The concept of wellbeing is now relatively mature. According to Google, the word has experienced a dramatic rise in popularity in English language texts. At the start of this century, it really took off. It appears to be still rising. We’ll know more when Google up-dates its corpus and that will most likely include texts written during the Covid pandemic.

You might think that after a 20-year burst of people writing about wellbeing all would be well. Alas, this is not the case, especially not in the workplace.

And, for clarity’s sake, this pithy definition of wellbeing from the Victorian Government’s Better Health Channel is an easy one to remember:

“It’s a complex combination of a person’s physical, mental, emotional and social health factors. Wellbeing is strongly linked to happiness and life satisfaction. In short, wellbeing could be described as how you feel about yourself and your life”.

Mental health is not the only factor involved, but it is a big one and, according to the highly respected Black Dog Institute, ‘Mental illness is now the leading cause of sickness absence and long-term work incapacity in Australia.’

As you might expect, the Covid pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. The following graph from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, shows the number of calls to Lifeline over the course of the pandemic, up to May 2022.

Over three years there has been a 22% increase in calls to Lifeline! Big changes are reflected in calls to similar services too. For Beyond Blue it has been 47% over the three years!

See the interactive graph at the source: The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

In a study by the ANU, it was found that “Average levels of psychological distress in January 2022 were significantly above those reported in surveys between November 2020 to August 2021 and the pre-pandemic baseline in February 2017”.

The cost to the economy is in the billions. More than that though, this can’t be good for all of us in the workplace, well and unwell alike.

Wellbeing is a challenge leaders must rise to.

On top of the human dimensions of this health challenge is a challenge to business, since wellbeing is critically linked to performance, productivity and engagement.

Thankfully, modern executive teams are taking more and more responsibility for the wellbeing of individual staff members. And there is a dividend because organisational performance will never be optimal unless wellness is treated seriously. So, what to do?

For starters, you need to be sure people know that the organisation’s leadership team is committed to creating a safe and positive workplace.

Awareness then is your first responsibility. And this must not be some sort of rote communication exercise. It must be quite the opposite. We know that organisations that perform well are ones that experience esprit de corps. So, wellness sits naturally within the leadership team’s effort to cultivate shared pride and loyalty in the organisation’s vision.

The walk must match the talk.

Next, is the challenge to ensure the walk matches the talk. A central goal here is that mental health issues are destigmatised and diversity embraced. We want environments where people know they are supported. Flowing from this, organisations should develop return-to-work and stay-at-work policies that allow individual plans to be acted on with relative ease. Teams need to be given the training and tools to do this with confidence. These policies should dovetail into third-party support resources, and how to access them should be well understood.

A thriving, healthy environment is more likely to respond well to the challenges individuals will face from time to time. Diversity is promoted, while bullying and exclusion are unacceptable.

Moreover, policies around performance, expectations, accountability and equity are transparent. There are no surprises.

Every organisation has its own culture, and each is at a different point on the wellness journey. To some, it may seem daunting, while others may have already committed to a set of clear objectives but need practical help with design and implementation.

The good news is that after 40 years of studying and writing about wellness we now have a very mature understanding of how it can be achieved within organisations.

We know wellbeing is directly connected to engagement, performance, and satisfaction. We know that when people receive consistent and regular support from leadership figures they show higher levels of wellbeing, job satisfaction, performance and safety.

Today, the frontier is about equipping leaders to develop a stronger capability to manage their own wellbeing and then be able to model this for others. Think of it as a professional development undertaking that has both personal and organisational benefits.