wisdom comes by embracing what life throws at you and making sense of it.
  3. Love is about taking joy in other peoples’ happiness and satisfaction. This is about the psychological and emotional giving of oneself unconditionally to others.
  4. Growth is about challenging yourself to push your boundaries and challenge yourself appropriately to unlock your best potential. It is embracing the challenges and growing from them, rather than avoiding the challenges and the pain that may come with it.
  5. Self-Realization is about operating from the inner core – a place deep within oneself where who you are meets with why you are here. It is the authentic expression of the individual.

These five energies, individually and in combination, connect the physiological, psychological, sociological, even the spiritual aspects of a person. They represent the whole person, and when they are in balance, there is a net positive effect. Just like exercise requires one to constantly train one’s body, the five energies need to be cultivated, nurtured and harnessed. We can do this by translating these energies into simple actions we can perform every day, such as dialing an emotion up or down (Wisdom), practicing a thoughtful form of empathy (Love), or creating a positive intention (Purpose). These are examples of actions Mentora’s research has identified that are simple to learn, easy to practice, and can have a strong impact on our well-being.

Well-being is a state of being and becoming – a human endeavor to bring out the best version of oneself in every act, every day. This definition positions well-being as an internal hero’s journey, not an external act of consumption.

I applaud organizations that are trying to address the issue of well-being. But I would also caution them that well-being is not a quick fix. It is a cultivation of Purpose, Wisdom, Love, Growth and Self-Realization. Organizations that consciously advocate for bringing the best of the ‘whole’ person will create a well-being culture, habits, and actions that go beyond the superficial. They will bring out the best in their people, not just for the organization but for their own selves.