What's really keeping workers from feeling wellbeing at work? It's not what you think

'That one-size-fits-all approach to workplace wellbeing is not applicable in today's diverse workforce': new research

What's really keeping workers from feeling wellbeing at work? It's not what you think

A new collaborative study being conducted by Canadian and American researchers is showing how feelings of disadvantage affects employee ability to experience wellbeing in the workplace. The findings could have significant implications for HR professionals and how they implement wellbeing initiatives in their workplaces.

Dr. Huda Masood of Sam Houston University in Texas is conducting the study-in-progress along with Canadian researchers at York University and the University of Guelph.

“There's so many individuals out there who are just stressed out or quitting their jobs and so many quiet quitters, individuals who are there, not quitting, but also not doing their jobs,” Masood told HRD. “So the problem is, there is something that employers are overlooking, that organizations are overlooking, and it needs to be revisited and it needs to be addressed.”

Masood’s recent work has focused on amotivation, quiet quitting and job crafting as a solution. The current study’s aim is to discover how employee perception of wellbeing at work is affected by their own self-concept and feelings of disadvantage. Masood hopes the work can help to inform how HR professionals and employers provide wellbeing initiatives to their workforces.

One size fits all wellbeing won’t work in diverse workforces

“That ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to workplace wellbeing is not applicable in today's diverse workforce,” Masood said. She explained that individuals’ concepts of workplace wellbeing depends on how they experience work, and most significantly, if they had ever felt disadvantaged by factors out of their control such as their gender, race, age, mental health, or socioeconomic background.

“What we found was that individuals who experienced disadvantage in one form or another, their ability to experience workplace wellbeing is completely reframed, either permanently or at the very least temporarily,” she said. Further, if a person experiences disadvantage at work, that feeling can stay with them throughout their career path.

“Let's say you choose to switch jobs and move on to the next employer. That felt disadvantage doesn't stop there,” she explained. “It's kind of like a mental tattoo … or an emotional tattoo that you keep with you, because you felt you were at a disadvantage for factors beyond your control at some point in time, and it impacts you and your workplace outcomes in ways that are hard to predict, but at the same time, in ways that sort of linger on.”

Minority vs dominant mindset dictates workplace wellbeing

An important finding of the research so far is that feeling disadvantaged at work is a universal experience leading to a “minority” or a “majority” mindset in an individual. It is this mindset – one’s view of oneself, Masood explained – that is a major factor in how an employee might experience HR wellbeing initiatives.

“Individuals who identified with some sort of minority mindset really described their expectation to feel workplace wellbeing as an add on. It just almost comes down to being thankful that you have the job,” Masood said.

“On the other hand, we've had individuals representing the dominant mindset, and that's where we started to see that [wellbeing] is crucial to their functioning, and one of the expectations they carry moving forward.”

Another takeaway for HR that Masood noted is that experiencing disadvantage at work is intersectional, meaning there can be several overlapping factors leading to an employee’s minority mindset – for example, a woman of colour who is also queer might experience greater levels of disadvantage and a stronger minority mindset.

“So you can keep adding layers of disadvantage. And on the flip side of that, you can keep adding layers of privilege in other individuals as well,” Masood said.

Task significance: the other main factor in workplace wellbeing

A concrete area where HR can begin to focus on addressing minority mindset in their workforce is in employee experience of task significance, Masood said: “in other words, do you find your work meaningful enough?”

A critical factor respondents identified so far is job demands.

Job demands can be positive or negative, she explained, pointing out that something like being given an extra challenge outside of their job description, but that would add to their portfolio, could be perceived as a positive job demand by an employee. But there are many negative job demands that can hinder a worker’s ability to feel wellbeing.

“For instance, having to do paperwork to check out a tool or a resource that you absolutely need to perform your job, or bureaucratic hassles or administrative hassles …  we're talking about those annoying hindering job demands and work quality in general,” Masood said. “Those are some of the biggest threats to individuals’ perceived felt workplace wellbeing.”

Wellness vs wellbeing: an important distinction for HR

Where many employers go wrong, Masood explained, is by including wellbeing in their wellness initiatives, when it should be the other way around, with wellbeing being the “broader umbrella” and wellness – such as health benefits, fitness passes, dietician appointments and mental health programs – being one part of that.

“Employers are catching up on the wellness component, but that is not employee wellbeing. So in our research, we are distinguishing wellness from wellbeing, which is more holistic.”

The result of not addressing workplace wellbeing separately from wellness programs is disengaged employees who might even be ‘quiet quitting’, Masood said.

“From an HR perspective, we do want to appreciate the uniqueness of our workforce, and we do want to appreciate the individual needs of our employees,” she said. “We feel if we just have some cool [DEI] initiatives out there we are engaged in best practices … I think the answer lies within, and by that what I mean is, you need to study your workforce to come up with the best practice solution for your workforce.”

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