We need to reclaim the idea of well-being. It took years of science showing how well-being actually improves our performance and makes us stronger and more resilient to finally begin to sink into our work culture. And now we’re in danger of losing the plot on the role of well-being in our workplaces. There’s a creeping sense that well-being is soft, that it somehow means treating employees as fragile, unable to deal with obstacles and challenges.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The gains we’ve made on true well-being have been too hard earned to throw away so lightly. It took a long time to break from the model of work that became locked in during the Industrial Revolution, when all time not spent working (like time for sleep and rest and recharging) was seen as unproductive time to be colonized and monetized. Decades of science since then have made it clear that when we prioritize our well-being across six foundational behaviors—sleep, food, movement, stress management, focus and connection—we’re more resilient, more productive, and more creative.
In recent years, this idea of well-being was slowly taking root, and the collective delusion that burnout is the price we have to pay for success was finally beginning to crack. That’s why, in 2016, I founded Thrive—to do away with this delusion once and for all. Then the pandemic hit, and employee well-being rightly shot to the top of the agenda for nearly every company. That was a good thing. We were in an epidemic of stress and burnout long before COVID-19, and employee mental health suddenly became too urgent for leaders to ignore.
But mixed into the response was a seed of the idea that well-being was about coddling and removing challenges. Our cultural reckoning over the past few years around race and gender has brought long overdue progress. But we shouldn’t conflate making our workplaces safe and equitable for all employees with removing all discomfort, which isn’t good for organizations and isn’t good for employees either.
It’s a fundamental misreading of well-being, and we can see it popping up in stories like this one in The Wall Street Journal on a new push to get rid of the word “feedback” and replace it with “feedforward.” “Feedback” is supposed to be too “anxiety-inducing” and leaves employees “feeling defeated, weighed down by past actions.” Whereas “feedforward,” according to its proponents, “encourages improvement and development.”
But getting real and honest feedback is how we grow, evolve, and improve. That’s a fundamental part not just of having a job but of being human. Of course feedback—and all workplace communications—should be delivered respectfully and in a way that encourages improvement and development. That’s why at Thrive our core company value is compassionate directness. But hiding feedback—or making up a new word for it—is neither compassionate nor respectful. It actually does a disservice to the person on the receiving end, denying them the opportunity to learn and grow. Real feedback is feedforward, we don’t need to euphemize it.
This idea of well-being is a category error, which we need to fix by more clearly defining what well-being is and what it isn’t. That’s all the more urgent, because now that we’re in more challenging economic times, some companies are questioning the value of employee well-being. And it becomes easier to question when we use a misguided definition of well-being that assumes it’s about coddling, or that a company’s responsibility toward employees is to remove any discomfort or challenges.
Well-being is about empowerment, not entitlement. At the heart of well-being practices is building resilience so we can deal with whatever challenges life, including work, brings—and yes, that may include constructive or even difficult feedback! That’s how we become stronger instead of more fragile.
The science is unequivocal that we need time to recharge and refuel. And as elite athletes have long known, recovery is part of peak performance. But dealing with obstacles and challenges is an inevitable part of life—and of any job. A real culture of well-being and resilience makes us more able to face them. Well-being, properly defined and practiced, is indeed a productivity multiplier.
But when we misinterpret well-being, we make it easy to dismiss, which is something we can’t afford. Too many employees need the real thing. According to Slack’s most recent Future Forum report, 42% of employees report feeling burned out, a record high since Future Forum first started measuring burnout in May of 2021. So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Our progress on true well-being has been too valuable to reverse course. A culture of well-being and resilience isn’t about removing challenges. It’s about believing in employees and their capacity to meet those challenges, and then giving them the tools (including honest feedback) to realize their full potential.
Huffington is the founder and CEO of Thrive Global
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