Humans have been striving for centuries to source wellbeing, to find relief for the struggles we experience in our work and personal lives. Often we go searching for “one” answer only to find there is no one answer. In fact, there is no one definition of wellbeing. I hope this blog provides useful information as well as new perspectives for consideration on your wellbeing journey
The term wellbeing itself has become increasingly popular in the last decade. With this increased attention has come a proliferation of views about what it is and how to measure it. What appears to be commonly agreed on is that wellbeing is more than just physical biomedical health and that it, even as a concept, is still personally defined. We cannot even agree on a universal spelling of wellbeing as North America tends to favour well-being and other English-speaking countries’ wellbeing. I vote for efficiency despite the fact that most people reading this blog are likely from NA. 🙂
The World Health Organization has, since 1948, defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This definition leads to the understanding that “health” and “wellbeing” are somewhat interchangeable particularly if we maintain this expanded view of what “health” means. Wellbeing consultants also expand beyond the obvious definitions of “health” and add other factors. Dr. Martin Seligman, a key founder of Positive Psychology well known for his work on wellbeing, defined its five pillars as Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. In Seligman’s paradigm, the idea of physical health seems to be absent altogether though one of the most common measurement tools, PERMA, developed by Dr. Peggy Kern, includes specific questions for physical health in its questionnaire. Other researchers expand the definition in other ways.
Some of you might be bored already and if so my apologies for decreasing your wellbeing, if only for a moment. I believe increasing our wellbeing is a journey that is unique for each organization and individual. On this journey, we need a map that provides direction and clarity so that we can have a general idea of the destination and equally, some confirmation that we are heading in the right direction. The five topographical dimensions I work with are not particularly innovative: physical, mental, social, professional, and metaphysical wellbeing. My primary aim is to simplify the map and make it useful for both individuals and organizations as they move to flourishing. Remember that each dimension is linked to all the others, none stands alone on the map.
~ Physical Wellbeing ~
Physical wellbeing is the dimension that we believe we know the best. In the map analogy, this is the city that everyone first thinks of when we say the place where everything happens. New York City, for example, if we were in America. Toronto for Canada. London. Paris. Dubai. Singapore. Tokyo. Most people have a general idea of the city because it is talked about so much by others, written about, maybe shown on TV or in movies. We all have general ideas of what would make a stellar visit to one of these cities. But in reality, the average person knows more myths than truths. It’s as if I wanted to go to NYC for a vacation and googled the top ten things to do there. Each list that appears would almost certainly be different and all the suggestions might be good ones. Yet, it could well be that no list would actually create a stellar trip for me. The same is true for our physical wellbeing, there’s a gap between what we think we know and what is actually true.
We all generally know the things we need to do to be physically healthy. We are pretty good at noticing the symptoms when we have a physical ailment. Yet, when it comes to preventative or corrective therapies the choices become many and they can be confusing. One reason for this is the endless growth of data and conclusions generated by our equally endless research. Close to 300,000 academic articles have been published on the topic of sleep alone in the last five years. We are learning more every day and with each new study the adage, “the more we know the more we realize we don’t know,” is proven anew.
For individuals, there are various subjective measurement tools to assess their physical health. There are also biomedical tools medical doctors employ to provide an assessment. Most organizations already collect a wealth of wellness data on their employees in conjunction with the health benefit programs they provide. Depending on your jurisdiction there might also be public data available on common biomedical concerns. And we all know there are general foundational level good habits when it comes to obtaining optimal physical health. Sleep, recovery time, nutrition, and physical activity are the basics.
A key tenet at Bridge2Wellbeing is focusing on the people involved, the whole person. With both individuals and organizations there is a primary need to understand what an optimal level of physical wellbeing looks like, how does it manifest as an everyday experience? As an example, burnout is a common contemporary organizational problem. It has mental as well as physical components. In working with it we need to have a sense of what physical wellbeing looks like when it is low as well as when it is thriving. With the help of empirically validated tools, it’s possible to acquire insight of the current state as well as what an ideal state could be.
~ Mental Wellbeing ~
Mental wellbeing has increased in focus particularly during the pandemic, though most research recognizes that the mental health challenges were already present before COVID-19. We also continue to see increasing number of studies to support the strong positive relationship between our mental, physical and social health (see references).
We’ve all had the experience of being physically tired and how that can affect our “mood.” Similarly, if we wake up feeling physically strong and energized then our emotions are equally positive. The converse of this is also true, our emotions can have an impact on how we physically feel. The science behind how our brain and body work together is a fascinating subject for me personally, and it sometimes seems that each day brings more information about the interplay.
Research has shown that a major factor, perhaps the most critical one, regarding the interaction of organizations and mental health is the degree of stigma attached to the topic. The significance of this stigma does vary by culture, family, work and even geography, but overwhelmingly the data suggests that most of us are not willing to talk about our mental health, whether that includes a diagnosed mental illness or not. One study from the UK noted that 95% of the employee workforce would not tell their manager they were taking a mental health day and instead would give another excuse, often a physical illness. Removing the stigma should be the primary work culture objective. It’s not easy but doable with strong support from leadership, education to support mental health champions and an ongoing full-year calendar communication campaign. Mental health champions do not need to be managers or leaders however they must have the full committed backing of leadership in order to be successful. There is an abundance of free workplace mental health strategies available to be leveraged and customized to your organizations’ culture. Bridge2Wellbeing starts with first understanding how your organization currently addresses this issue, and where you aspire to be and then helps you create a roadmap that is both ambitious and achievable.
At an individual level, there has not been a coaching conversation that I’ve had where one of the key questions asked was not “How do you feel about that?” Many of us go through life in doing mode and we forget to pause to ask ourselves this simple question. Often it is because we have not been exposed to the full language of emotions range. In leading sociology researcher Dr. Brenè Brown’s book, Atlas to the Heart, she shares from her review of over 550,000 comments from 70,000 people naming how they felt, there were only three emotions most people could name – happy, sad and angry. Brown’s further research with clinicians suggests there are 87 primary ones needed to fully express our potential range of experiences. The coaching process expands self-awareness of feelings, provides the ability to distinguish and name emotions that are present, and removes the often-negative self-judgement associated with some emotions. It helps to leverage our emotions to fuel positive momentum in achieving our goals.
Of course, a key part of most subjective mental health wellbeing assessments is the ratio of how often we feel positive emotions or negative ones. Wellbeing is not the absence of negative ones. Bridge2Wellbeing starts first with helping individuals notice more quickly when they are, for instance, feeling frustrated, identify what is the causal heart of that frustration, clarify what they want to feel and find the path to move to that feeling. This same approach is used in organizations when looking at conflict and experiences that cause employee stress. Conflict and stress do not have to be bad things. They are usually pointing us to something that is of value to be examined. Left to fester it can produce anger, resentment and disengagement. Noticed, it can lead us to a more fulfilled life and engaged work culture.
~ Social Wellbeing ~
The importance of social wellbeing has certainly been blasted at us during the last few years of the pandemic. Most of us have experienced more social isolation in one form or another. Even before the pandemic, the UK had appointed a minister of loneliness due to a 2017 study that found more than 9 million people often or always feels lonely. In 2021 Japan appointed their first minister of loneliness due to a rise in suicides.
As with the other dimensions, a good place to begin understanding the goal of social wellbeing is to ask the question, “If it exists what would it look like? Is it the opposite of loneliness?” Common answers are that it involves a sense of belonging, of having meaningful connections. In short, yes, it’s very much the opposite of loneliness.
IIn an organizational context, we notice the increasing value placed on diversity and inclusion, the goal is greater equity and a sense of belonging; that we feel valued for our authentic contributions and do not need to change who we are in order to “fit in” in a false way. Within the organizational context, we typically see engagement surveys in an organization attempting to gauge employees’ perception of the organization’s inclusion culture. While these are important tools to leverage they cannot be the only tool used. There are still many systemic issues that destroy the psychological safety that is needed for belonging and meaningful connection, particularly for those who identify with the minority experience.
Before I proceed with the last two dimensions there is one super important point that I want to refer back to from the WHO definition, which is that wellbeing is not merrily the absence of disease. On the contrary, I could have a physical or mental illness or atypical social behavior patterns and still be flourishing. Our goals are not to eradicate what is commonly referred to as a disease, illness or disability that may exist in these dimensions. Our goals are to provide the right resources and systems that enable all people to thrive in all their beautiful diversity.
~ Professional Wellbeing ~
Professional wellbeing is integrating meaning and purpose. Many people struggle still with the concept of “life purpose” or go to feelings of shame when they cannot speak about how meaningful their work or life is at any given point in it. A useful paradigm to discover is the squiggly career. It is a broader perspective than the usual career ladder climb. What most healthy individuals and organizations are looking for is how are we continuing to grow, and how to increase our positive impact on the world.
For organizations, it is increasingly apparent that it is an employee market, and its leaders and systems need to demonstrate to employees its investment in their professional growth, that it is a learning organization, which means more than just offering a bunch of education but truly prioritizing how it asks employees to spend their time. Organizations must recognize employees for their overall contributions, not a narrowly defined job description. For individuals, this means adopting a growth mindset and having a clear idea of what impact you are having and want to have through your job.
~ Metaphysical Wellbeing ~
Metaphysical wellbeing is a dimension you may not have seen referred to before. As I thought about my experience of wellbeing I knew there was a dimension asserting our connection to the earth and the greater universe that was key to include. There are models that refer to spiritual health not in terms of religion per se but as an awareness of higher purpose or the grasp of the global connectedness of everything. Metaphysical felt the simplest word to incorporate the scientific idea of everything as connected, and the impact that understanding has on our actions and the other dimensions of wellbeing. Can we enter the world sustainably? Can we interact mindfully? For me, this is a key dimension that represents not just our personal wellbeing but the highest level of individual enlightenment and organizational leadership.
~ Conclusion ~
In coaching, there is a common tool called the “wheel of life” used to work with individuals on identifying the key categories that contribute to their experience of fulfillment. Each category becomes an individual pie shape in a wheel. Ultimately one’s wheel does not need to be perfectly round but it should at least roll. This same concept applies here with these five dimensions. Each needs some level of care and feeding all the time. Each affects the rest. And there will be times when one area is suffering and needs a bit more attention. This too is part of the journey.
Hopefully, these dimensions will help you sort through some of the complications involved. I hope they are a map that gives guidance.
The world is forever changing, and we are forever changing with it.
References below unfortunately require access to journal publications.
Higher participation in physical activity is associated with less use of inpatient mental health services: A cross-sectional study. 2018. Pyschiatry Research 259 pp 550-553.
Empirical analysis on the positive correlation between physical exercise and the mental health of college students. 2020. Revista Argentina de Clinica Psicoldica. Vol XXIX, pp. 1162-1168.
A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for adults: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport. 2013. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 10:135.