Thought leaders: Academic insights: Get the right mix of positive and negative

Wellbeing may be achieved by balancing the good and bad things about work, says Rob Briner

So where have we got to with employee wellbeing? Is it all sorted? Have employers and HR managers got to grips with how to minimise stress and maximise wellbeing? Are the right policies, practices and measures in place to make sure this happens?

To some extent, yes, we have started to get to grips with it. Organisations know that, broadly speaking, it is not a good idea to overload people or treat them badly. And, in general, it is a good idea to encourage and promote positive feelings and wellbeing. But, to a far larger extent, we have not really got it sorted. This can be a confusing and complex area, with many dubious fads and fashions.

It is only relatively recently that organisations have considered psychological, as well as physical, wellbeing to be important. Scientific management ideas and time-and-motion studies lead to repetitive and badly designed jobs. By the 1940s, the human relations movement said jobs could be better designed and more rewarding, increasing productivity and wellbeing in terms of job satisfaction. For decades, job satisfaction dominated.

Employers conducted job satisfaction surveys and tried to ensure staff were at least reasonably satisfied. Then, in the 1970s, they turned their focus away from job satisfaction and towards stress, looking at the ways work might harm psychological wellbeing.

Then the pendulum swung back again towards the positive aspects of psychological wellbeing – this time calling it employee engagement.

Emerging around 2000, the idea of engagement promised to enhance wellbeing and performance. In the UK, this culminated in the Department for Business Innovation and Skills endorsing engagement policies in its 2009 report Engaging for success: enhancing performance through employee engagement.

In the current economic climate, employee engagement can seem like a distant memory given job insecurity, redundancies and cuts. The pendulum is swinging back, yet again, to focus on job stress and the negative aspects of work.

What this history seems to show is that we find it hard to recognise that work has both positive and negative effects on our wellbeing.

We appear to prefer thinking about work either as stressful, harmful and, ultimately, damaging to our wellbeing, or engaging, life-affirming, and good for wellbeing.

Surely, work is a mix of positive and negative. We need to consider both because it is the balance between positive and negative that, in the end, shapes our wellbeing. So, to get to grips with wellbeing and stress, we must look at the good and bad together and their overall impact on how employees feel.

Secondly, take claims about the importance of job stress or staff engagement with a pinch of salt. From an ethical perspective, it is clear we should do all we can to enhance wellbeing through work, particularly given that work is, in general, good for wellbeing. But from an economic or bottom-line perspective, we should realise that unhappy workers are not necessarily particularly unproductive and that happy, engaged workers are not necessarily
super-productive. Again, it is the balance between the two that is likely to be important.

Last, think about the causes of wellbeing at work. Having clear goals and the resources to meet them is vital, but more fundamental is the quality of the relationship employees feel they have with their employer. When staff feel they are putting in far more than they are getting back, this leads to disgruntlement and lower wellbeing. But when they feel that what they get back from work (rewards, praise, challenge, sense of meaning) is equal to what they put in, they are more likely to experience wellbeing and want to carry on making a contribution. The relationship between employer and employee will have its ups and downs.

Understanding and managing these dynamics can be a useful way to promote wellbeing.

Professor Rob Briner is professor of organisational psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London


Engaging for success: Enhancing performance through employee engagement, David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, Department for Business Innovation and Skills (2009)

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