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May 14, 2014

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Health and wellbeing: taking root


The HSL has developed a new interactive tool to help organisations get to grips with wellbeing at work. Dr Jennifer Lunt, Professor David Fishwick and Professor Andrew Curran reveal all

Wellbeing at work is important; its absence in UK workplaces is thought to cost over £60bn annually. And this isn’t just the cost of absence from work — perhaps as a result of the recession, ‘presenteeism’ (the tendency to be at work and unproductive when unwell, possibly through fear of losing your job) has apparently become more commonplace. Presenteeism alone is thought to cost UK employers over £15bn a year.[i]

No wonder, then, that over recent years the Government has sought ways of reducing costs associated with a lack of wellbeing within the working age population. The publication of Dame Carole Black’s review of the health of Britain’s working age population[ii] has been followed by a series of national wellbeing initiatives, including the introduction of the ‘fit note’, the provision of occupational health advice services for small businesses and GPs, and the development of the Workplace Wellbeing Tool[iii].

At the same time, further evidence is emerging of the business gains that can be achieved by managing wellbeing at work more effectively. For example, a recent meta-analysis of ‘wellness’ initiatives (focusing on health promotion) found a return on investment of over three to one[iv], with an average of 1.7 absence days being saved per employee per year.

According to Heron[v], employers who take a positive stance in relation to wellbeing are more likely to have “engaged employees [who are] aligned with business goals”, further evidence that managing wellbeing at work is worth the investment.

In light of this, the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) and colleagues across Europe have developed a new tool to help get the message out to employers that a proactive approach to wellbeing at work is good for business.

Wellbeing, and how can it be improved?

The more widely cited definitions of wellbeing[vi],[vii] recognise that it depends upon the interaction between the social, physical and psychological resources that an individual has, and their context. Experiencing wellbeing means that an individual feels good; is functioning at an optimal level psychologically, socially and physically; can fulfil their potential and flourish; work productively; and generally have a positive impact on their surroundings, whether at work, home or in the community.

As wellbeing at work arises from the interaction between the worker and their workplace, employers need to think carefully about the context in which their workforces can flourish and be productive. How an organisation is run, what its culture and values are, and whether worker wellbeing is seen as a priority relative to productivity, quality standards or customer satisfaction, matters as much as whether workers take physical exercise, or eat a healthy diet. To keep an ageing workforce productive, managing workforce wellbeing also means dealing with the health challenges that the ageing process inevitably brings[viii].

Positive approaches to health and wellbeing are becoming increasingly popular[ix]. Thinking has moved on from a preoccupation with preventing harm — as embodied by conventional risk management and research on stress prevention — towards harnessing physical and psychological health ‘assets’ or resources that can create the ideal environment for workers to excel and innovate. Examples of such assets might be positive working relationships, meaningful work, mastery and morale. While low morale isn’t necessarily harmful, having high morale is considered to be good for wellbeing.[x]

In short, effectively managing wellbeing at work means taking a holistic approach — one that takes into account systems, culture and leadership, and engineers positive outcomes that go beyond the prevention of harm. To date, wellbeing at work programmes have often been concerned with health promotion, giving employees healthy food options, gym vouchers and support to give up smoking, or private medical insurance and access to counselling.[xi] These can have a legitimate role in enhancing the wellbeing of individual workers, but they don’t tackle the underlying influences on wellbeing at work, such as leadership styles, attitudes to health, and management systems. How can we prevent this apparent default to solutions that target just the worker, and not the workplace environment?


Wellbeing Tree and how it can help

One solution might be to find more innovative ways of communicating to employers what wellbeing at work really encompasses, where they should target their efforts, and why it should matter to them. With this in mind, the HSL worked with other wellbeing experts from the Partnership for European Research into Occupational Safety and Health (PEROSH) to develop the ‘Wellbeing Tree’, an interactive tool that helps employers visualise the different factors that feed into workplace wellbeing.

The image of the tree — in particular a fruit tree — provided a powerful metaphor for the holistic approach to wellbeing at work that we’re trying to communicate. The many different factors that contribute to workplace wellbeing are the roots of the tree, implying a clear relationship between investing in workforce wellbeing, and the benefits of doing so — the ‘growth’ of the tree, and the fruit it produces.

The tree image also helps to show the interdependence between the worker and the context of their work, in relation to wellbeing. The interaction of the individual and wider society can be made clear; general economic austerity, for example, can be understood as poorer environmental conditions, giving rise to an impoverished yield.

We have developed two versions of the tree tool — one aimed at employers, and another aimed at occupational health and safety experts, which uses more specialist language. As well as general explanations of the tree’s purpose and how it can be used, each tool has labels attached to different elements, which are revealed by dragging the mouse over them, and which explain what the tree’s various roots, branches and fruit represent.

The Tree’s roots

The Wellbeing Tree is not intended to be an empirical, testable model — rather, it shows in an intuitive way the great variety of factors that can affect wellbeing. Its intended purpose is to provide a compelling conceptual tool, to help increase employers’ and employees’ understanding of a widely misconstrued topic, and to help guide improvements.

Nevertheless, the development of the Wellbeing Tree has been a rigorous process, based on consensus among experts. Definitions of wellbeing, influences upon it and potential ways of improving it were identified through surveys of PEROSH members. The basic concept of the interactive tool, as well as its content and the labels that go with it, were then similarly arrived at through expert discussions. The Wellbeing Tree can therefore be seen as representing the current evidence base for wellbeing at work.

If current trends towards an increased intensification of work, demands for more flexible working and a blurring of boundaries between work and home continue, then getting across messages about wellbeing in the workplace will become ever more important. The Wellbeing Tree helps employers understand the importance of wellbeing in the workplace, and the value of investing in it.

To see the Wellbeing Tree, visit:

(Author details) Dr Jennifer Lunt, Professor David Fishwick and Professor Andrew Curran

[i] Newcombe, T. (2013). Stress and presenteeism ‘sapping UK productivity’ says research.


[ii] Black, C. (2008). Working for a Healthier Tomorrow: Government Report for the Department of Work and Pensions


[iv] Rouse, M., Hurst, C., Sarma, S., Zaric, G. (2012). Meta-analysis. Workplace Wellness Programmes


[v] Heron, R.J.L. (2013). Editorial, Occupational Medicine, 314-319


[vi] Foresight Mental Capital and Well-being Project (2008). Final Project Report. The Government Office for Science. London


[vii] Waddell, G. & Burton, A. K. (2006). Is work good for your health and wellbeing? London: The Stationary Office


[viii] Kendall, N., Burton, K., Lunt. J., Daniels, K. and Mellor, N. (2012). Common Health Problems: The Chasm of Lost Opportunity. Symposium at the Second International Wellbeing at Work Conference.


[ix] Seligman, M.E.P. (2008). Positive Health. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 57, 3-18


[x] Lunt, J., Fox, D., Bowen, J. et al (2007). Applying the Biopsychosocial Approach to Managing the Risks of Contemporary Occupational Health Conditions; Scoping Review. HSL Report HSL/2007/24. Retrieved from


[xi] Business in the Community (2009). Healthy People = Healthy Profits

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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