Wellbeing: The Latest 'Buzzword' or 'A Passport To A Better Life'?

What is wellbeing? A fluffy tree hugging theory or a politically correct term invented by a Feng Shui expert? These are true only if you consider the quality of your life to be 'fluffy'.

The World Organisation capture the main essence of the term by saying that wellbeing is when ‘an individual realises their potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’ Simple, right?


In fact, wellbeing is not even a recent ‘fashionable’ term, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) suggest that the term was first recorded in 1613 (not a year when fashionable springs to mind). Interestingly the 1922 OED definition refers significantly to prosperity alongside health when they clarify, ‘well-being - the state of being or doing well in life; happy, healthy, or prosperous condition; welfare.’

The focus on wellbeing has increased recently due, at least in part, to the rise in levels of stress-related illness. For example a survey completed by The Health & Safety Executive in 2010/11 shows 22.1 million working days were lost due to work-related illness with stress, depression or anxiety accounting for 10.8 million days. Hang on! How did we move from wellbeing to stress, and where does building resilience fit?

Fight or Flight

Let’s start at the beginning, with pressure: we all face pressure in our lives. However, some pressure is good for us, it stimulates us and can make us more productively (think about those times you have heard yourself say ‘I get more done when I’m busy’). However, if you experience more pressure than you can cope with this can cause stress.

This ‘stress response’ causes physiological changes in a person which prepare the body for 'fight or flight' where in caveman days, our responses to danger was to prepare to run or fight to stay alive.

In the workplace, stress can be caused by very many factors which are not physically threatening, but which initiate the same physiological response.

Unlike our caveman, it is normally inappropriate for people today to have to choose between fighting or running away; for example, when the computer crashes, having to sit next to a co-worker who whistles all day or facing a difficult meeting with the boss. 

Nevertheless these relatively 'low level' threats (compared to a sabre-tooth tiger attack), which tend to go unnoticed over a long period of time, have potentially serious health consequences longer term.

Let’s look at some of these work-based threats.

Causes Of Stress At Work

Those clever people at the Health and Safety Executive also identified 6 main sources of pressure at work:

  • Demands: workload, work patterns and the work environment.

  • Control: how much say the person has in the way they do their work.

  • Support: encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.

  • Relationships: promoting positive working relationships to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.

  • Role: whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that the person does not have conflicting roles.

  • Change: how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

Signs of Pressure and Stress:

Wellbeing is a highly personal interpretation of how we feel and the effects of pressure can vary greatly. We are all different so parts of one person’s body and mental state will be more robust to stress than others however symptoms tend to fall into three categories:

  • Physical Signs - feeling constantly tired or energy slumps during day; susceptibility to minor ailments (taking sporadic days off); complaining about aching shoulders/back/neck or even an increased heart rate/palpitations (particularly in unusual situations);

  • Mental Signs - poor memory; lowered concentration or feelings of apathy and depression;

  • Social Signs – withdrawing from people; snapping at colleagues; emotional outbursts – tears/aggression/bad temper; a loss of the ability to enjoy life or an unsubstantiated feeling of being ‘got at’.

These signs above are indicative – the important thing to remember here is that any signs you notice in yourself or others would be a change from your usual behaviour (when you are not experiencing excess pressure).

What Can I Do?

The really good news is that we can do something to create our own sense of wellbeing. 

There is an increased recognition that if we take responsibility for proactively looking after our mental and physical wellbeing then we will reap the benefits: this is where ‘building resilience’ fits. These benefits can include, lengthening and improving the quality of our lives and having more time doing what we love.

Some recent research conducted by Mark Rapaport with 53 healthy adults revealed that those who had a moderate pressure massage experienced decreases in stress hormones and increases in white blood cells, indicating a boost in the immune system.

Hopefully, it’s all beginning to sound less and less fluffy by the second and you’re probably dialling up for that massage right now.

Every individual plays a crucial role in taking ownership for their own and others wellbeing, however, it takes time, commitment and ownership. 

There are lots of techniques you can use which can be summarised into three categories (there’s a trend here):

  • Palliative – the quick fixes we can fall back on such as chocolate, wine, smoking which although good at the time, can have negative impacts on us (even those honeycombed chocolates which supposedly aren’t naughty).

  • Indirect – some of those lovely techniques such as meditation and massage (mentioned above), which can have a positive impact but which do not directly address the root of the cause of pressure.

  • Direct – as the name suggests, techniques which fall into this category get to the root of the issue. These include methods such as assertiveness, giving feedback, problem solving or coaching but also less obvious techniques such as visualisation and positive self talk.

You will find out more about some of these direct methods on our ‘Building Your Resilience’ workshop and we’ll look forward to seeing you there.

Authors: Mandy Holloway & Tom Welburn, who as directors at Footprint Learning & Development Ltd have over 50 years experience in the L&D field

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