Which Are The Wisest Workplace Wellbeing Interventions?

Michelle McQuaid
4 min readMay 13, 2022

Three Evidence-Based Approaches To Help People Care For Their Wellbeing

Helping people care for their wellbeing at work is challenging and complex. Our wellbeing habits, attitudes, and actions spread through a complicated web of social connections at the individual, team and organizational level. As a result, there isn’t one magic solution that works for everybody. So how can choose the interventions we invest in wisely?

“Wise interventions anticipate the questions that reasonably come up for all of us in our day-to-day lives. Then, they help people to find answers that are authentic, adaptive and help them make progress in the face of whatever challenges they are facing,” explained Professor Greg Walton from Stanford University when we interviewed him recently. “They aren’t necessarily ‘good’ or ‘effective’ or ‘the best’ interventions. They are simply psychologically wise because they anticipate all kinds of common questions people ask like: Can I do it? Or am I reaching the edge of my abilities? Am I excluded, disrespected, devalued? Am I a good person?”

Studies have found that wise interventions underscore three essential lessons that we often overlook when it comes to caring for wellbeing in workplaces, namely that:

  • Specific psychological processes play a critical role in the unfolding of our behavior in the social world;
  • These processes can be altered in precise ways; and
  • Doing so can lead to significant and lasting personal and social improvement.

For example, one of the main insights from Greg’s research is that our behavior stems from how we make sense of ourselves and social situations. This meaning-making is guided by three basic motivations:

  • The need to be accurate — We want to have a reasonable understanding of the world, ourselves and other people so we can act effectively. When meanings are detrimental –like those prompted by pejorative characterizations of the self (e.g., low self-esteem) or one’s group (e.g., stereotypes) or by toxic lay theories, such as fixed theories of intelligence — people can get stuck in negative ways of thinking and acting that become self-reinforcing.
  • The need for self-integrity — We want to think well of ourselves — to believe we are adequate, moral and competent. Maintaining a positive global self-image can improve functioning in the face of negative events.
  • The need to belong — We want to feel accepted and included by others, to belong to social groups and to contribute positively to the lives of others. As a result, our interpretations of important aspects of world and behavior towards it are highly sensitive to how we think other people view us and behave.

But how might a wise intervention work practically in your workplace?

Studies suggest that wise interventions are most likely to create significant wellbeing benefits when they have been designed to:

  • Ask pertinent questions — We are trying to answer persistent questions that undermine our wellbeing and/or our performance. For example, as a woman, do I belong in this male dominated workplace? But if the question is not pertinent to you, then the intervention is unlikely to be effective.
  • Provide opportunities for improvement — Wise interventions are engine oil, not the engine. Engine oil doesn’t make the car run; the engine does. But engines need oil to perform optimally. Similarly, psychological interventions do not, on their own, improve achievement, health or relationships. They rely on existing resources within people and systems and aim to help these function optimally to improve outcomes.

For example, you could :

  • Use storytelling to help people belong — People from minority groups in an organization (e.g., female, ethnic minority, LGBTIQ or a person of color), are more likely to interpret any challenges they encounter as evidence that they don’t belong. One way of helping these groups navigate this is to provide alternative narratives via story telling from colleagues from similar minority groups. This storytelling can be in written or spoken format, but its primary goal is to share personal experiences with newer colleagues to normalize this feeling and help them move beyond it. This can help people shift their thinking from “Does this mean I belong or not?” towards “How can I build my belonging?” This generates a sense of opportunity with people and can help them to understand that, while the feeling of not belonging is normal, it isn’t an indication that they don’t belong.
  • Help people to reframe stress — Accurately understanding how stress impacts our bodies and our wellbeing can change the way we respond to stressful situations. Simple videos like Dr Alia Crum’s stress mindset manipulation videos have been found to have a significant impact on the way people navigate stress. They help them to acknowledge their stress instead of denying it or to welcome the stress as a sign that they value or care deeply about something. Then, instead of spending their time, money, effort and energy trying to avoid the stress, they find ways to use that same time, effort, money and the boost of energy stress gives them to stand up for what they care about.
  • Encourage people to live their values — When people feel threatened in a work situation, they often respond in a less-than-ideal way, often defensively. Consequently, they will rarely see the situation as an opportunity for learning or growth. Helping people reconnect with their values through value affirmations can help to “lower the heat” of these difficult and challenging situations. As a result, studies have found that people tend to respond in a more effective and less defensive way. To re-connect people with their values, have them review a list of values and identify the one that is most important to them. This places the threat or criticism in a broader context of their skills and abilities and helps reduce stress and improve performance.

How might you design wise wellbeing interventions in your workplace?

For a free searchable database of more wise interventions, click here.