Skip to main content

Understanding and achieving well-being in the workplace

Businesses in New Zealand are used to addressing and complying with their health and safety obligations, but a healthy workplace also puts well-being at the centre of everything it does. But what do we mean by well-being? We ask Professor Peter Boxall, Chair in Human Resource Management at the University of Auckland.


 Workplace well-being might mean different things to different people. How would you define it?


Academics in this area tend to use a framework in which we talk about physical well-being, psychological well-being, and social or relational well-being.


Physical well-being is health and safety; making sure your life or limb isn't at risk in a workplace and making sure the job is consistent with good general health. It's also your economic well-being, how well the work you're doing sustains your life at an economic level. Job security is also important; how reliable one's source of income is, which is a big issue these days.


And psychological well-being?


It's common now to distinguish two levels. There's hedonic well-being, how happy people feel in the moment, how satisfying things are day to day. Then there's eudaimonic well-being, which is whether you find work fulfilling, whether it allows you to meet your potential. It's possible to have hedonic well-being, because you're in a workplace where people are happy and respectful, but on a deeper level you might be doing work that is too simple, that is not fulfilling.


And relational well-being?


That's about the quality of relationships. We tend to think about workplace well-being in terms of what the employer can do to create well-being. But employees tend to bring their own personalities into the workplace, and you might get personality types that have a big impact on workplace well-being, and which can be difficult to manage.


So, a happy workplace is going well in all three aspects of well-being, physical, psychological, and emotional/relational. But that's hard to achieve...


 If you were going to advise a business manager or owner, or those working in Human Resource Management on how to enhance workplace well-being, where should they start?


The golden rule is to start a process; validate and impute significance to well-being issues, and start talking about it with the workforce.


In a larger work place you're more likely to have trade unions or consultative committees who will raise these issues. In smaller enterprises it can be easier to get a conversation going informally - as long as the business owner has, and makes, time for it. And as long as the conversation isn't dominated by how to make the business more profitable, but how to enhance worker well-being and how you can work together to achieve that. New Zealanders are still quite egalitarian, and tend to say what they think, which can be pretty helpful.


If you've got a high level of staff turnover?


Go and find out why. A common historical technique would be the exit interview. It's the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, but you can learn something from that. The fence at the top is to have an engagement survey, or have some processes where you sit down and listen to people, about how they feel about their work - which bits of the job they like and are motivated by, and which bits they are finding de-motivating.


Performance appraisals have traditionally been a forum in which that could be done. The problem is that they too often focus on performance, rather than on the employee's development. So I'd advocate an annual discussion, not about performance, but about individual development, focusing on job satisfaction and opportunities to grow. 'Let's talk about you'.


How important is workplace training for workplace well-being?


The most important thing is on-the-job learning. If training contributes to that, or helps you go to the next level, that's good training. The acid test is whether the employee feels they're learning, at the rate they want to. But there are a lot of training programmes that can be a waste of money, not very relevant, taught by people who aren't very experienced. Which is why I emphasise learning rather than training.


Mental health issues in the workplace seem to be increasing. Is there something about the modern workplace that's partly to blame?


There are mental health conditions that are bought into workplaces. On the other hand, there are workplaces that are creating poor mental health.


A big problem is work intensity, with more work being loaded into people's jobs over time. At the same time people's ability to use their own discretion, about how they do the job, is being cut back; they're more regulated, subject to increasing bureaucracy, there's greater specification on how work is to be done, and less reliance on professional judgment.


There are loads of studies that show that a high level of control over how we do our work brings out our creativity and allows us to respond to pressure. What we've had over the last 20 or 30 years, in Anglophone countries, is increasing work expectations, but no real improvement in self-management, or autonomy, or freedom to decide how to do things. These are two key trends that are a principal driver of lower job satisfaction.


If you're working within a large bureaucratic origination, there's probably limited scope to change this at a managerial level...


That's right, if you're a middle or front-line manager who is not given much autonomy, you're locked into the same pressures; it's a big systemic issue. However, senior management could start by looking at the job descriptions in the organisation. Are they overly prescriptive? What scope are we building in for people to put their stamp on the job? So it's about standing back from the bureaucratic must-dos, and asking, must we really do this? How much of the job can be left to the judgment of an experienced person?


But if you're a small to medium sized business?


Mercifully, there will typically be less bureaucracy, but you still can stop and think about the quality of the jobs. Aside from the safety issues, are we giving people enough room to express themselves?


Employers interested in workplace well-being, and looking for guidance on how start talking to your staff about it, might like to try Good4Work. This is a free online tool developed by a group of national health agencies to help businesses embed practices that enhance workplace well-being.


The tool starts with a quiz asking staff to rate their workplace against 22 statements that cover the essential elements for a positive work culture and environment. You can share this with all your staff, so everyone gets to have their say. Good4Work will guide you through:

  • Why this aspect of well-being is important.
  • Your rights and obligations as an employer
  • How to check in with your people.
  • Tips on how to engage with your people.

It also has a comprehensive range of resources that support each of the 22 aspects of workplace well-being, all in one place and all for free.





Over the last 20 years we've had increasing work expectations, but no real improvement in freedom to decide how to do things.