A holistic approach to life, work and wellbeing isn’t only nice – it’s profitable

Work affects our life, which affects our wellbeing, which affects our work. But what exactly is the relationship between all these things? A fascinating study provides some answers and offers ideas for employers.

Work-life balance is a useful concept, but it’s also deceiving. It brings to mind a scale where two very different things are weighed against one other, and the sense that there is some perfect equilibrium. In reality, we know very well that work is part of life – it can’t be separated – and that our life outside of our job ultimately affects our experience of our job, and vice versa.

But what if we could go beyond intuition and begin to map out more exactly what the relationship is?

A very intriguing study from 2020, published in Frontiers in Public Health, did just this from a wellbeing perspective. Titled Well-Being in Life and Well-Being at Work: Which Comes First? Evidence From a Longitudinal Study, it conducted research on 954 apparel workers, with a good mixture of demographics (age, tenure, married, etc) with an eye on getting some answers to questions like those above.

Basically the researchers wanted to know about the interaction between a feeling at work and its equivalent in life. They looked at six factors related to wellbeing:

- Happiness

- Satisfaction

- Relationships

- Depression

- Meaning

- Purpose

There were some surprising results.

Two-way influences

It turns out that for some of these facets there was a two-way influence, while others had a one-way influence.

The researchers found that satisfaction is bi-directional. How satisfied the respondents were with life affected how satisfied they were with their jobs, and vice versa.

Happiness was also bi-directional, and had more powerful effects than satisfaction overall.

The researchers essentially say this is proof of the idea that there is spillover between life and work – that as we said in our introduction, the two can't be separated. 

However, that's not true for the next factors.

One-way influences

The researchers found that good relationships at work had an effect on good relationships in life. But having good relationships in life did not make for better relationships at work.

Why? The researchers suggest that having close friends and family doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll become connected with colleagues. Conversely, being close with your work friends results in you feeling more connected in life.

Depression too had a single direction. Depression in life made it more likely for people to be depressed at work. That the reverse isn’t true is perhaps surprising.  

The researchers speculate this might be because work can be more easily separated by both time and place – think of someone leaving the office and saying “work is terrible, but it’s done, I’m leaving for today”. If you are generally depressed in your life however, people find it harder to escape from that feeling transcending into their jobs.

Meaning also had a single direction. If people found meaning in their lives, they were more likely to find meaning in their job. The reverse wasn’t true. This might shock some, as the idea that we’re in part defined by our jobs is a common belief.  

However, ‘purpose’ was also single directional, but in the other direction. Purpose at work translated to purpose in life, not the other way around.

The researchers surmise this could be a result of purpose being a goal-oriented concept, while meaning is more holistic. Purpose asks, “What did I do today and why?” Meaning, on the other hand, asks the bigger question, “Why am I here and do my experiences matter?”  

What does this mean for employers?

While business owners shouldn’t be overly focused on the lives their employees lead outside of work, the findings gel with our understanding on the connection between wellbeing and business outcomes.

Firstly, wellbeing affects turnover. In a previous article, we discussed in detail how there’s a strong link between wellbeing and retention. One of the pullout points was a study that looked at a large US company and found that there was almost a third (30%) fewer voluntary departures for those who had the highest levels of wellbeing.

While that article discussed the cost implications of this (and is worth reading in full!) it didn’t dwell on the ‘why’. The bi-directional relationship between work and life happiness and satisfaction seem to provide the answer. If workers perceive their company as helping their wellbeing, this translates directly into their feelings about life in general. Put another way, people are less likely to leave because their jobs are making their lives better.

Secondly, the research acts as an argument for the idea that employers give some thought to the overall health of their workforce. For example, there’s long been a link between substance abuse and poor wellbeing.

In a widely cited study on the topic of comorbidity of depression and substance use disorders, the researchers say that drinking can hurt your health, social life, and work, which are all contributing factors when it comes to depression. Furthermore, it’s possible that excessive or long-term alcohol consumption directly affects your body and produces depressive symptoms.

While any workplace intervention should be approached sensitively, helping employees live healthier can have a direct bottom line impact, given that depression in life can lead to depression at work. Healthy Business is experienced with providing 1:1 health coaching that helps employees identify their motivations when it comes to their overall health and wellbeing across the following areas of areas of health: lifestyle, sleep and fatigue, mental health and musculoskeletal health.

And of course, given that ill-health in general seems to be linked with “substantial reductions in work performance” (as found by this highly referenced study) employers might find it worthwhile to go beyond narrowly focused interventions. Healthy Business has experience with a variety of health areas including sleep, nutrition solutions and mental health.

Ultimately, by conceptualising how wellbeing, life, and work intersect we get closer to a more accurate and useful way to approach all three. As we discussed in our article on maturing beyond workplace health and safety compliance, it’s this forward-thinking approach to culture and leadership that makes companies better places to work and, in so doing, more profitable.

Healthy Business can co-design a wellbeing solution for your organisation to enhance employee health and benefit your bottom line. Get in touch today.

Back to Resources