Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace (part two)

Health and Wellbeing

What is wellbeing?

While there has been significant interest in the concept of wellbeing over the past few decades, there is no single definition. The concept reflects that many populations, particularly those in high income countries, are moving up ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’ 6 . The basic physiological needs are met – food, water, shelter etc. State health, education and benefit systems and increased employment mean that Maslow’s ‘safety’ needs are accessible to more people. According to Maslow, it is human nature to strive to move up the hierarchy:

“Human life will never be understood unless its highest aspirations are taken into account. Growth, self-actualization, the striving toward health, the quest for identity and autonomy, the yearning for excellence (and other ways of phrasing the striving “upward”) must by now be accepted beyond question as a widespread and perhaps universal human tendency” (Maslow, 1954, Motivation and Personality, pp.xii-xiii).

It is therefore, no surprise that definitions and concepts with regard to wellbeing reflect that it is about more than physical health – it’s about how we feel; our sense of fulfilment.

A few examples of how the concept of wellbeing is defined:

  • “A composite measure of how good an individual feels at the physical, mental and social level”7
  • “The subjective state of being healthy, happy, contented, comfortable, and satisfied with one’s life”8
  • BS 45002-1:20189 defines ‘well-being’ as a “positive state of mental, physical and social health’
  • The World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of health takes a holistic approach which incorporates wellbeing:
  • “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”10

Wellbeing as ‘the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy’ in multiple languages: While definitions differ, there are clear themes that emerge which reflect Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – physical and mental health, social engagement, personal fulfilment and contentment.

Wellbeing at Work

Wellbeing in the workplace has different meanings within and across organizations and countries. This may be influenced by complex cultural and societal beliefs, attitudes, constraints and regulatory and social systems.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) states that:

“Workplace wellbeing relates to all aspects of working life, from the quality and safety of the physical environment, to how workers feel about their work, their working environment, the climate at work and work organization. The aim of measures for workplace well-being is to complement Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) measures to make sure workers are safe, healthy, satisfied and engaged at work. Workers [sic] well-being is a key factor in determining an organization’s long-term effectiveness. Many studies show a direct link between productivity levels and the general health and well-being of the workforce”11

There are other definitions of wellbeing at work. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) have developed the following definition of occupational wellbeing:

“Creating an environment to promote a state of contentment which allows an employee to flourish and achieve their full potential for the benefit of themselves and their organization.”12

This definition reflects that ‘wellbeing’ is a personal, subjective state and that organizations have to create an environment and culture which empowers the worker to make positive personal lifestyle decisions, which will hopefully enhance their sense of wellbeing.

This definition is therefore strongly linked to worker engagement and creating an organization that employees will want to work for because they feel safe, are valued by their employer and feel part of a happy and supportive work community. This is part of what is often referred to as the ‘psychological contract’13 ; the unwritten expectations that workers and employers have about each other. The psychological contract recognizes that workers’ commitment and contentment isn’t achieved through wages alone.

Employers who pay attention to quality of life issues (their workers’ sense of wellbeing) can help secure employees’ commitment and motivation and improve productivity and retention rates. Changes in work practices are affecting some aspects of the psychological contract such as job security - employers can counter this by looking after other areas that have an impact on employees’ wellbeing. The CIPD’s ‘What’s happening with wellbeing14‘ paper reflects this principle by identifying five domains of wellbeing – physical, values, personal development, emotional and work/organization. This holistic approach not only reflects that these elements are overlapping but that they enable an individual to fulfil their potential, bringing us back to Maslow “…Growth, self-actualization, the striving toward health, the quest for identity and autonomy, the yearning for excellence...”.

Other terms are also used, such as ‘workplace health promotion’ (used frequently across Europe (FR) Promotion de la santé au travail, (DE) Gesundheitsförderung am Arbeitsplatz, (ES) Salud en la empresa) and ‘wellness’. They all share the same basic concepts.

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Next week, in Part 3 we’ll explain why workplace wellbeing is not occupational health and safety.

6 Maslow, A (1954). Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper. ISBN 0-06-041987-3

7 Szalai & Andres (1981).

8 Waddell & Burton (2006)



11 ILO (International Labour Organization). Workplace Well-being, 2009. Available at

12 CIPD, What’s happening with well-being at work? May 2007 Reference: 3869

13 ROUSSEAU, D.M. (1995) Psychological contracts in organizations: understanding written and unwritten agreements. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

14 CIPD, What’s happening with well-being at work? May 2007 Reference: 3869