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  • Katie O'Keeffe

Wellbeing... taking a new perspective

Updated: Jun 15


Wellbeing is a hot topic. It gained momentum during the pandemic and is now front and centre as we navigate into a new future of work. There are over 99 measures of workplace well-being and the academics have yet to agree on what it is and how to measure it. For individuals, organisations and communities to thrive, let’s move beyond tokenistic notions of wellbeing and nurture the critical relationships and systems that support us. Wellbeing is a collective challenge that requires collective solutions.


The problem with ‘hot topics’ is they are treated in isolation while we look for a silver bullet solution. People produce pithy thought pieces in less than 800 words for a LinkedIn post or article to give you the answer to your ‘xyz’ problem. We’ve seen this pattern with topics like Diversity & Inclusion, Employee Engagement, Authentic Leadership (or whatever type of leadership is trending at a point in time), Agile, Digital Transformation, Customer Experience and Culture, and the list goes on.


It is natural to want to find quick solutions to problems. Our business approach to short term earnings over long term value creation puts pressure on leaders to implement quick fixes. The reality of complex systems like organisations is that these silver bullet solutions don’t exist. We know this because if they did, these challenges would be solved by now. And often the silver bullet solution has an unintended consequence of reinforcing the problem it is trying to solve. For example, it has been shown that unconscious bias training delivered to improve diversity and inclusion outcomes in organisations is ineffective at best and can backfire at worst. (Chang et al. 2019, Forscher et al. 2019, Kalev et al. 2007)


We’ve become conditioned to look for quick and simple solutions to challenges that are symptoms of deeper, more complex issues. Symptoms like burnout, turnover, bullying, disengagement, lack of diversity in leadership roles, and declining innovation are not separate problems that can be addressed through isolated initiatives or strategies. They are interdependent and indicators of organisational systems that are definitely not thriving.


We find it particularly disturbing when wellbeing initiatives are only focused on supporting individual employee ‘self-care’. This approach may actually undermine employee wellbeing because it sends the message, “We have given you all the resources to be well, so if you are not thriving, this is your failure and yours alone”. Self-care is obviously important, but effective wellbeing initiatives also take into account elements such as feeling connected, trusted relationships, a sense of purpose and identity, feeling valued and agency and efficacy to pursue our goals. These are some essential elements to a “well” organisation and they are interdependent. If we miss one, it undermines and erodes the others.


We believe there’s a viable – and perhaps radical – alternative.


We could aspire to Well organisations that cultivate environments for all stakeholders to thrive – employees, customers, investors, partners, suppliers, the communities they operate within, and even the planet we inhabit. We refer to these organisations as Systems of Wellbeing.


Thinking about organisations as ‘living systems’ provides a comprehensive and holistic picture of what’s really happening inside an enterprise. A systems view of wellbeing (sometimes referred to as an ecological view) will provide insights that enable decision makers to address the root cause issues to symptomatic problems like those we’ve listed.

It is time to move from wellbeing as self-care to wellbeing as a shared responsibility – we are all responsible for each other’s wellbeing. We need to get better at taking care of each other and the spaces we live in. Wellbeing is a collective challenge that requires collective solutions.


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.


This is no pipe dream. The global experience of the pandemic over the last two years has caused a shift in the energy to see, and engage in, the world in different ways. There is a growing recognition of the networked complexity of our challenges, an increase in our confidence to adapt and a reprioritisation of what is important. Along with a realisation that purpose and profit can go hand in hand. We hope this shift in energy also means people are willing to consider ‘wellbeing’ in a more complex and systemic way, not just as the latest hot topic.


We appreciate that thinking about the whole system can be overwhelming, so start with what you can influence - your own mindset, your team practices, and organisational structures within your control. Experiment and observe the dynamics shift and share your experience.

In the words of the poet David Whyte:

“Start close in,

don’t take

the second step

or the third,

start with the first

thing

close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.”


It is time for innovative action now and if not you, then who?


A series on wellbeing

This is the first in a series of articles we are writing on Systems of Wellbeing. One of our aims in this series is to challenge your thinking and the perspective through which you view workplace wellbeing. 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 a workplace where we can flourish”. Each of the articles will explore the concept of ‘Systems of Wellbeing’ in more detail, starting with diving deeper into a definition.


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


About the authors

Katie O’Keeffe

Co-Founder, Structured Creative Senior Advisor Leadership & People

katie@structuredcreative.com.au


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.


Cass Spong

Founder, ENTHEOS Consulting

Systems Informed People & Leadership Specialist

cass@entheos.com.au


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.

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