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Wellbeing in the workplace: a challenge and an opportunity

12th June, 2018

Alex Bailey



“If all you do is work to fix problems, to alleviate suffering, then by definition you are working to get people to zero, to neutral”

“Positive psychology is another arrow in the quiver of public policy and psychology through which we can move wellbeing above zero”

Martin Seligman

The challenge: there is increased awareness, fuelled by the media and data insights, that despite high engagement levels, negative symptoms of low wellbeing are on the rise in our organisations. The costs of this, to our health, happiness and performance, are massive and well documented.

We want to do everything we can to support our people’s wellbeing, but we can struggle with how to position this - how to fit it into our people strategy so it aligns meaningfully with leadership, performance, diversity & inclusion and employee engagement.

The opportunity: there is an holistic and simple model of wellbeing that can help on many levels:

  • It is relevant to all of us, not just those in crisis, so it helps us take a proactive, preventative approach to strengthening organisational wellbeing.
  • It is underpinned by evidence based-research which connects people’s wellbeing and performance, so it directly aligns with our business needs, helping us build a clear strategy
  • It is simple enough to help everyone understand and take accountability for their own and others’ wellbeing.

The PERMA model was introduced by Martin Seligman in 2011 through his research into flourishing and thriving in the new area of positive psychology.  The model comprises 5 core pillars, each equally important and combining to give a foundation of positive wellbeing that can be learned.

There are already numerous examples of the wellbeing and performance benefits to organisations, from interventions focused on each separate element of PERMA (which stands for Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment) but the application of the holistic PERMA model in the workplace is pioneering.

The 5 pillars are mapped here to the components of other relevant models (e.g. Ryff, CIPD)

Positive Emotions:  Mental / Self-Acceptance / Autonomy

Engagement: Work life balance / Environmental Mastery

Relationships: Social / Collective / Positive Relations

Meaning: Spiritual / Purpose

Accomplishment: Personal Growth

We use PERMA as a model of “psychological” wellbeing rather than using the term “mental” for one important reason: in our opinion, the word “mental” has negative connotations and limits its application across all of the 5 pillars, as it only relates to one pillar (see above).

There are a variety of initiatives in organisations that relate to wellbeing. The majority focus on fixing mental ill health and physical health problems; getting people back to zero/neutral as Seligman refers to. There are several others that relate to the practical elements of being able to work such as childcare, flexible hours or location options, as well as relationship work on developing more inclusive workplaces.  

These broad initiatives such as “coaching” or “talent development” easily map to one of these pillars, but do they positively and strategically focus on what can be learned in each pillar to lead to flourishing and thriving?  It seems we still have quite a way to go beyond simply creating employee engagement to really improving wellbeing positively.

Some helpful questions to consider in application:

  • What interventions/support do we provide for our people for psychological wellbeing, (in addition to Physical or Financial wellbeing awareness and education)?
  • Is our current approach focused on treating symptoms, or is it strategic, preventative and positive?
  • How could we best enable our individuals, teams and organisation to thrive in each area?
  • Should we be putting more pressure on our managers to be responsible for this?

A longer version of this article appears at https://www.baileyandfrench.com/future-of-wellbeing-at-work/


Alex Bailey

Alex Bailey is a pioneer of Applied Positive Psychology and Strengths Based Working in the UK and Internationally, Leader of Bailey & French and Advisor to the Work Leadership team at IPPA. She has a particular focus on Positive Psychological Wellbeing and offers a futuristic perspective on this for the world of work. She has been designing and delivering large scale cultural evolution programmes that feel human and have immediate positive impact for over 15 years across all organisation types, sizes, markets and industries, (Alex Bailey BSc MSc MBPsS CPP Leader).

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