Well-being: is it bad for us?

Of course not!

But constant pressure of any kind is — and that includes pressure to be well or constantly positive.

The well-being movement has been around a long time and has really taken off in recent years. In 2020, it’s hard to have a conversation where the concept doesn’t come up. The dictionary defines well-being as being comfortable, happy or healthy. In Wales, the Well-being of Future Generations Act places a duty on public bodies to work to improve the economic, environmental, social and cultural well-being of our whole nation.

What’s not to love?

But when that pressure lands on individuals, can the anxiety to be well actually make us ill?

Have you experienced times where the collective positivity of others can feel almost overwhelming or cult-like? It might be the sinking feeling you get when you see the carefully presented perfect lives of others via social media.

Far from feeling part of something great, it can leave you feeling isolated and thinking, “What’s wrong with me? Why aren’t I running, doing yoga, reading more, working smarter, contributing to the growth of humanity?”.

Some days it’s enough to have fed yourself/the kids/the dog and not caused another human any harm. There are few of us that don’t want to be thinner, healthier, creative and to generally prosper. So if well-being is such a good thing why aren’t we just well?

Early on in 2020 I spotted a blog by Professor Aisha Ahmad who at the very start of the pandemic urged us to ignore all that coronavirus-inspired productivity. Have a read — it offers useful insight into the stages of dealing with crisis from someone who knows.

My thinking on these issues developed following a social media back-channel comment from a communications colleague that has stuck with me for a while now. In a mini rant about being asked to develop posters promoting well-being, they asked something along the lines of “instead of getting me to promote yoga, why don’t they start with paying people properly, getting them to work their hours and generally be nicer”.

This comment really summed up how much those who want to be seen to do something, rather than create the circumstances for well-being, risk being part of the problem and not the solution.

We should all encourage and celebrate organisations doing great work around well-being — particularly where they take a holistic look at the impact every aspect of their operation can have. But, we must continually check ourselves against the “whoop whoop” culture of well-being that can ignore the underlying causes and create a climate where people are too scared to be anything but fake happy and healthy. Even the “it’s ok, not to be ok” and the “kindness” agenda can feel as if some people think they are living the values by simply posting about them, failing to be anything but kind to the person next to them.

We all have a responsibility for ourselves but well-being is not something you can succeed or fail at on your own. There’s a certain relief to this.

We can, at an individual level, try to recognise where anxiety about exercise, food or productivity is actually making us ill. Instead of punishing yourself, ask yourself what do you need right now? What will help you feel better? If the answer today is to cwtsh up on the sofa, maybe give yourself permission. Who knows, maybe that’s the space you need to get off the sofa the next day.

How do we make the Difference?

Leaders and decision-makers have a responsibility to create the conditions, systems and situations that help people to thrive and to help themselves. I don’t subscribe to being cruel to be kind however there is a role for tough love, sometimes making difficult decisions — but never without involving or listening to those who are affected.

Ask yourself, are we designing systems and processes that build in stress or other types of illness. Or are we designing systems that build them out and that work for the people they are meant to serve? Colleagues, customers and whole communities. Do our ways of working, our employment terms and conditions foster wellness or illness, are we offering inspiration or perspiration?

Are we confident we’re not making well-being unhealthy?

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