Although its origins can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution, the field of workplace wellbeing is still relatively immature. This is evidenced by a lack of agreement around even simple definitions, for example the conflation of ‘wellbeing’ with other terms such as wellness, engagement, satisfaction, or happiness, as well as inconsistencies in the research methodologies that underpin our knowledge in this area. In addition, the rapidly changing nature of work, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, presents new challenges around workplace wellbeing. Understanding these issues is useful in gaining an appreciation of why so many wellbeing strategies are falling short of expectations.
Modern workplace wellbeing has its roots in occupational health and safety (OH&S), which traces back to the Industrial Revolution and the 150 years following it. This was a period of profound social change, as dissatisfied workers lobbied for improved working conditions and reduced hours, resulting in a series of legislative changes aimed at increasing worker protections and occupational health and safety. This movement culminated in the first iterations of occupational health and safety legislation being passed in the UK and the USA in the early 1970s.
These initial attempts to improve working conditions were followed by early predecessors of today’s workplace wellbeing programmes in the form of occupational social work and occupational alcohol programmes implemented in the USA in the early 1900s. In the UK, the first Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) were established in the late 1970s, followed by a range of workplace health promotion and return to work programmes in the 1980s.
One important common feature of these programmes is worth noting; that they primarily focussed on the individual, and on physical health or workplace rehabilitation rather than proactively trying to prevent illness or improve wellbeing and business outputs more broadly.
A key turning point for workplace wellbeing was Professor Dame Carol Black’s review of the health of the working-age population in 2008. Her report, Working for a Healthier Tomorrow, promoted the importance of a more holistic, preventative approach to health and wellbeing in the workplace. This began a considerable shift in how wellbeing was approached and addressed as we will see in part 3 of our series.