Author Bio ▼

Dominic Cooper PhD is an independent researcher who has authored many books, articles and scientific research papers on safety culture, behavioural-safety and leadership.
July 4, 2023

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Wellbeing: Much ado about nothing?

Dominic Cooper suggests ambiguity around wellbeing is skewing other OSH priorities. 

Eight of Britain’s most prominent OSH organisations have formed an alliance to offer a holistic perspective on critical OSH issues for the first time. A fantastic initiative that could tackle important issues such as serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs), physical ill-health, industrial diseases, etc., they have instead chosen to tackle mental health, based on exaggerated annual British HSE stress figures! There are professional bodies qualified to address mental health (e.g., the British Psychological Society), whereas, in general, the OSH profession lacks the experience or competence to do so. Recognising professional competence limitations is a necessary condition of being chartered in OSH; it helps to avoid breaching Codes of Conduct while reducing exposure to legal action from affected clients.

What is wellbeing?

Credit: Towfiqu barbhuiya/Unsplash

No universal definition of wellbeing exists, but terms such as quality of life, happiness, life satisfaction and prosperity are often used interchangeably with wellbeing in popular literature. Happiness describes momentary pleasant emotions; life satisfaction refers to a deeper contentment with one’s lot; some argue wellbeing means quality of life which actually encompasses physical, material, social and emotional wellbeing, and development and activity; prosperity refers to the impact of tangible economic conditions[i]. These concepts speak to secondary effects (i.e. epiphenomena) of various activities. Epiphenomena (e.g., happiness) do not causally influence other epiphenomena (e.g., safety).

Without comparative bad times, people cannot appreciate good times; therefore, both are necessary for self-determinations of wellbeing and are normal parts of the human experience. How people rate their wellbeing depends on context (e.g., war and peace) and personality[ii]. In other words, wellbeing is an elusive and fleeting concept with continually shifting boundaries. While age plays a significant part[iii], as older people tend to be happier (Victor Meldrew notwithstanding!), these shifting boundaries present real problems. Everyone’s wellbeing is subject to change without anyone doing anything!

How is wellbeing measured?

In academia, the most prominent self-reported wellbeing trait is ‘happiness’, along with ratings of life satisfaction. Other traits/topics include pleasantness, serenity, resilience, mindfulness, work engagement, work effectiveness, work-related outcomes, job resources, job demands, workload, pressure, conflict, emotional exhaustion, anxiety, depression, work-related stress, income, living standards, freedom, personal and community relationships, peace and security. None of this eclectic range of topics is the standard fare of an average OSH professional development course (e.g., NEBOSH). Even the psychology profession divides this vast range of topics into various specialist sub-disciplines (e.g., clinical, occupational, counselling, coaching and health psychology).

Impact of wellbeing interventions

To determine whether people’s workplace wellbeing can be improved, a literature search sought evidence that [1] interventions truly improve wellbeing, and [2] improved wellbeing improves health & safety performance (i.e., reduces injuries, incidents, ill-health, etc.).

a) Interventions for individuals

Various meta-analyses of multiple studies, involving tens of thousands of workers and numerous workplaces, revealed individual workers[iv] who participate in wellbeing interventions aimed at improving multiple wellbeing indicators are no better off than those who don’t; wellbeing interventions targeting individuals make no tangible difference. Twin studies show genetics may play a big role in wellbeing[v], and these are outside of everyone’s control.

b) Organisational-level interventions

An assessment of wellbeing and organisational performance examined the availability of precursor resources at four levels: individual (job crafting); group (social support); leader (relationship with followers & transformational style); and organisation (autonomy & HR practices). No significant relationships were found[vi]. Changes in working-time arrangements did exhibit a strong quality of evidence[viii], but these and others, such as increasing income to improve prosperity[v], again, are not in the OSH profession’s control.

c) Health & safety

Clearly the latest OSH buzzword, wellbeing is the focus of numerous OSH texts which highlight what should happen, while barely any work has tried to discover what does happen. With an almost complete absence of OSH-related wellbeing interventions, a Nigerian survey study did not find any significant relationships between employee wellbeing, safety training or design of equipment; however, frequent routine maintenance of equipment was associated with wellbeing[ix]. Of greater relevance to the UK OSH body’s rationale for promoting wellbeing, is a Scandinavian study based on Socially Sustainable Finland 2020 policies. The six-year wellbeing study specifically targeted a 25% workplace accident reduction by 2020, compared to 2010 figures; it failed[x]. Conversely, US[xi] and Chinese[xiii] studies reveal good OSH performance is associated with workers’ general wellbeing. Thus, improving wellbeing does not reduce accidents, but good health & safety performance does improve wellbeing!

Lessons learned

Having no agreed-upon wellbeing definition also complicates matters. What is the OSH profession supposed to target for improvement? Possibilities include happiness, quality of life, life satisfaction, prosperity, or any one of the other 20 or so issues. Even these can have multiple meanings, but more often than not they point to the government’s societal remit (e.g. deprivation, crime), which the HSE’s new 10-year strategy appears to adopt. It seems the British OSH institutions’ call to improve people’s general wellbeing per se is akin to answering the question: how long is a piece of string?

Current science shows the impact of both organisational and individual wellbeing interventions is problematic; whether for organisational performance per se or accident reduction, they make no tangible difference. Interventions focused on working-time arrangements and income levels do improve wellbeing, but both are outside the control of the OSH profession. Other evidence shows the OSH profession’s best course of action to improve wellbeing is to resolutely and single-mindedly focus on reducing serious injuries, fatalities and physical ill-health.

In summary, workplace wellbeing interventions do not work, and wellbeing does not reduce injuries! Rather, reducing workplace injuries and ill-health improves workplace wellbeing.


References

[i] Eger, R. J. & Maridal, J. H. (2015). A statistical meta-analysis of the wellbeing literature. International Journal of Wellbeing, 5(2), 45-74. doi:10.5502/ijw.v5i2.4

[ii] Diener, E. D. (1998). Subjective well-being and personality. Advanced Personality, 311-334.

[iii] Mogilner et al. (2011). Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(4), 395-402.

[iv] Fleming, W. (2023). Estimating effects of individual-level workplace mental wellbeing interventions: Cross-sectional evidence from the UK. University of Oxford Wellbeing Research Centre Working Paper 2305. doi.org/10.5287/ora-yed9g7yro

[v] Bartels, M. (2015). Genetics of wellbeing and its components satisfaction with life, happiness, and quality of life: A review and meta-analysis of heritability studies. Behav Genet, 45, 137–156.

[vi] Nielsena, K., Nielsen, M. B., Ogbonnayad, C., Känsäläe, M., Saarie, E., & Isaksson, K. (2017). Workplace resources to improve both employee well-being and performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Work & Stress, 31(2), 101–120.

[vii] Aust, B., Møller, J. L., Nordentoft, M., Frydendall, K. B., Bengtsen, E., Jensen, A. B., Garde, A. H., Kompier, M., Semmer, N., Rugulies, R., & Jaspers, S. Ø. (2023). How effective are organizational-level interventions in improving the psychosocial work environment, health, and retention of workers? A systematic overview of systematic reviews. Scand J Work Environ Health. – Online.

[viii] Thomson, R. M., Igelström, E., Purba, A. K., Shimonovich, M., Thomson, H., McCartney, G., Reeves, A., Leyland, A., Pearce, A., & Katikireddi, S. V. (2022). How do income changes impact on mental health and wellbeing for working-age adults? A systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Public Health7(6), e515-e528.

[ix] Ishola, A. A. (2017). Workplace safety management as correlates of wellbeing among factory workers in Oluyole industrial estate, Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria. African Journal of Social Work, 7(2), 45-51.

[x] Mattila, P. (2016). New approach about accident prevention. Injury Prevention, 2(22), A-355-A355.

[xi] Sirgy, M. J., Efraty, D., Siegel, P., & Lee, D. J. (2001). A new measure of quality of work life (QWL) based on need satisfaction and spillover theories. Social Indicators Research, 241-302.

[xii] Chan, K. W. & Wyatt, T. A. (2007). Quality of work life: A study of employees in Shanghai, China. Asia Pacific Business Review13(4), 501-517.

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.

stress

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Mick Cook
Mick Cook
11 months ago

Good to have some discussion over this – thanks Donomic. Is there evidence to show that mental health interventions also fail?