Reframing Social Wellness
Updated: Feb 12
Social wellness is very often overlooked and misunderstood in workplace wellness programs. In my experience, this usually stems from the tendency in organisations to focus on functional health and wellness, rather than delve into the more complicated realm of feelings. If social wellness ever does find itself in the spotlight, it is usually through the abstract concept of 'belonging' which is too often over simplistic in its assertions that it can be achieved through a hastily organised team night out (pre-covid!) or a zoom quiz.
Whilst socialising with colleagues can go some way in increasing our sense of belonging within an organisation, it is too often another wellness 'quick fix' that does little to address the fundamental nature of belonging which is, to experience acceptance, inclusion and an understanding of identity.
Perhaps if we thought about societal wellbeing instead, we could move beyond our simplistic preoccupation with social wellness equating to 'belonging', and commit to a deeper exploration.
Our places of employment are not separate from our society, and yet we often act as if they are. When we walk through the doors of our workplace we subconsciously feel the need to leave our societal wellbeing at the door, in order to focus on the job at hand and present our most professional self. We only have to look at the days after the death of George Floyd when Black and Black Mixed colleagues turned up to work in the midst of trauma only to find that for the organisation, it was business as usual. Sarah Chander, senior advocacy officer at the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) summed it up perfectly when she wrote, workplaces are a reflection of societal behaviours, systems and trends, and this includes racism, discrimination and inequality.
Societal wellness is the heavy hitter in the wellness wheel and no matter how good our intentions, it won't be addressed with a few work nights out. Tackling it effectively will require us all to fundamentally change our understanding of wellness, from a series of initiatives to social justice. The health issues that we all want to address in the workplace are a direct result of social and economic inequalities. Meaning that any attempts by organisations to 'just do wellness' to focus on function over feelings will always be doomed to fail in the long-term.
So how do we address societal wellness in the workplace?
It starts with taking a step back. Instead of the focusing on the sole question of how well are staff, perhaps its time to ask an additional and equally important question, how well is the organisation?
Being able to explore this question will require an investment of time and a commitment to action from senior leadership teams, many of whom will likely be unaware of the true extent and impact of health inequality deriving directly from social and economic inequality.
If everyone in England had the same death rates as the most advantaged, people who are currently dying prematurely as a result of health inequalities would, in total, have enjoyed between 1.3 and 2.5 million extra years of life (Fair Society, Healthy Lives. The Marmot Review, 2010)
To know better, is to do better.
If social and economic inequalities such as education, occupation, income, gender, ethnicity and race underpin the determinants of health, then we must seek to understand whether organisations are working in ways that enhance or diminish societal wellbeing.
Kicking off your workplace wellness strategy with a functional health and wellness audit of your workforce will help address the symptoms of health inequality in your organisation. Undertaking a systemic review of organisational inequality on the other hand, could lead to transformational policies, practices and structures that begin to tackle the causes of inequality.
Implementing lunchtime yoga may well provide stress relief for some colleagues. An organisational commitment to management that recognises the impact of inequality on health outcomes will result in a culture of increased compassion, care and cultural awareness.
A wellbeing week that includes a free health check for all interested colleagues could very well change the health behaviours of some. A senior leadership team who embed societal wellness at the core of their business culture will empower colleagues to engage in new ways of thinking, being and doing.
It's time for us all to be bolder, braver, better.