Wellbeing 2.0 – Employee Wellbeing Meets Liveable Cities

It’s time to bring out the label Wellbeing 2.0. The concept of wellbeing is growing and changing so much that we need the cliché. I’d feel bad about that except that I’ve just googled the term and found an employee wellbeing specialist [more below] with a similar point of view, who used the same term two weeks ago in a LinkedIn article. [It’s almost like finding a lost sibling].

The Emergence of Wellbeing 2.0

Baby Boomers are responsible for the modern concept of wellbeing. It began in the 1960’s with Weight Watchers [est. 1963]  and the jogging revolution [yes – surprisingly, jogging wasn’t always a thing]. By the 1980’s, psychologists were writing books and papers using the term ‘wellbeing’. Out in the real world, more and more people were going to the gym, trying to eat a healthy diet and worrying about work-life balance. Meanwhile,  wellbeing deficits were growing.  More people lived in cities, doing sedentary office jobs, fast food was spreading everywhere and work stresses were compounding.

Now we’re witnessing Wellbeing 2.0 – a significant expansion of the basic idea. It includes new topics, new opportunities, and new tools.  There are now so many more ways to deal with the negatives of life and improve the positives. Topics range from mindfulness to resilience, sleep quality to sexual harassment, workplace diversity to social isolation. With it come different philosophies, like the Scandinavian examples I wrote about recently.

Upgrading Employee Wellbeing

Employee wellbeing has been part of this growth spiral. Programmes to help staff increase their levels of wellbeing have grown in the last ten years. So has the idea that increasing staff wellbeing is good for the organisation.  These programmes often grow out of health and safety initiatives and they typically focus on fitness, diet and work-life balance.

But here’s what one of the more evolved organisations says about that:

“Specifically, employee wellbeing is about how your job – your duties, expectations, stress level, and environment – affects your overall health and happiness.

And while it certainly includes things like exercise and nutrition, well-being isn’t just about physical health. It’s about mood and cognition, and less tangible factors like a sense of purpose. Above all, it’s about understanding your employees from a holistic perspective, taking into account the totality of their lives, and considering their overall quality of life.” 

And here’s what Andrew Supple, [the employee wellbeing specialist I found on LinkedIn] said:

“These results from 2018 World Happiness Report are important as they highlight a theme that runs throughout employee wellbeing – the environment / culture you are in has a huge impact on your wellbeing. This is true of business. If you put your employees in an environment / culture that is not supportive of their wellbeing, then they will struggle to be happy and healthy.”

This is Wellbeing 2.0  thinking – a view of wellbeing that is probably closest to the idea of ‘flourishing’. It’s not just happiness and it’s not just wellness. It’s about how the job and the culture of an organisation fits the people who work there.   It suggest that wellbeing is the outcome of a complex system, not just an individual’s intentions.

Are Liveable Cities Systems for Wellbeing?

Wellbeing is a popular idea. In our 2018 Lay of the Land survey, more than two-thirds of New Zealanders[1] [68%] say they are “focused on living simply, healthily and sustainably[2]”. This sentiment is strongest in metro areas, especially Auckland, and among people with tertiary education qualifications [who cluster in the larger cities].

As it happens, both Auckland and Wellington are highly placed on various lists of the world’s most liveable cities.

This idea of a liveable city is a good example of Wellbeing 2.0.  Most of the current indexes [e.g. Monocle, Mercers’, the Economist] began in the early 21st Century.  The indexes usually rank around 150 to 200 world cities. They compare the quality of life in these cities, based on a wide set of wellbeing factors, such as:
“safety, education, hygiene, health care, culture, environment, recreation, political-economic stability, public transport and access to goods and services” 

Index factors like safety, recreation and education reveal an important contradiction to the usual idea of wellbeing as a personal responsibility.  Many aspects of our personal wellbeing are outside our personal control. The Liveable City indexes don’t run surveys asking us if we’re eating healthily or getting enough exercise. Instead, they assume that if we have a positive living environment, most of us will flourish.

In reality, our wellbeing is dependent on our social and economic systems. These in turn depend on decisions that governments and businesses make. If we don’t have great health or education or recreation options available, we’re less likely to have high wellbeing. [This seems like a useful way to think about the social and economic differences between city suburbs as well.]

Making the Investment and Reaping the Benefits

Cities recognise the benefits that come from being high on the list of liveable cities. Being highly ranked helps a city to attract the kind of people that boost prosperity: tourists, new businesses and well-paid workers. Such cities become a magnet for growth and prosperity simply by emphasising wellbeing in their development plans.

Highly regarded liveable cities become strategic assets for the country itself. In New Zealand, recent business growth statistics show that Auckland accounts for 38% of the jobs, but 50% of the growth in jobs. Under such conditions it makes sense to invest in housing, transportation and other infrastructure to maintain quality of life for its residents.

Auckland’s plan to become the most liveable city wasn’t released until 2011. But dating back before the 2000 America’s Cup defence, there has been a profound change  in the city. Successive Councils and interest groups have focused much more on its potential to become a desirable living environment.

In New Zealand, the iconic ‘Absolutely Positively Wellington’ campaign of the 1990’s worked wonders at changing perceptions of our capital from grey public service city to vibrant cosmopolitan city. But if the campaign hadn’t been supported by Council initiatives, it would just have been a campaign. Instead Wellington got café tables on the street and repurposed port facilities as a focus for leisure. Suddenly it felt cool.

This is Wellbeing 2.0

Let’s bring the analogy back to typical employee wellbeing programmes that teach you to manage your own wellbeing better. It’s unlikely that optional programmes for citizens to improve their own situation would improve your liveable city rankings. No one would ever suggest such a thing – the effects would be so random. It’s the same in the workplace. The results may be positive but they need to be embedded in the culture.

Wellbeing 2.0 can go even further than just employee wellbeing.  It is achieved when the things an organisation does to ensure its prosperity, also benefit the people within it and those who are served by it.  A city  builds  assets and provides services that make it a better place to live, visit or do business in . For businesses, the same equation connects staff, customers, suppliers and owners. In future posts we’ll explore the small  matter of getting them all working in the same direction.


[1] Data from a nationally representative online survey of  New Zealanders aged 18 to 70

[2] They had two other choices in this question – one non-wellbeing option and one uncommitted

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