Is Psychological Safety enough when it comes to enabling wellbeing?

by Pete Jensen

I recently came across a comment on social media that said when it comes to wellbeing “Psychological Safety is not the silver bullet”, and as my journey in enabling wellbeing has progressed , this resonated strongly with me.

Whilst creating Psychological Safety is important, evidence from many quarters supports the notion that the direct and indirect costs of trying to manage wellbeing are increasing.

While some organisations are generating a great return, for others, the ‘wellbeing headache’ hasn’t gone away, and may in fact be getting worse.

The Wall Street journal makes the point that:

Nearly 90% of employers offer wellness incentives, or financial rewards or prizes to employees who work toward getting healthier. That's up from 57% of companies in 2009. The perks are also worth more now: $521 per employee on average, compared with $260 four years ago. “Which ones work and which ones don’t?

Insanity has often been defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, so what are some of the more creative and effective strategies that organisations are taking?

This short article explores 3 key themes:

-         The danger of trying to ‘manage’ wellbeing

-         The need for a whole-istic approach

-         Why wellbeing is really an ‘inside ‘ job     

1.The danger of trying to ‘manage’ wellbeing

The traditional approach that wellbeing can be ‘managed’ is a dangerous assumption.It drives a focus on the ‘problem’ only, and looks to minimise impact, treat symptoms and provide tertiary support.

An ‘Enabling ‘approach shifts the focus to identifying and understanding the presence of mental wellness and the creation of mental health enablers.

This is not to downplay the need to demonstrate a duty of care and support, however this is only a small part of wellbeing, and there are many aspects being well at work.

 Managing approach

●     Narrow definition of wellbeing

●     Absence of claims and illness is deemed a positive indicator

●     We provide support when people are in trouble 

●     People are incomplete and need fixing

●     Great wellbeing is the absence of mental illness

●     People come to work to do a job

●     It's the organisation's role to provide ‘healing’

Enabling approach 

●     A whole-istic definition of wellbeing

●     Presence of ‘thriving is a positive indicator

●     We help people avoid trouble or have the skills to deal with challenges 

●     People are complete and need reminding of their ability

●     Great wellbeing is the presence of mental wellness

●     People are part of a greater community

●     It's the organization's role to create conditions for completeness


2. The need for a whole-istic approach

A ‘managing ‘approach is often the result of a narrow definition of wellbeing and thus only measures illnesses, risk and direct or indirect costs.

In order to understand the paradigm shift from ‘managing’ to ‘enabling’ wellbeing more clearly, the World Health Organisation (WHO) provides an insightful starting point defining wellbeing as:

Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

The positive dimension of mental health is stressed in WHO's definition of health as contained in its constitution: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."

These three elements of wellbeing represent more than just the absence of mental illness, and they can be further divided into subcategories:

Physical wellbeing encompasses:

●     occupational health and injury prevention, workplace design

●     physical health, fitness, nutrition, fatigue

●     mind/body practices, self-medication, creativity

Mental wellbeing includes:

●     clinical illnesses, depression, stress and anxiety

●     managing the daily normal stresses of life

●     personal development, intrinsic motivation and mastery

 Social wellbeing contains:

●     connection, belonging and social interaction

●     contribution, social purpose and an external focus

●     celebration, recognition, rituals and gratitude

With this expanded view of wellbeing, the focus shifts to identifying, creating and measuring conditions for thriving in all 3 areas.

For example, with mental wellbeing being so prominent in today’s world, attention and resources are often focused on the first element of clinical illnesses, depression, stress and anxiety, yet the other two sub elements are equally important in terms of being ‘complete’.

I liken this to a metaphor of a cliff.

It should go without saying we intervene, and provide care and support when a person is standing at the edge of the cliff, or, after they have fallen over.

Where we may be missing out, are those who are heading in the direction of the cliff as they struggle with managing the daily normal stresses of life.

And what about the opportunity of improving the wellbeing, happiness and productivity of those working away in the meadow, far from the cliff, in terms of personal development, intrinsic motivation and mastery.

3. Why wellbeing is really an ‘inside ‘ job

The phrase ‘inside job’ has an application for all the parties involved in a workplace, i.e., leaders, team members and organisational systems.

Whilst many organisations recognise this, have strategies in place and are doing great things, there has also been a noticed increase in either misuse or misinterpretation of symptoms.

Current academic literature is filled with terms like ‘deficit translation’, ‘cultural dissemination, ‘cultural construction of illness’, which can be interpreted as an unintended consequence of people’ learning’ how to become mental ill, resulting in a growing demand for mental health services (including medication), actively being pushed in a variety of workplace health and safety outlets

Over the last five editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders, the number of ways to be declared mentally unhealthy has grown by 300% (Gergen, 2013).

So where does this leave the parties involved when it comes to wellbeing being an ‘inside job’?

Organisations and systems

By adopting an ‘enabling’ mindset, and with it a shift in the focus of how we define wellbeing, what we measure, publicise and celebrate, and how our systems support working well, a shift in focus is created from ‘healing the person’ to making the organisation well and contributing to the community.


Enabling wellbeing is also an ‘inside job’ for leaders in terms of how they lead and set the tone, demonstrating both care and consequence.

It’s about leading with empathy and modelling vulnerability whist balancing the need for accountability for results with the importance of creating psychological safety.

It’s about taking a whole-istic and complete approach to physical, mental and social wellbeing and not looking for a silver bullet or ad hoc intervention.

Team members

I believe that organisations are entitled to have a reasonable expectation that team members show up ‘fit for work, and this includes physical, mental and social fitness.

With reference to the earlier analogy of the cliff, team members need to know that they have support available when they get near the edge, or slip over.

However, this is only part of the story.

As society evolves, with the increasing demands and stress involved in”doing life”, there is a growing gap in people’s skills and ability to “cope with the normal stresses of life” as stated in the WHO definition.

Sadly, self-medication, addictive behaviour, isolation and other coping mechanisms come into play, often driving low self-esteem and lack of social wellbeing.

People actually are the solution and have the capacity within them, but at times they need reminding of this.

Where there are skills or knowledge gaps, many organisations help team members with awareness and support to fill these as evidenced by many of the organisation we profile in our workshops.

Google for example send their employees on a Search Inside Yourself Leadership program ( SIYLI), and interesting quote from a Google staffer having attended the program “In the past my strategy for dealing with mental stress was bourbon and cheeseburgers, today it’s mindfulness.”

The well documented and successful ANZ “Breakout” culture transformation program was all about providing the physical, mental and social wellbeing skills in order to “Bring the whole person to work and take the whole person home again”.

Perhaps an ideal interpretation of everyone’s role in enabling wellbeing can be summarised in the following quote:

A company’s job isn't to empower people; it’s to remind people that they walk in the door with power to create the conditions for them to exercise it.

Patty McCord - Former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix

Art of Work is delivering a series of Enabling Wellbeing Masterclasses in Australia, NZ and Europe in 2019. Should you wish to discover more of this thinking, explore case studies and develop hands on tools and strategies, kindly visit the events page on our website