Embedding wellbeing learning at work: a best practice approach

You’re reading this because you care about your people’s wellbeing.

You are aware of the data. In 2017 the Wellness in the Workplace survey showed that stress was up 22.9% on previous years, and Kiwi businesses lost 6.6 million working days in 2016, to the tune of NZD1.15 billion. Similarly, mental health company, Beyond Blue, found that one in five Australian workers experienced mental-health illnesses such as depression and anxiety, with a cost to businesses of at least AUD10.9 billion a year.

Beyond a focus on mental health, you are now looking at things through a wellbeing lens. You know a focus on wellbeing will make your organisation known as a great place to work; keep your people and get the best talent. But mostly because, hey, you believe it’s the right thing to do. You have a deep sense of wanting to bring out the best in your people.

You may already have a wellbeing policy. Even if you don’t have a formal plan, you might have run some wellbeing initiatives; volunteer days, mindfulness, resilience training, or health promotion activities that promote good lifestyle choices – like fresh fruit (we’re armed with bananas here at Inspire!) and may offer flexi-hours.

Perhaps following on from some awareness, wellbeing learning and adhoc activities, you’d like to take things a step further; put more structure around an actual wellbeing programme. How do you go about a systematic approach of embedding your wellbeing learning?

By the people, for the people

Adults learn best when they choose to take charge of their own learning. A similar idea is that motivation matters when building wellbeing at work. Motivation researchers Miller and Rollnick caution against the “expert trap” – a prescriptive, problem-solving approach that inadvertently tells people what they need to do. Their work shows that if you give the impression you have all the answers, people can shift into a passive, disempowering role as a result of being talked “at”, rather than collaborated “with”. By comparison, participatory, facilitator-led experiences focus on real-life situations – empowering people to explore their own strengths and values, work out their goals and where they sit.


He kokonga whare e kitea He kokonga ngākau e kore e kitea.

“A corner of a house may be seen and examined, not so the corners of the heart.”


Involving your people, and getting their input at all stages of the wellbeing journey, shows that you are building and refining what is important to them. The behavioural concept of the ’IKEA effect‘ reinforces this idea of a participatory approach being more effective for taking ownership, by saying that people value and take the most notice of the things that they have a stake in (Norton et al., 2012).

From ego-system to eco-system

Much work in the area of positive leadership and organisations demonstrates the effectiveness of giving people tools that build “Psychological Capital” i.e. self-efficacy, optimism, hope, grit and resilience at work (Luthans et al., 2017). Yet a bunch of resilient people doesn’t necessarily predict resilient teams (McEwen et al., 2018)) which makes sense. Groups take on their own identity and way of doing things and have a set of dynamics that might even run counter to individual wellbeing practices. For example, the extent to which time is given to debriefing after a challenging meeting or event, or slogging away at work that drains and disengages them.

With this in mind, might a wellbeing at work programme pitfall be a primary focus on individuals, when most work is done in teams? Teams are the immediate social environment for people, and as wellbeing researcher Emma Seppala points out, social connection is a huge predictor of physical health and wellbeing.

Is there an opportunity to develop more strategies to enable teams to do things that promote wellbeing and resilience?

Celebrate progress and milestones

We recently celebrated the release of our digital authoring tool “Chameleon”  with blue lemonade and cupcakes. It didn’t cost the earth and made everyone feel like they were part of things.

Moving from ‘me’ to ‘we’ goals

While goals are a powerful way to make things happen, overly focusing on individual performance can undermine wellbeing efforts and even promote unethical behaviour (Ordóñez et al., 2009). A recent Sloan article supports aligned goalsetting and argues that in today’s more agile environment, goals need to be FAST rather than SMART: Frequently discussed, Ambitious – intrinsically motivating rather than tied to KPIs, Specific measures and milestones and Transparent for all in the organisation to see. As Henry Ford famously noted:

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”

Leadership support and commitment

Aligning wellbeing with your organisation’s overall vision and purpose is key so that it’s not perceived as a fluffy add-on. Ideally senior leaders and decision makers are “for it” by officially endorsing wellbeing and doing it – leading by example and modelling the kinds of things that promote wellbeing. For example, highlighting situations when a leader might normally have done something that undermined their wellbeing, such as not taking a break, but instead chose to put their wellbeing first and get out of the office for some fresh air.

Social learning

At Inspire we recently explored some evidence-based wellbeing frameworks, such as PERMA; which stands for Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment, Te Whare Tapa Whā; the four holistic cornerstones of Māori health taha tinana (physical); taha hinekaro (emotion); taha whānau (social); and taha wairua (spiritual) (Durie, 1994) and the Five Winning Ways; Give, Be Active, Keep Learning, Connect and Take Notice, endorsed by the New Zealand Mental Health Foundation. In groups we drew the frameworks we liked onto A3 paper, and our next step is choosing one that’s best fit for our culture.


Making things fun can encourage participation in wellbeing programmes and keep learners motivated. One of our most experienced designers, Matt Bidwell, puts it like this: “How do we make this a game?” Think tactics such as awarding points or badges, implementing leaderboards and awarding certificates.


Who can help advocate and support your efforts? Your team can spread your good comms around what the programme offers, how it works, what’s in it for them and ways they can get involved to raise awareness and overcome barriers to participation. A recent review on the effectiveness of workplace wellbeing programmes highlights being honest about why the programme is in place – transparency about the goals and outcomes (Spence, 2015). If you have a science and data driven rationale, say that. It all builds trust.

Creating a culture of wellbeing where people are at their best recognises all the moving parts and the ecosystem. The awareness, knowledge, and skills we gain in our learning can be paired with the things that will actually help us follow through on our learning.

What has worked for your organisation to embed wellbeing? We’d love to know!

Leanna Dey is passionate about making things that matter, that actually work. She enjoys infusing the principals of wellbeing science and behavioural insights into learning design, to embed the skills shown to improve people’s lives.

Mental Health at SEEK Award-Winning Case Study

Mental Health At SEEK and Inspire Group Case Study

See an example of some of the wellbeing learning at work solutions we’ve recently created for our client SEEK.

Download the award-winning Mental Health at SEEK case study.



Connectedness & Health: The Science Of Social Connection Infographic: https://emmaseppala.com/connect-thrive-infographic

Durie, M. (1994). Whaiaora-Mäori health development. Auckland, NZ: Oxford University Press.

Luthans, Fred & Youssef-Morgan, Carolyn. (2017). Psychological Capital: An Evidence-Based Positive Approach. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior. 4. 10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032516-113324.

McEwen, Kathryn, B Psych (Hons); Boyd, Carolyn, M., PhD. (2018). A Measure of Team Resilience: Developing the Resilience at Work Team Scale. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine: March 2018 – Volume 60 – Issue 3 – p 258–272 doi: 10.1097/JOM.0000000000001223.

Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (1991). Motivational interviewing: Preparing people for change. New York: Guilford Press.

Norton, M. I., Mochon, D., & Ariely, D. (2012). The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22, 453-460.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish. New York, NY: Free Press

Spence, G., B. (2015). Workplace wellbeing programs: If you build it they may NOT come…because it’s not what they really need! International Journal of Wellbeing, 5(2), 109-124. doi:10.5502/ijw.v5i2.7

The Mental Health Foundation website: https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/home/ways-to-wellbeing/

Wellness in the Workplace 2017 Survey Report: https://www.businessnz.org.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/128547/Wellness-in-the-Workplace-Survey-2017.pdf

With Goals, FAST Beats SMART, Donald Sull and Charles Sull, June 05, 2018, MIT Sloan Management Review: https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/with-goals-fast-beats-smart/



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