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What is Work Well-Being?: Turns Out the World Didn’t Know

by | Mar 16, 2024

Work well-being has undeniably emerged as a scorching hot topic of conversation in recent years. But not that long ago, it was rare “well-being” and “work” were used in the same sentence. This shift towards prioritizing well-being is not just a fleeting trend; it represents a fundamental change in how we perceive our professional lives and what we expect from our jobs and companies. If work well-being is the goal, then we need clarity on what that actually means. Goal clarity = goal achievement, if we don’t have a clear definition to guide us, it makes reaching the goal that much more difficult. 

Our journey at Motives Met began with the simple question of, “what is work well-being?” When talking about work well-being, factors such as mental health, work happiness, and work satisfaction come to mind and can sometimes be used interchangeably or linked very closely when talking about this subject. These desired outcomes at work can be naturally ambiguous, a struggle to define precisely both generally and personally.We started asking people what they felt it meant, we searched on the internet and company websites and began doing secondary research and eventually dove deep into our own quantitative research because we quickly discovered that we lacked shared meaning and mindset around what being well at work was all about. 

There Were 4 Main Obstacles:

Obstacle #1 The Context is Too Vague

When you search on the internet and scroll through popular articles or company websites, you will find that work well-being is “being happy and healthy at work” or Chat GPT stated that “well-being at work” refers to the overall health, happiness, and satisfaction for employees in their work environment. That sounds good, but what does that really mean? How do you do that? Often there was no concise interpretation at all, just paragraphs of modern work happiness buzzwords.

It’s not that being happy and healthy at work is “wrong”— it’s a phrase we use often. But using these words alone doesn’t help me if I am trying to figure out how to have a better work life. It doesn’t help a leader figure out how to best support the happiness of their team members. Not without a “how.” With no roadmap or framework to follow it keeps well-being at work is elusive, fluffy, and intangible. 

Obstacle #2 Inaccurate Work-Wellbeing Definitions Miss the Mark 

In our quest we also found more specific definitions and precise answers: well-being is having growth and belonging at work, feeling appreciated, or having greater purpose. We then shifted from the internet and into the heads and hearts of people; how did they think about work health and happiness in their own work lives and workplaces? Some responses from entrepreneurs, to entry-level workers, and HR leaders included: 

  • “Not being stressed or burnt out and loving what I do.”
  • “When people have meaning in their work and employees feel safe and are treated fairly.”
  • “Being able to get my job done without costing me my sanity.”
  • “Having work-life balance and flexibility.”
  • “When employees feel valued and appreciated.”
  • “Being able to achieve my goals and innovate and create in ways that matter.”

Would less stress and more passion help your work wellness? Perhaps. Is that the complete picture or the best meaning around what you need or your employee needs to flourish in the biggest way? Maybe not. We found that some of these interpretations were oversimplified, missing critical components to define a worker’s happiest work life or not as spot-on as possible.

Obstacle #3 Vital Ingredients Tend to Go Missing

What also surfaced in our conversations and  research is that important aspects of thriving at work tend to go missing. Reducing stress and feeling safe at work have commonly been associated with quality of work life. I told someone recently I have a company that helps people create well-being at work. He said, “Cool. So you help people have better work-life balance?” That’s another popular misinterpretation I hear all the time. In recent years, flexibility and belonging have become a part of the “be happy at work” conversation. But what about being challenged, having fun, or being able to speak freely? While these might not be as

commonly associated with work well-being, mental health, and happiness, we have nonetheless found as we dug deeper that they were, in fact, essential elements for some people to have their greatest quality of work life, even if they weren’t always consciously aware of it.

Obstacle #4 We Are Bombarded With Conflicting Opinions, Advice, and Research 

Our idea of what a fulfilled career or thriving company culture means is heavily influenced by what we have learned from others—what we see on Instagram, hear in a podcast, learn in a research study, or watch in a TED Talk. So, what were all these experts and influencers in the world saying about being happy and healthy at work? Let me tell you, our team had our work cut out for us as we weeded through the vast array of existing opinions, research, and advice out there.

There are admired thought leaders who say that the idea of “belonging” or giving flexibility is the golden ticket. There is research that shows things like variety, autonomy, positive work relationships, and using your strengths lead to greater work happiness. Some research reveals people primarily leave their company because of a bad boss, but other research claims it’s because of a lack of growth opportunities or appreciation.

There are books dedicated to purpose and work-life balance that claim they are the cure for burnout or fulfillment. Not to mention the endless articles and social media posts like, “The 10 Ways to Boost Employee Well-being” that insist to have the right answer. Additionally, there are all the Band-Aid solutions, such as a stress management webinar or wellness tech apps that position these surface level fixes as the remedy to deeper work wounds.

After consuming all the noise out there, would I truly feel empowered to know my personal path to my best work life? If I’m a manager, would I know the steps to take to best support the happiness of my team? If I’m a CEO, would I have real clarity on the best way to reduce turnover and amplify well-being? Not quite. I may be overwhelmed, and that’s exactly how I felt when trying to make sense of all this information. The type A person in me was dying for some sort of organizational structure that would make this all simpler to digest. Some  of this advice can be beneficial and the stats insightful, but we need a way to organize, simplify, and prioritize all of it in a way that helps us instead of leaving us more confused or fatigued. And that’s exactly what we did. We cut through the clutter to get to the truth of what it means to have well-being at work.

The 28 Human Needs Driving Well-Being

We rolled up our sleeves and conducted extensive research over multiple studies and thousands of interviews. You can download our full Work Well-Being Research Report & Culture Roadmap here. We found that people’s personal work needs were at the core of their health and happiness at work. There were 28 of these psychological, emotional, and social needs, what we call motives, that were essential ingredients to being well and performing well at work including PURPOSE, AUTONOMY, FREE EXPRESSION, GROWTH, SELF-ESTEEM, CLEAR EXPECTATIONS, WORK/LIFE HARMONY, and FUN. Each motive has different emotions, desires, and concerns that guide them. Our data grouped these 28 motives into ten overarching factors, or motive domains on our Motives Circumplex which you can see below. 

Well-Being at Work is When People’s Most Important Needs Are Met

While we can all require these things to be well and perform well at work, we don’t need them to the same degree, in the same way, at the same time in our career. What our data also shows is that when people’s most important needs are met, when their top motives are healthy, they have the greatest ability to thrive. Everyone has a few needs that rise to the top in importance and influence in this present moment of their work life. What matters most to you is not going to be what matters most to someone else. So, what is well-being at work? It’s when people’s MOST important motives are met.