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In addressing the L&D grail of becoming more productive, this snippet from a popular song is, in fairness, a simplification. The lyrics are, as I suspect you’re aware, from a Radiohead song. If you know it, you’ll know how it continues.

Comfortable, not drinking too much
Regular exercise at the gym 3 days a week
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries”

You’ll probably also be aware that it is far from a comforting listen, intoned as it is by a computerised voice (although not, as some have assumed, by Stephen Hawking). Compiled as a litany of phrases that author Thom Yorke saw as epitomising the time – the 1990s – he has also described the recording as being conducted in a feeling of hysterical anxiety. One commentator described it as “penetrating surgery on pseudo-meaningful corporations lifestyles”, but I can’t help but wonder if one of the words in a quote by Yorke about the song is more telling.

When Yorke commented that “I see it as the ultimate dissociation with the lyrics and your responsibility for it. See it as something between a statement and an experiment”, it was the word responsibility that leapt out at me. Essentially a song about wellbeing in its broadest sense, its unsettling chill comes from its cataloguing of the bland ways in which the notion was not so much promoted as sold to us. To me, part of the lyrical cold front comes from the way that the lyric posits wellbeing not just as something that is a personal responsibility but also as something that a failure to achieve is entirely a personal fault:

Now self-employed
Concerned (but powerless)
An empowered and informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism)”

It was a song that I immediately thought of when a colleague sent me a copy of a Gallup Business Journal article about a recent Gallup poll that showed not just that wellbeing levels among work team members are strongly inter-connected, but that the wellbeing of supervisors impacts increasingly on their reports over time. Misery, it seems, might like company, but company might do better without its unsolicited affections.

I’m not entirely sure why this should come as a surprise: how did the fact that dissatisfied, disengaged, disgruntled people might make the most inspiring backdrop to your day become something labelled as news? And we might ask the same question about the impact of working for a cheerless, anti-social or ill-tempered manager. Perhaps our instant associations for the word ‘wellbeing’ are partly to blame? When the government announced it was going to survey national happiness back in 2010, I was both suspicious and cynical. My first thought was the remade version of The Rise and Fall of Reggie Perrin:

… the critics may have bestowed only mixed blessings, but I’ve loved the updating of hopeless, incompetent Doc Morrissey in the original series to ‘The Wellness Person’ – a character so wet that even the most absorbent kitchen towel would surely struggle.”

Jollier than Radiohead it may have been, but wellbeing was still the stuff of platitudes delivered by someone remote from the reality of those in dire need of it. We weren’t entirely in the realm of scented candles and essential oils – in relation to which I always have to remind myself that the adjective ‘essential’ has two meanings. But we were in a fantasy kingdom where strangers dispense a flimsy leaflet with the satisfied flourish of a fairy waiving a wand: laughing at the wand and the tutu might, under the circumstances, be the greater part of any therapeutic effect.

It didn’t get as many laughs, or as much media attention, but the Work Foundation’s Exceeding Expectations Report (which aimed to identify the characteristics of the exceptional workplace leader) saw wellbeing as something very different. Something that was very much concerned with people in direct contact with each other, and which came through something rather deeper than a sweetly worded brochure full of photo library images of implausibly good-looking – and implausibly relaxed – people. Here is part of one of the comments from one of the Report’s interviews:

I think we’ve struck a good balance actually at a senior level, and we’ve started to invest in the whole workforce in various ways, and to reassure people that we care about them as human beings and individuals. So I think…that if people can see that you care about their safety and their wellbeing and their quality of life by investing in their pay…and conditions and so on, then it’s a bit like grabbing their attention to able to say ‘well if they care about me as an individual then maybe I should, I can or ought to contribute more’ or ‘it’s a better place to be in’ all of these things have a relationship.”

It’s worth pausing to review the five categories of wellbeing that Gallup now identifies as essential components of becoming more productive:

  • Career Wellbeing: how you occupy your time — or simply liking what you do every day
  • Social Wellbeing: having strong relationships and love in your life
  • Financial Wellbeing: effectively managing your economic life
  • Physical Wellbeing: having good health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis
  • Community Wellbeing: the sense of engagement you have with the area where you live

As another Gallup Business Journal article has pointed out, there is often a tendency to take a rather superficial approach in acting to support or promote wellbeing. Not only does an annual health check address only one of these five aspects, it can also be easily read as gauging whether someone is becoming a risk rather than as an investment in them as an individual. Not only is it not a magic bullet, but the metaphorical gun isn’t pointing at the right target either.

Of course, we could simply decide to be stoic about all this. It was the line taken a while ago by Alain de Botton, who wondered out loud if the idea of work being a source of happiness raised an unrealistic expectation that was easily dashed, and if it wasn’t also something that a period of austerity might reveal to have been symptomatic more than anything else of ‘the good times’. While de Botton was hymning the Ancient Greek Stoics – and I’m not going to argue that Stoicism has as much to offer the fine art of ‘getting through the day’ as coffee or a really comfy pair of shoes – surely there’s room for sadness if we wave goodbye to the more positive picture he saw as fading:

Once it became evident that someone who was expected to remove brain tumours, draw up binding legal documents or sell condominiums with convincing energy could not profitably be sullen or resentful, morose or angry, the mental wellbeing of employees began to be a supreme object of managerial concern.”

If we’re going to really address wellbeing in its proper sense(s), do we shrug and decide it’s really up to the individual? Open the brochure drawer and leave it up to them whether they read it or not? Or do we open our ears, eyes and mouths and see wellbeing as a mutual responsibility? As something that we can not only all contribute to, but all gain from in return?

Radiohead’s song concludes with ‘a pig in a cage on antibiotics’. Is it sentimental to want a happier ending?