The accompanying video clip tells us the story of Tommy and Gina, a couple that manages to survive, despite all sorts of external difficulties.  They’re livin’ on a prayer, an expression that refers to the idea of surviving/living through trust in yourself.  Of course this message fits in seamlessly with the philosophy of ‘The American Dream’. According to this, the individual is responsible for his own success.  Something we also come across in American popular films.  The protagonist takes his fate into his own hands, in spite of the pressure from his surroundings, and in this way builds further on his success.  In short, the message that well-being entails personal responsibility reigned supreme in the 1980s.

Fortunately there is some headwind, also from the generation of long-haired rockers. In ‘Something to Believe in’ the Poison glam rockers talk about the lack of support for homeless veterans. Skid Row dedicates the ballad ’18 and Life’ to the devastating mental impact of the Vietnam War on single 18-year olds.  And the story behind ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ portrays the tensions that young people suffer when society leaves them to their own devices. The songs, and the accompanying video clips, are therefore a repeated indictment of an environment that shuns all responsibility.  Rightly so, as much research shows that the environment is often more decisive than someone’s individual decisiveness, and that is at odds with the American ideal.

That tension between personal and environmental responsibility can also be seen today in the definition of, and approach to, well-being.  The question is what do we do with it? Do we cling to the idea of the individual who, with the mindset of ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ pulls himself out of a tight corner? Or do we say that Tommy and Gina in the video clip deserve first of all some support from their environment?

Well, the World Health Organisation (WHO) defines well-being as ‘the state in which an individual can realise his or her own potential, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and contribute to his or her own community’.  In short, if our personal well-being is up to scratch we are able to achieve something while feeling good about it.  Overload occurs when this is no longer possible.

Based on this definition well-being also appears to be a personal task.  We must work on it individually.  We have to discover for ourselves what we can do, set individual goals and make an active contribution to our environment.  The environment will then lend a hand by offering training and education programmes, a Mindfulness course and an introduction to physical exercise on the office chair.  The question is whether in our teamwork, and bearing in mind the challenges we face, it is a good idea to take on this supporting role as a primary function.  Because if we make the comparison with the evolution of approaches to burn-out within organisations another role is thrust upon us.

Burn-out, the result of a long-term disregard for professional well-being, has been defined as an ‘organisational phenomenon’ since 2019 only (WHO/ICD-11).  In doing so, the WHO breaks away from the previously used ‘individual phenomenon’.  At first glance, this may seem like a trivial game of concepts between scientists.  However, Prof. Dr. Christina Maslach, the worldwide pioneer and authority in the field of burn-out refers to this redefinition as a real breakthrough.  Burn-out manifests itself by energy depletion, mental distance from work and reduced professional efficiency.  When the emphasis is on the individual this tends to lead to initiatives aimed at energy management, positive thinking and independent working.  Obviously this gives some personal relief but leaves the structural gaps, such as structural understaffing and overload, unaddressed.  By putting the focus on the organisation in the definition, there is an evolution from the treatment of symptoms (individual problems and approaches) to the tackling of causes (organisational problems and approaches).

The same reasoning applies entirely to the theme of well-being in our collaborative work.  Certainly nowadays, it is better to start immediately with structural interventions addressing causes (such as overtime) than to respond to symptoms (such as rest areas for tired employees).  It is therefore the environment, the organisation or the team that must act first, not the individual.  From this point of view, it would be better to reformulate this year’s view of welfare from an organisational or team perspective.  Well-being is then given substance by striving, in any form of cooperation, to create an environment in which each person can make his or her unique contribution to the group, free from excessive stress.

In the literature, this aspiration is further explored by working with concepts such environmental mastery, purpose, self-acceptance, connection, automony and progress.  But after the end-of-year holidays, let’s keep it digestible.  In this article we will therefore limit ourselves to a pragmatic exploration of four pillars from the definition.  This means that (1) we start working structurally with the unique contribution of employees and the organisation, (2) we make sure that there is no excessive stress, (3) we make it possible to deliver results and (4) we pay attention to the community in which this happens.

And don’t worry, it doesn’t matter that you use a different definition of well-being from the one above. What does matter is that you draw up a policy based on a well-described definition and vision. Collaborative work today requires a well-being policy, not umpteen ad hoc actions on well-being at work. Admittedly that sounds a little less rock ‘n’ roll than ‘Livin’ on a prayer’.  So let’s introduce the concrete application of this with some colourful Glam Metal trivia.