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Work wellbeing: protections & risks

Disruption of work and increase in distress symptoms have made work well-being an important topic. Among solutions offered there is no shortage of advice, gadgets and apps targeted at individuals' bodily processes. But mental well-being has all but been forgotten. Mental well-being should not be reduced to bodily challenges but seen as a competency emraced by the organization.

Protective factors

Both folk wisdom and scientific research attest to the fact that human relations, attitude toward change and optimism protect and promote mental wellbeing.

Human relations

Human relations have always been thought as protecting and promoting psychological well-being. Scientific research lends also support to this notion. Obviously, half of all people are fine by themselves, feel comfortable alone and lesser socia­bility or shyness does not mean or lead to mental discomfort. But less sociable people should keep in mind that in times of hardship human relations can serve as a valuable source for practical and mental support.

There is an important difference between the amount and experience of human relations in affecting well-being. Social identification is about the experience of human relations, the feeling of social belonging (or its absence) which is equally important to shy, withdrawing individuals as to extraverted "socialites". Steffens' and colleagues' recent meta-analysis (2016) shows that identification with one's own work team and organization has significant influence on peoples psychological and physical health, evidenced in a composite sample amounting to almost 20.000 individuals.

Human relations' protective influence upon health and well-being is an issue not only for the individual but a challenge to whole work communities. Organizations and teams should actively promote inclusion, help giving, communality and sharing so that everyone can experience social belongingness and realize that relying on others is part of everyday life.

Attitude to change

The constant change in work life afflicts us all. Favoring novelty and change in one's surroundings has a protective effect on well-being in times of change. In contrast, those who favor environmental clarity and stability become much more challenged by change. The strength of clarity and stability favoring people is in their organized and disciplined style which does not mean or lead to discomfort. But they must also realize all the positive opportunities related to change. They should also relax from their sometimes un­compromis­ing principles. Obviously, strong novelty and variety seekers' risk lies in headless running around as well as inability to settle down in existing circumstances. All things said, the attitude towards change is an outlook which can be influenced and altered at one's own will.


Optimism is the expectancy of being successful in one's strivings and not being too easily discouraged by failure. Optimism ("glass is half full") has always been thought of protecting and promoting wellbeing. Scientific research lends also support to this, even to its health promoting effects. The strength of less optimistic people is in realism and awareness of limited resources ("glass is half empty") which does not itself mean or lead to mental discomfort. But less optimistic people should also realize the meaning and value of success expectations, good things can also be expected to happen.

Obviously overoptimism can undermine judgment and lead to bypassing problems and risks. Winston Churchill, who reached the high age of 90 shows considerable optimism (or self irony) in his famous statement: "I drink a great deal. I sleep a little, and I smoke cigar after cigar. That is why I am in two-hundred percent form." However, this wisdom is not to be recommended as a maxim for life nor an excuse for not stopping to drink, smoke or enjoying a good night's sleep. In summary, people more often have too little optimism or their level optimism has dropped for some reason. Ultimately, optimism is an outlook on life, the bases of which may be examined in calm manner and influenced at one's own will.

Risk factors

Competitive and focused achievement motives are valuable resources for competent performance but linked to various unfavorable factors they may expose to ill-being.

A-typicality - speeding

A-typical behavior pattern derives from competitive and results-oriented achievement motivation combined to quick, risk-taking and impatient decision making which may called the "speeding syndrome". If competitive achievement and risky decision making co-occur with bad health habits, overweight, heightened blood pressure and hereditary factors the consequence can, according to research be development of heart and coronary trouble. In such case, the advice is to take things easier, spare oneself and practice a healthier lifestyle. One of life's great paradoxes is that a strong competitive drive and quick decision style are resources in the pursuit of victories and success. But, when combined with less healthy lifestyle and hereditary risk factors, the consequence may be development of heart and coronary symptoms.

See Wikipedia: A-typicality

Job burnout - deleterious type of perfectionism

Vulnerability to burnout derives from the combination of focused and perfectionist achievement motivation and very low or lowered optimism which may be called the "perfectionism syndrome". Focused, quality-oriented achievement motivation does not itself mean or lead to job burnout but is a resource for persistent and high-quality performance. A recent meta-analysis (Hill & Curran, 2016) shows that perfectionistic strivings don't as such lead to burnout but it requires the presence of pronounced perfectionistic concerns. According to a more recent meta-analysis, the overall relation between perfectionism and burnout was .21 while the relationship between failure-avoiding perfectionism and burnout was .34. However, the relation between excellence-seeking perfectionism and burnout was .08, ie., negligible (Harari et al., 2018).

In other words, it is not the presence of focused achievement but its combination with lowered optimism that should indicate the risk for burnout. The advice is to reorganize one's work habits, set quality standards on a more reasonable level and stop attending to every possible detail. Also, the reasons for lowered or low optimism should be examined. Another paradox is that strong focus and uncompromising persistence are resources in attaining good quality. But in combination to lowered optimism, success expectancies, burning out may be the consequence.

See Wikipedia: Burn-out prospects

Work wellbeing as a competency

During the current disruption of work particularly mental well-being should be viewed as a competency itself beside leadership, communication, planning, problem solving etc. The topics of well-being and ill-being should be integrated as parts of everyday work and its leadership. Steffens and colleagues (2016) have recently provided meta-analytic evidence on the relation between workers' identification with their work teams and the organization and, well-being, psychological and physical health. Organizational leadership practices and culture count as major factors in promoting or obstructing such identification. Individual differences brought forth in this article have equally undeniable effects on both well-being and ill-being. Defining work well-being as a competency links both the employee and the employer to appropriate responsibility for its promotion and development.

Economic import

The experience of mental well-being in organizations shows a strong connection to economic factors. McKinsey's recent report from more than 250.000 respondents in 64 organizations show a strong relationship between experienced "organizational health" and economic performance (McKinsey Quarterly, 2017).

Harari, D., Swider, B.W., Steed, L.B., & Breidenthal, A.P. (2018). Is perfect good? a meta-analysis of perfectionism in the workplace. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103, 1121-1144.
Hill, A. P. & Curran, T. (2016). Multidimensional Perfectionism and Burnout: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, August 1. 269-288.
McKinsey Quarterly (2017). https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/organizational-health-a-fast-track-to-performance-improvement.
Steffens, N.K., Haslam, S.A., Schuh, S.C., Jetten, J. and van Dick, R. (2016). A Meta-analytic Review of Social Identification and Health in Organizational Contexts. Personality and Social Psychology Review, July 7.


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