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Wellbeing for Work

Updated Wednesday, 31st March 2021

Wellbeing for Work is one of the five themes in the Applying Psychology to Work hub. The hub provides tools, resources and short courses to help develop skills and knowledge towards or enhancing current employment experiences or preparing for new roles or positions.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, working practices have significantly changed for most people. Many are working from home and there is a blurring of the edges around where work starts and ends and where home starts and ends. At the same time, juggling such things as home schooling, sharing computers, sharing workspace with family members and a change in work patterns, being furloughed and/or losing your jobs in the process has created an entirely new world of work and people’s relationship with it. Our identities, both at work and home, are being further merged, which can cause confusion and frustration.

One thing that is clear, is that these changes could not be foreseen and have found us needing to dig deep to develop coping strategies and find different ways of working and/or being. This change in our situations has likely had a profound effect and impact on our lives in many ways. This material organised under this theme is looking at wellbeing for work from two perspectives:

  1. The effects of work change on how and why you feel the way you do.
  2. Understanding strategies that can be undertaken to mitigate some of these emotional sides that come into play.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 global pandemic has influenced the impact on wellbeing and will continue for some time to come. What is our ‘new normal’? Are you currently in work and worried about your future and changes happening in your organisation, someone who has recently been furloughed or lost their job? We are living through unprecedented times with the pandemic, natural disasters and the changing economic climate. The current situation can be termed as an international global disaster. According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies a disaster is defined as:

a sudden, calamitous event that seriously disrupts the functioning of a community or society and causes human, material, and economic or environmental losses that exceed the community’s or society’s ability to cope using its own resources. Though often caused by nature, disasters can have human origins.”

A disaster such as this not only disrupts the quality of life but can also have a direct effect on individuals’ mental health and sense of wellbeing. People during disasters may face a loss of their identity by losing the work they have been doing before the disaster or significant changes in the way they work e.g., digitally and remotely. COVID-19 was not expected in the way it unfolded, and people were psychologically and physically unprepared for this and had no control over the full effect the pandemic has on work. This impact has been either in terms of jobs surviving or indeed the way in which working practices have had to change. The loss of our normal daily routine and perceived control over how and where you work, combined with the loss of social support (both at work and from family) has probably had a profound effect on our sense of wellbeing.

What is wellbeing?

Wellbeing is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy”. There is a lot of information about wellbeing and how differently it can be measured. If we look at wellbeing from the angle of experience of health, happiness and being comfortable, and how we feel in terms of our sense of meaning or purpose, managing our stress levels, having good mental health and being satisfied with our life, then many people are understandably confused and unsure of what their sense of wellbeing is.

Anyone can be affected by poor mental health and this directly affects our sense of wellbeing. If we have experienced loss of a loved one, jobs or part of our sense of identity then this will have a direct impact on our sense of wellbeing. If our sense of wellbeing has been affected, this can change our mental health.

This sense of wellbeing is subjective. What is worth considering is that we all experience a range of emotions such as sadness, anger as well as frustration in different ways. Would we regard a ‘healthy’ person feeling desperate after being fired from their job in a situation in which occupational opportunities are scarce as having poor mental health? Experiencing sadness, anger and grief for example are ‘normal’ emotions. Experiencing these does not necessarily mean that our mental health is poor, but that our sense of wellbeing is not quite right.

Wellbeing is more complex than feeling happy, comfortable or healthy. Wellbeing can be considered from the following five aspects:

  1. Emotional wellbeing – having positive emotions and coping with stress.
  2. Physical wellbeing – following a healthy diet and exercising.
  3. Social wellbeing – having positive interactions with others to reduce loneliness and disconnection.
  4. Workplace wellbeing – having a purpose, good work-life balance and workplace identity.
  5. Societal wellbeing – being connected with local communities, including work communities.

To maintain wellbeing, our feelings of contentment and satisfaction, our health and how we feel about our future, our living conditions and income, all influence how safe and secure we feel. Loss, for example, of a daily routine, control over work and social support, are associated with high levels of psychological distress. If this continues over a prolonged period, this can lead to depression and anxiety and have a direct negative impact on our mental health.

It is important that we maintain wellbeing and find strategies to do this. Some strategies have been found in relation to exercise, mindfulness, getting outside and understanding what depression, anxiety and low mood feel like and how to deal with these. Another way of supporting wellbeing is building resilience as this is considered to help with physical, social, psychological and emotional wellbeing. Being mentally and psychologically prepared for future situations in life events and understanding how to deal with them helps promote wellbeing. Resilience is not about bouncing back so much as developing coping strategies that better enable you to deal with situations going forward. Resilience can be defined as the capacity to maintain or recover high levels of wellbeing in the face of life adversity (Ryff et al., 1998, in Lawton-Smith, 2017). Fortunately, resilience is flexible; it is a quality that can be developed and shaped, to help us both at work and at home.

Disasters by their nature can negatively affect mental health outcomes with people developing various psychological symptoms. These could be severe stress, feelings of grief and sadness and adjustment problems, all of which affect the proper functioning of the individual as well as the community. A knock-on effect of this could be conflict within personal or work relationships. Many people, after disasters, do not succumb to negative mental health effects, but are resilient and come through the process without negative effects and may even experience post-traumatic growth.

man working at laptop in the dark

How can disruptive changes with work affect us?

One thing that’s clear is that many of us need to develop a resilience in the way we see our roles at work and deal with these i.e., career resilience. When considering our work, there are a lot of emotional attachments that can come into play because of the amount of time we spend (or did) in our place or work. We may have developed workplace relationships with colleagues, spending quite a lot of time with them and sharing experiences, jokes, and frustrations about what is happening.

Our changes in work practices have been affected by the way we either carry out our work, for example more remote/home working, fewer people in the office with social distance, combined with colleagues and team members being ‘let go’ and being made redundant, and organisations being restructured. All of these are often unknown and out of our control.

When psychologists talk of control, we talk about the locus of control. Locus of control is about an individual’s belief regarding whether they feel they are in control of their lives. If they believe they have no control over what happens to them, external to themselves, this as an external locus of control. When people believe that things happen to them and it is outside their control, this is highly stressful. If people feel they have control over what is happening to them, then their locus of control is seen as an internal locus of control. When we have little control over our work in terms of how we carry this out, the constant threat of losing our jobs is stressful. This lack of control and uncertainty causes anguish and frustration.

When individuals have little control over what is happening to them, this can be emotionally painful, stressful and difficult to understand and accept. This sudden onset of change/loss, particularly due to the pandemic, can lead people on an emotional journey that requires them to deal with this huge change and the knowledge that they might never get back to the way things were before. This sudden change leaves them grieving their old way of life and not knowing what should be done in the present or and how to move forward, referred to as a cycle of grief. Those employees who have remained in employment, while their colleagues are let go, often feel a sense of grief and loss and can struggle with workplace survivor syndrome.

Suggested reading

Davis C.G. and Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2011) ‘Making sense of loss, perceiving benefits and posttraumatic growth’ in Lopez, S.J. and Snyder, C.R. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 641-649.

Galderisi, S. et al. (2015) ‘Toward a new definition of mental health’, World Psychiatry, 14(2), pp. 231–233.

Kübler-Ross, E. (1970) On Death and Dying. London: Tavistock Publications.

Lawton-Smith, C. (2017) ‘Coaching as a route to resilience and wellbeing,’ International Journal of Stress Prevention and Wellbeing, 1(4).

Makwana, N. (2019) ‘Disaster and its impact on mental health: A narrative review.’, Journal of family medicine and primary care, 8(10), pp. 3090–3095.

Pfefferbaum, B. and North, C. (2020) ‘On death and dying’, New England Journal of Medicine. London: Tavistock Publications, 383(6), pp. 510–512.

Rotter, J. (1966) ‘Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement’, Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 80 (1), pp. 1-28.

 

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