top of page

Systems of Wellbeing - A deeper dive

Updated: Sep 21, 2023

Following our first article Wellbeing-taking a new perspective, we now dive deeper into Systems of Wellbeing; how we define them, some critical components required for the experience of wellbeing to emerge, and some steps you can take to move your team and organisation towards optimising your individual and collective potential.

To cultivate Systems of Wellbeing, we need to think like farmers. Farmers can’t force their crops to grow. They focus on cultivating the right conditions to enable their crops to thrive. Through constant monitoring, adapting, attention and care, the farmer learns and adjusts the conditions throughout the seasons and to different crops. To be a great farmer, you need to know what to look for, what to measure and monitor, and how to intervene in the system to ensure an optimum yield.

To cultivate Systems of Wellbeing for people and organisations, we need to know what to look for and what to do.

Existing definitions of wellbeing are insufficient

In our first article, we positioned the need to move beyond tokenistic notions of wellbeing and look at wellbeing through a systems lens. Taking a systems view highlights the inadequacies in the current definitions of wellbeing.

Let’s start with what we believe “wellbeing” is not:

What wellbeing is not

Why not

A focus limited to subjective well-being or happiness neglects important aspects of positive functioning (eudemonic well-being).

Wellbeing does not reside solely in the individual

While we agree that individual wellbeing is an important part of the overall system, for most of us, our individual wellbeing occurs within a broader context of working within an organisation and living in communities. Research shows the results from ‘resilience’ training programs focused only at the individual level do not work. For example, meta-analysis results of the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) (based on Martin Seligman’s work) in the study of nine trials across Australia, the Netherlands and the US conclude “no evidence of PRP in reducing depression or anxiety…the large-scale rollout of PRP cannot be recommended.” There is also a suggestion that gym memberships, individual mindfulness training and self-help apps may even undermine workplace well-being. Extending the farmer analogy, the focus is on the plants, not on their environment.

Wellbeing is not the endless pursuit of growth, an inherently positive state or always ‘blooming’

To thrive requires sufficient recovery and rest. A longitudinal study investigating the variance within individuals showed that on a weekly basis relaxation is the most highly correlated with well-being. Low levels of switching off from work on the other hand predicted ill-being such as tension and stress. Just like farmers allow fields time to fallow, and the seasons allow plants time to rejuvenate, humans also need time to rest and recover.

Wellbeing is more than just the absence of illness or harm

There is a bias in the workplace wellbeing literature of preventing illness rather than creating a workplace environment where people can thrive. Strategies aimed at preventing and addressing illness will not necessarily lead to thriving. Similarly, strategies for managing burnout in the workplace will not necessarily lead to thriving.

So then, what is wellbeing?

Wellbeing is an emergent property

Taking a systems view, we define wellbeing as an emergent property and a dynamic state that arises from the interaction between our way of being in the world (human thriving) and the enabling conditions of the environment and context we live within and co-create (regenerative environment). The outcome of a system of wellbeing is optimised potential for all components of the system. (figure 1)

Figure 1

When we have a system of wellbeing, all components (individuals, teams, organisations, eco-systems, and the planet) of the system can perform to their optimum potential.

To better understand this let’s unpack these two core constructs of wellbeing: Human Thriving, and Regenerative Environment.

Human Thriving is the result of where each of us direct our flow

Thriving is a result of the relationship between a person’s self-care and development (the traditional focus of wellbeing) and their regenerative participation in the world (figure 2). Thriving is a way of being in the world, a way of relating to and caring for self, others, and our environment. Thriving is only possible where there is a mutually beneficial exchange, where humans are directing their energy to cultivate universal wellbeing. In a system, everything is interconnected and interdependent, therefore we have a shared responsibility for wellbeing of each other and the whole.

Figure 2

a. Self-care and development are an important part of the overall system.

Thriving is directly related to the available energy we have and how we use that energy. Optimising our available energy is achieved when we consider all aspects of the whole person - mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational. To do this we need to consider strategies that address our foundational energy driven by exercise, sleep, nutrition, and mindfulness. We also need to consider our emotional energy that comes from our relationships, connections, and mental approach to difficult situations. And we need to consider our spiritual needs that address the ‘why’ of our lives. The ‘why’ of well-being is connected to purpose and meaning, which establishes achievable goals leading to well-being. Meaning matters. In 10 sociocultural regions around the world, and across the whole lifespan, individuals who felt that their life had a purpose or meaning had higher levels of subjective well-being than those without a life meaning. b. To fully thrive you need to participate in life with collective responsibility for the wellbeing of all.

The World Health Organization (2004) specifically incorporates societal and work dimensions rather than a focus confined to the individual: “a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Recent research illustrated that languishing people tended to have a self-focus motivated by their own hedonic needs (pleasure seeking), whereas flourishers exhibited higher levels of other-focus coupled with eudaemonic values (striving to do what is meaningful) and a greater good. For example, languishers viewed social support in terms of supporting themselves, whilst flourishers perceived the reciprocal nature of social support. The study concludes that high levels of well-being require a eudaemonic dimension that transcends the self. Numerous studies have shown that people who place a high value on personal growth, close relationships, and community exhibited higher levels of well-being compared with those who focus on wealth. Regenerative participation is deeply collaborative, it is active and inclusive and needs to involve a diversity of people and perspectives. Regenerative actions create conditions where people feel belonging and support each other to learn together and enable everyone to contribute their unique gifts for the benefit of all. Our becoming cannot be separated from our belonging. This means choosing kindness and compassion, listening to others to understand, finding commonality and linkages whilst also appreciating, valuing and respecting difference in others and encouraging and supporting those around you to contribute their unique gifts. Expanding further, this means choosing to tread lightly on the earth, growing your connections to place, and recognising your role within eco-systems as not separate or above them. Michael Dowd (author and theologian) looked at the commonly held traits of long surviving, sustainable indigenous societies and found they all measured their wellbeing by the health of the living world around them, they cultivated sacred relationships with the natural world and made decisions with future generations in mind. Regenerative participation brings vitality and new growth to our teams, organisations, communities, and our eco-systems. In order to transform our systems, we need to transform our relationships – with self, with others and with our planet and eco systems.

Human Thriving goes hand in hand with the enabling conditions of the environment and context.

Returning to our farming analogy, the farmer is focused on creating the conditions for the crop to thrive. If the analogy was extended to a forest, we are now understanding that rather than individual trees competing for sunlight, trees are part of a social system sharing nutrients, communicating, and helping to protect each other.

The WHO (2010) defines a healthy workplace as ‘one in which workers and managers collaborate to use a continual improvement process to protect and promote the health, safety and well-being of all workers and the sustainability of the workplace’.

Research tells us that humans have three universal needs of autonomy, competence and positive-relatedness for psychological well-being, and that satisfaction of these needs in the workplace is fundamental to our overall wellness and performance. So, if our organisational environments undermine any of these needs, we will have higher levels of stress, exhaustion, turnover and burnout, irrelevant of how much self-care we practice.

In June 2022 Safe Work Australia announced changes to the Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) laws with express obligations for managing psychosocial risks, including identifying psychosocial hazards and eliminating or minimizing psychosocial risks. This growing momentum in legislative focus on psychosocial hazards is reinforcing the business case to invest in cultivating Systems of Wellbeing.

Extending beyond the workplace to think even more broadly about the environment, we believe there is a need for business to play a new role, coming together with competitors, across sectors and with Government and Community in the pursuit of optimum outcomes for all.

The relationship between thriving and a regenerative environment result in the emergence of wellbeing.

Our level of thriving influences and shapes the environment and context in which we operate, and this environment can then influence where and how we source and direct our energy.

Thriving is a verb, it is active, and we can develop to increase our thriving. The more we thrive, the more we contribute to the liveability and regenerative conditions of our environment.

And the reverse is also true. In environments where livability is low, there are additional challenges for humans to thrive. We struggle to find flow in our lives, and increasingly focus the direction of our energy on ourselves to ensure our survival. Further reinforcing this system away from wellbeing and optimised potential for all.

What are you doing to create Systems of Wellbeing in your organisation?

Organisational Wellbeing is a System of Wellbeing. Human thriving combined with a regenerative environment resulting in optimised potential for all the components of the system: the individuals, teams, organisation, community, society, and environment. Healthy workplaces require balanced investment at the individual, group, leader, and organisational level.

The results from the experience of companies who introduce well-being programmes indicates that a range of complementary interventions are more effective than a single approach. There needs to be a combination of top-down (such as job re-design) and bottom-up (team support) practices.

Well-being is part of a complex social system, and everyone and every context is unique. There is no single magic bullet.

When you think about wellbeing in your organisation, what balance do you have at the individual, team, group, organisational level?

A series on wellbeing This is the second in a series of articles we are writing on Systems of Wellbeing. One of our aims in this series is to challenge thinking and perspectives through which workplace wellbeing is viewed. We’d like to move the way we think and talk about wellbeing from “we need to invest in our people” to “we need to work with our people as we invest in systems and resources to create workplaces and communities where we can all flourish”. Each of the articles will explore the concept of ‘Systems of Wellbeing’ in more detail.

Contact Katie and Cass to learn more about Systems of Wellbeing and how to optimise performance and thrive.

About the authors

Co-Founder, Structured Creative Senior Advisor Leadership & People

Over the last 20 years I have developed my craft in leadership, high performing teams and organisational development. I have worked with many of Australia’s largest and most iconic institutions and organisations to impact transformational change through their leaders and teams. I have extended my background as an elite triathlete and coach with formal research and study in neuroscience and team development and combined all of this into a unique approach to developing high performing leaders and teams.

Systems Informed People & Leadership Specialist

Over 10 years ago I founded Entheos Consulting to support clients’ in building their ability to see and sense more of the systems in which they operate, to support effective purposeful action. With over 2 decades of international consulting experience, I have partnered with organisations and leaders across multiple industries and geographies including Australia, London, Japan, Greece, Brazil, United Kingdom, The Netherlands and China. I enjoy contributing as an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Wellbeing Science, and love working with individuals, teams and groups as a Lego®️ Serious Play ®️ facilitator or Flow Game host, creating space for wisdom, creativity, connection and collaboration. I am passionate about the need to transform relationships to transform the system.

39 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page