09.05.2023 | 9 min read

How we can tackle the Workplace Wellbeing Paradox

Connections between researchers and everyday changemakers might just hold the key to workplace wellbeing.
Sarah Cunningham

A lot can change in a generation. When I started my career in the late 1990s, the topic of mental health in the workplace was still very much taboo. I should know. At that time, whilst balancing my undergraduate studies with a part-time call centre job, I was also battling crippling anxiety disorder: something I knew I couldn’t be honest about in the workplace.

Back then, there was a stigma attached to mental health conditions … a stigma which could severely hamper a person’s career opportunities. Most companies didn’t have the type of comprehensive Employee Assistance Programs that we take for granted today. Flexible and remote working seemed like a pipe dream, Diversity & Inclusion initiatives were almost non-existent, and nobody had ever heard of Mental Health First Aiders. In fact, even the phrase ‘workplace wellbeing’ was rarely (if ever) uttered.

That’s why I am so encouraged by the leaps and bounds that have been made during my lifetime when it comes to workplace wellbeing. In some ways, the world of work is unrecognisable from those late 90s call centres where I took my first steps into the workforce. Today, we are seeing compassionate leaders right across the world investing in innovative employee wellbeing programs.

And yet, in spite of all this progress, we find ourselves facing a contradiction.

On the one hand, we’re seeing ever-increasing investments in workplace wellbeing by companies across the globe. This is most evident both by the rise of the ‘Chief Wellbeing Officer’ (or ‘Head of Wellbeing’ role), which is becoming more and more commonplace in large organisations1, and by the explosion of events, publications, and even awards related to workplace wellbeing.

Indeed, according to Google trends, the search-term ‘workplace wellbeing’ has been rapidly rising in popularity over the past decade2. Not surprising then, that CIPD’s annual Health and Wellbeing at Work Survey3 indicates that the percentage of companies who have a standalone wellbeing strategy in support of their wider organisation has also been steadily increasing year on year.

Line graph with 0-100 on the y axis and time period 2013-2023 on the x axis, displaying Google Trends data for the term "workplace wellbeing". Graph trends to growth over time.

On the other hand, however, we are counterintuitively also seeing an increase in the indicators of employee stress and unhappiness: Gallup reports that workplace stress levels are higher than ever before4, the McKinsey Health Institute indicates that employee burnout is at an all-time high5, CIPD report that one in eight UK employees feel miserable at work6, and Deloitte tells us that the cost of mental health related absences to UK employers alone is circa £56 billion a year7.

There appears to be a fundamental disconnect between employers’ investments in workplace wellbeing, and employees’ experienced wellbeing: a Workplace Wellbeing Paradox, if you’d like.

Which begs the question: what’s causing this Workplace Wellbeing Paradox? And are our investments in employee wellbeing wasted? Sadly, in many cases, the answer seems to be yes.

Dr William Fleming, Research Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre, analysed data from more than 27,000 employees and found that various corporate wellbeing and stress management initiatives including mindfulness classes, yoga classes, and resilience training, had “no effect” on mental health8.

While this worrying finding goes against earlier studies on individual interventions, it is not saying that such interventions should not be rolled out at all. Rather, it highlights the fact that many organisations are haphazardly implementing ‘trendy’ initiatives – albeit with the best of intentions – without considering the broader context; or without refining their implementation methodology to align with best practices from academic research.

A frustratingly reactive cycle

These challenges remind me of a poignant quote from the UK’s 2020 Commission for Equality in Mental Health report. They said: “We risk continuing a cycle of expanding mental health services without taking steps to reduce the need for them.”9

I would adapt that quote for the future of work, because I fear that if we don’t learn to connect the dots a little bit better, we risk continuing the cycle of investing in isolated workplace wellbeing initiatives and support structures, without addressing the root causes of employee wellbeing, and without taking the steps to reduce the need for those very support structures in the first place.

Of course, connecting the dots isn’t always easy. But we need to work harder to connect the dots between our workplace wellbeing initiatives, methodological insights from science-based research, and the macro working environment or company culture. We cannot simply treat workplace wellbeing in isolation. Doing so will inevitably lead to a jarring disconnect between wellbeing benefits and company culture.

We cannot simply treat workplace wellbeing in isolation.

Such disconnects become evident when companies offer paid paternity leave, but a high proportion of new fathers don’t fully avail of it for fear of being seen as not committed, or losing out on chances for promotion. Or, when companies offer yoga and mindfulness classes that most employees either can’t attend at all, or cannot attend consistently, because they’re juggling unmanageable workloads. Or, when company-sponsored lunchtime wellness talks are delivered to half-empty rooms while most employees consume lunch at their desk, unable to step away from the barrage of emails that have swamped their inbox that morning. The examples of disconnects are endless.

Employers need to take an organisational-level approach if they stand any chance of solving these disconnects and aligning their wellbeing benefits with their company culture. In fact, the UK’s NICE mental wellbeing at work guidelines also state that companies need to go further, and adopt a “preventative and proactive approach”.10  And that’s an important refinement, because far too many workplace wellbeing initiatives are currently reactive, i.e., they are solely providing support for those employees actively suffering from poor mental health, which, according to Gallup, is estimated to be about 15% of the population at any one time11.

Pie chart showing data from the Gallup Global Life Evaluation Index, with 15% labelled as "Suffering", 27% as "Thriving" and 58% as "Struggling".

But a further 58% are struggling11 and therefore at risk of tipping over into that suffering space. Shouldn’t our corporate wellbeing strategies provide support for all employees, and not just the 15% who are worst off?

The tip of the iceberg

So how can organisations take a proactive approach? Well, it starts by thinking beyond how people feel, and looking at why they feel the way they do.

It’s pivotal, of course, that all companies start by measuring employee wellbeing.  After all, you cannot manage what you don’t measure. We recommend measuring the four key dimensions of employee wellbeing (job satisfaction; happiness; stress; and sense of purpose), aligned with the world’s largest study of employee wellbeing, undertaken by World Wellbeing Movement founding member Indeed in partnership with the University of Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre12.

But that’s just the first step.

These measures only tell us how people feel, they don’t tell us why people feel that way. To figure that out, we need to think more deeply about the root causes of employees’ wellbeing.

There are so many factors that influence our wellbeing at work, from our working environment and conditions to our manager; from our sense of belonging to our sense of appreciation; from whether the work we do is energising; to whether we have flexibility, autonomy, trust, scope to learn and grow … the list goes on.

We are diverse, and our needs are diverse.

We call these factors the drivers of workplace wellbeing. Different drivers, of course, will be more or less important to different people. After all, we are diverse, and our needs are diverse.

Taking an organisational-level approach means implementing interventions aimed at improving each and every one of these drivers of employee wellbeing. And when such interventions are underpinned by rigorous evidence-informed academic research, that’s when we are in the sweet spot to translate our workplace wellbeing initiatives into real-world impact.

The challenge to date, however, is that so much evidence-informed research has been hidden in echo chambers, not getting into the hands of those people – like business leaders – who are best positioned to apply those learnings, and translate them into positive change.

And that’s something we at the World Wellbeing Movement are seeking to solve for.

Positively transforming the world of work

It’s clear that many organisations are doing so much good work in the wellbeing space, which fills me with a great sense of hope for our collective future.

But to create widespread – and, significantly, sustainable – change, we must become better at connecting the dots between the world’s leading wellbeing experts, and those changemakers who can have the biggest impact.

Quite simply, we need to get the latest cutting-edge wellbeing research into the hands of business leaders and policy makers, because those are the people who can implement the recommended initiatives at scale.

It’s no good having research with the potential to positively transform the world sitting in a niche journal typically only read by academics. It needs to be sitting in front of CEOs, CHROs, CFOs, and frankly, all employees!

And we must go further still. We need to make these insights available in an accessible, easy-to-implement format, and we need to fill the gaps by commissioning more research.

Attending the World Happiness Summit 2023, where I delivered a keynote on which this article is based, I found myself not only hugely encouraged by the diverse backgrounds of the people working to put wellbeing first, but freshly inspired to collaborate further with those who understand the significance of the challenge ahead of us. The theme of this year’s Summit was “connection”, and as I witnessed connections being formed in real-time between leading researchers and everyday changemakers, I realised that the key to overcoming the Workplace Wellbeing Paradox might just lie in the connections between each and every one of us.

I recently had the opportunity to interview the founder and CEO of the World Happiness Summit, Karen Guggenheim, for the Working on Wellbeing podcast by the World Wellbeing Movement. She shared with me her thoughts on the collective power of bringing together such a diverse group of connections for this year’s Summit, saying:

 “My hope is that we can come together and have a watershed moment so that we can positively transform the world. We know enough now, we have data, and we can act on it!”

We are on the right side of history. But if we stand any chance of solving the Workplace Wellbeing Paradox and achieving that watershed moment, we need to work together. Because it is through nurturing our connections that we can build essential bridges between those leaders who can bring change, and those experts who, through their research, have figured out how.

A version of this post was first delivered as a keynote at the World Happiness Summit 2023. You can find a full recording here.

References and further reading

    1. Reilly, C. (2020). The Rise Of The Chief Wellbeing Officer. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/colleenreilly/2020/07/07/the-rise-of-the-chief-wellbeing-officer/?sh=51ddee011fce
    2. Google (n.d.). Google Trends for search term “workplace wellbeing” https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=2013-05-01%202023-04-25&q=%22Workplace%20wellbeing%22&hl=en-GB
    3. (2021) Health and wellbeing at work survey 2022. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Base: 802 (2022); 668 (2021); 1,018 (2020); 1,056 (2019); 1,016 (2018).
    4. Gallup (2022). State of the Global Workplace 2022 Report. Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/349484/state-of-the-global-workplace-2022-report.aspx#ite-393248
    5. Brassey et al. (2022, May 27). Addressing employee burnout: Are you solving the right problem? McKinsey Health Institute. https://www.mckinsey.com/mhi/our-insights/addressing-employee-burnout-are-you-solving-the-right-problem
    6. CIPD (2022, Apr 5). Health and wellbeing at work. CIPD. https://www.cipd.org/uk/knowledge/reports/health-well-being-work
    7. Hampson et al. (2022). Mental health and employers: the case for investment – pandemic and beyond. https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/uk/Documents/consultancy/deloitte-uk-mental-health-report-2022.pdf
    8. Fleming, W. (2023). Estimating effects of individual-level workplace mental wellbeing interventions: Cross-sectional evidence from the UK. University of Oxford Wellbeing Research Centre Working Paper 2305. doi.org/10.5287/ora-yed9g7yro
    9. Commission for Equality in Mental Health (2020, November 12). Mental health for all? Centre for Mental Health. https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/publications/mental-health-for-all
    10. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2022, March 2). Mental wellbeing at work. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng212
    11. Gallup (n.d.). Life Evaluation Index. https://www.gallup.com/394505/indicator-life-evaluation-index.aspx
    12. De Neve, J-E and Ward, G. (2023). Measuring Workplace Wellbeing. University of Oxford Wellbeing Research Centre Working Paper 2303. doi.org/10.5287/ora-exxjkdzym

Header image: World Happiness Summit