What influences employee wellbeing?

March 27, 2024


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Four domains influence employee well-being: societal context, private context, personality factors, and work context. Employers can primarily influence the work context, which encompasses energy, essential needs, potential, and reciprocity. This provides opportunities to enhance employee well-being by reducing adverse factors and creating stimulating environments.

by Kathleen Vangronsvelt, PhD, Eva Geluk

What influences employee wellbeing?

The wellbeing industry is booming, with new companies popping up like mushrooms, offering countless tools, scans, and videos. But amidst this abundance, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees: how can I know what truly matters for workplace wellbeing?

We hear this lament from many managers and professionals in prevention, wellbeing, and human resources. Together with bpost, Elia, and B-Tonic, we are investigating what really works. We’re compiling the results into a handy guide, so that as an employer, you’ll know how to effectively enhance workplace wellbeing. Here’s a sneak peek:

What influences employee wellbeing?

Broadly speaking, there are four domains that affect employee wellbeing in the workplace:

  • The societal context. Think of the negative impact of the pandemic, with its associated lockdowns and social bubbles (Vangronsvelt & De Vos, 2022).
  • The private context. The effects of a divorce (or a new love!) can also be felt at work.
  • Personality factors. For instance, there’s a slight correlation between neuroticism and mental distress (e.g., Ghorpade, Lackritz & Singh, 2007).
  • The work context.

As an employer, you have little to no impact on the first three domains. While you can offer a sympathetic ear during a breakup, trying to ‘coach’ your employee so they don’t fall for the wrong person again isn’t your responsibility. And workshops or coaching aimed at employees’ personalities may showcase goodwill, but they won’t change who they are. Where you do have direct impact as an employer is in the work context. Where you do have direct impact as an employer is in the work context.

How does the work context influence employee wellbeing?

There are four ways in which the work context impacts employee wellbeing. Think of them as four lenses through which to view the relationship between work context and employee wellbeing. Each lens provides valuable insight:

1. Energy

Research shows that job characteristics can either drain or replenish energy (e.g., Job Demands-Resources model). Some energy-draining aspects are inherent to the job, like the emotional labor of a nurse dealing with patients or facing tight deadlines. But not all energy-drainers are part of the job’. Think of workplace conflicts or unclear expectations. Get rid of them!

On the other hand, certain aspects can boost energy: a good relationship with colleagues or your manager, or recognizing the impact of your work.

As an employer, you can enhance employee wellbeing by addressing these energy flows. Specifically: reduce or eliminate unnecessary energy drains and increase energy boosters.

During our consultancy work, we often observe that many organizations engage in ostrich politics. Everyone conducts employee satisfaction surveys or psychosocial assessments and aims to have as many participants as possible. However, we often underutilize the output. Many struggle with energy-draining factors, yet organizations lack insight into these issues. We recommend examining where these ‘drainers’ are and applying the Pareto principle, also known as the 80-20 rule. This suggests that a relatively small number of factors (approximately 20%) are responsible for the majority (about 80%) of energy loss or inefficiency within an organization. By identifying and addressing these root causes, organizations can achieve significant improvements in employee well-being, productivity, and overall business performance. It’s essential to address issues such as tight deadlines, stress due to high workloads, job insecurity, bureaucracy, ambiguity about job roles, office politics, frequent changes in leadership, absenteeism, and so on—these are the factors negatively impacting employee well-being. The most significant source of energy comes from leadership’s example. Employees gain energy from the fact that their director says hello, sits down with them, and listens to what’s really happening on the work floor. Experiment with this, foster more connection, and celebrate successes with your employees—that’s the key to fostering positive energy!

— Siviglia Berto, B-Tonic

2. Essentiële noden

You’ve probably heard about the ABC basic needs: Autonomy, Belongingness, and Competence (Self-Determination Theory). When these three essential needs are met, individuals are mentally healthy and happy. They feel good, have positive connections with others, and are motivated to continue developing themselves. If one or more of these essential needs are not met, people become unhappy, and there is no longer optimal psychological functioning.

As an employer, you can have an impact on the well-being of your employees by ensuring that the work context adequately fulfills these needs. You can do this by providing your employees with as many opportunities as possible to make their own decisions, to have positive relationships, and to use and develop their skills

bpost has implemented a policy to increase employee presence in the workplace. Managers attend an HR Bootcamp on absenteeism and well-being, where they discuss the ABC model. After the Bootcamp, we schedule follow-up sessions where managers share their experiences with experts. This promotes autonomy, engagement, and competence. An example is setting up a specific communication channel to share answers for customer inquiries within a contact center. Through this support, both the competence (learning new answers) and engagement (learning from each other) of employees increase.

— Jan Matthys, bpost

3. Potentiation

Sometimes what we see isn’t all there is. Potentiation is about the process through which things unfold for employees that are only visible thanks to the optimal work environment (e.g., Capability Approach). The work context does more than just provide energy and fulfill needs; it also provides the right triggers or stimuli for something to grow. For example, a role model can be a stimulus for an employee, or an intellectually stimulating project that falls outside their expertise, or immersion in a completely different context.

As an employer, you can impact the well-being of your employees by going beyond just providing energy and basic needs, and adding stimulating triggers to the work environment (and not just for the ‘high potentials’).

In one of the organizations I visit, they traditionally go on a weekend trip to France with a cycling team. Employees later recount how they were moved by aspects such as the focus on the finish line, the selfless service of team members, or the naturalness of resting after a peak effort.

— Kathleen Vangronsvelt, Antwerp Management School

4. Reciprocity

Lastly, you can also view the relationship between the work context and well-being as a process of reciprocity (e.g., Social Exchange Theory). When the employer ensures a good work environment, employees reciprocate by giving their time, attention, effort, creativity, etc. If there are essential deficiencies in the work environment (e.g., lack of ABC, many energy-drainers, or lack of stimulation), employees will not be willing to give much in return. This relationship works both ways; more about this in the whitepaper that’s coming up in a later stadium.

As an employer, you can impact the well-being of your employees by paying attention to this reciprocity. See it as an overarching process: every sincere effort to increase ABC in the job, provide more energy boosters and fewer energy-drainers, and incorporate inspiring stimuli, implicitly says: “we see you and we want to do good for you.” You can also view it as an underlying, fundamental process: if employees receive little, they will give little and may resort to quiet quitting or effective absenteeism. And then, as a manager, HR, or prevention professional, it becomes very difficult to influence employee well-being. From our surveys, it’s.

From our surveys, it’s evident that Elia has a highly motivated workforce. There’s a certain pride among our employees in working for a socially relevant company. Equally important, we observe a lot of gratitude for the initiatives we offer to take care of employees’ physical and mental health. This goes beyond the typical fruit basket, mandatory confidants, and health campaigns. For instance, every employee is entitled to three free consultations with a psychologist per year. We also encourage our employees to take care of each other. On one hand, because we want our employees to be happy and healthy. On the other hand, it helps us prevent the emotional “bank account” from going into the red, ensuring we maintain sufficient credit with our employees when needed. This applies at the organizational level; think of a major incident where we require flexible employees. But it also applies at the colleague level: colleagues who step in for one another.

— Fien Vanden Hoof, Elia

Would you like to stay updated on the results of our research partnership, Wellbeing Works? Are you interested in knowing what you, as a manager, HR, prevention, or well-being professional, or even as a colleague, can do? Don’t miss the research page.

Or, would you like to apply theory into practice and interact with other professionals to learn from their approaches? Then sign up for our event “1 Year of Wellbeing Works” on May 27, 2024.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227–268.

Demerouti, E., Bakker, A. B., Nachreiner, F., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2001). The job demands-resources model of burnout. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(3), 499–512.

Ghorpade, J., Lackritz, J., Singh, G. (2007), Burnout and personality: Evidence from academia. Career Assessment, 15(2), 240-256.

Robeyns, I. (2005). The capability approach: A theoretical survey. Journal of Human Development, 6(1), 93–117

Cropanzano, R., & Mitchell, M. S. (2005). Social exchange theory: An interdisciplinary review. Journal of Management, 31(6), 874–900.


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annelies theunissen

Annelies Theunissen
People Sustainability Expert

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