1. Wellbeing doesn't really work at the employer level. It may not work at all.
Perhaps the saddest lesson I've learned from roughly 20 years of employee wellbeing work is that the investment doesn't really do anything meaningful at the employer level. An employer simply doesn't have either the power or influence over individuals, social groups, the environment and culture to really cause the necessary behaviour change to have a real, lasting, long term impact on enough people to have a noticeable macro impact. The interventions need to either be individual or societal. You can give up smoking or go to the gym. Governments can ban drink driving, driving without wearing a seat belt, introduce a sugar tax or increase the minimum wage - you get the point. An employer can only really offer support, which is great, but doesn't have the best evidence base in terms of the scale of the impact. A good support package will make a difference to some employees, so it is worthwhile, but it won't make a lot of difference statistically to the UK.
2. Exercise is key, especially strength training.
This is a no-brainer, but it is about as factually true as anything can get in this crazy world. If you want a wellbeing magic bullet, this is it. It helps keep you fit, helps you recover from injuries and illness faster than average, improves your life expectancy, helps manage your mental wellbeing and if you add in a generous dose of strength training can keep you active well into your old age. It can also help connect you with other people, especially in respect of team sports or exercise communities.
If I had to pick one thing on this list to recommend to people, this is it.
3. Nutrition and fasting are key, especially ‘blue’ region foods and minimal / no alcohol (and other vices).
Diets are a waste of time. Eating healthily is the way to go. The ‘Mediterranean diet’, more a way of living / eating than an actual diet, is proven to help with weight loss and then maintaining a healthy weight. However, it isn’t all about the calorie in-take, it’s also about the quality of the produce and avoiding unnecessary additives. Not just the classic dangers of salt and sugar, but all kinds of additives and preservatives that are not natural and can cause damage in the long term. What we eat is as important as how much we eat.
If you can lay off alcohol altogether, not only are you a better person than me by far (but you already knew that), in the medium term you will feel a lot better. Study after study show alcohol’s impact on sleep, weight, mood, energy, and concentration. You should also find your relationships improving in quality in the medium term as you overcome alcohol being a social crutch. Clearly, smoking and certain drugs are other potential vices that have no real wellbeing upside.
4. Get a decent sleep.
Sleep became a big thing about halfway through my stint in wellbeing and a core focus of physical wellbeing work. Most people will need 6-8 hours of sleep a night to function well, you’ll need to work out what is right for you. Benefits of getting the right amount of sleep are more energy and better mental wellbeing. Hands down, sleep is my favourite activity. I’ll leave you to judge how exciting my life must be. Add to that some interesting evidence about the importance of napping and sleep, rest, and recovery has become central to wellbeing.
5. Meditate or find something similar where you can properly relax.
I came across genuine meditation late in my career. I have always studied martial arts and particularly Tai Chi, but it was only well into my studies that I began to practise Chi-Gung which has a focus on mediation and breathing. I hated it at first, I am far more interested in the martial aspects, but the more you do it, the deeper and more rewarding it becomes. Then you realise that the breathing, the relaxing, the focus or lack of focus all help with the martial side and it all clicks. Tai Chi isn’t for everyone. There is Yoga and Pilates and a pile of breathing and relaxation techniques you can find online and use as you see fit. The NHS offers several. If that isn’t for you either, then perhaps a nice walk in nature might be your bag, or a bit of gardening or a round of golf? Whatever it is, I’d strongly recommend you find a way to ‘defrag’ from the modern world, relax and focus on your internal wellbeing.
6. Be altruistic.
It is just an economic truth that being altruistic does a lot for the person giving and does something nice for the person receiving. The ultimate win-win. Try and find a way to help others if you can. You won’t regret it.
7. Be curious, enjoy yourself, and invest in yourself.
In one of the largest and longest world studies of personal happiness / wellbeing, they looked at what made people happy. There were several concepts that came up that were highlighted in a lot of ancient Greek (and other) philosophy. The first is the idea of living a meaningful life. The second is doing things that are hedonistic i.e. just straight out enjoyable for you. The third is to be curious about life and do things that stimulate you, such as trying a new hobby or traveling to a new place.
This is one of the areas that we need to exercise a little caution. Too much of a type of hedonism can be bad for you. Curiosity has been known to kill the odd cat. You might not always know what is meaningful to you or the wider world. However, I think you gain more by trying something across these three areas and if you get the balance right, you should hugely improve your wellbeing.
8. If you can afford it, get professional help.
We’re all better with quality support. Rich people stay rich because they have financial advisors and accountants to help guide them. People with good mental wellbeing have often benefited from quality therapy or counselling or other training. A lot of people with good physical wellbeing have a PT or nutritionist or other support (or had some in the past). These professionals can’t guarantee success, but they certainly help you achieve it. There are some interesting economic studies that prove the old time is money saying in this area i.e. that hiring a specialist to help you will lead to better results and save you time on the journey!
9. Once you’ve passed the minimum income requirements, learn to live on a budget, save and invest.
You need to earn enough money to survive, but once you hit that threshold, you need to be able to budget to thrive.
Once you can put a small amount away each month and start to save, you become more financially resilient. Way too many people are just one unexpected bill away from a debt crisis as they have no savings. Once you have some savings, you may even be able to invest. This can help you plan towards something that might also help your wellbeing from a nice holiday, buying a home, putting something away for retirement or taking an external course.
10. Thatcher was wrong, there is only community.
Showing my age here! Humans are social animals. That is it. You need relationships in your life to be happy. These can range from a life-partner to just a good friend. Loneliness is a killer. The stress of being genuinely alone in life is broadly equivalent to being a regular moderate smoker. Beyond personal relationships, being part of a community can also be rewarding. From being in a football team, to helping organise park runs, to visiting the elderly. We can all help each other by coming together and making our part of this world a better place.
How do I assess my wellbeing? Perhaps the biggest secret in wellbeing is to avoid chasing happiness. Happiness is fleeting and mercurial. Instead, it is better to seek general contentment with life. The big test is to be able to look back at your life as a film and be okay with broadly what has happened in it. If not, then look at what changes you would need to make to get you there. It doesn’t need to be 24/7 party people and hopefully it isn’t a horror. By looking at the ten steps above and using the lessons from them, perhaps in an ideal world you can make the film of your life look a bit more like the classic, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.