pizza[Originally published on LinkedIn 2018-03-15]

“It’s the damnedest thing, hahaha” my father-in-law would say, his thick Irish brogue muscling its way forward through his baritone laugh. “I hate tomato sauce and cheese, and I don’t like bread, but I like pizza. Hahahahah!”

As a Brooklynite weaned on pizza, this really was the damndest thing I’d ever heard. But the corporate world’s newfound adoration of “wellbeing” gives me insight into my father-in-law’s pizza predilections. And vice versa.


In previous ramblings about the transition from wellness to wellbeing, I neglected to address the studies of wellbeing — including many attempts to define it — that were done before corporate America appropriated the term.

As legendary occupational psychologist Sir Cary Cooper says, “Define wellbeing? We can’t even agree on how to spell the damn thing! Hyphen or no hyphen?”

(I’ve paraphrased Sir Cary. Knights don’t actually say “damn.”)

One employer survey defined wellbeing by contrasting it with health and wellness. In an article called “Survey Shows Shift from Wellness to Holistic Wellbeing,” the investigators declared:

“Wellness programs focus on physical health while well-being addresses ‘all things that are stressors in an employee’s life.’

So far, so good.

Then they wrote:

 Improving employee health was the most frequently mentioned (82%) reason for offering well-being programs, followed by: decrease medical premiums and claim costs…”

We are so lost. (If those two quotes haven’t thrust you into an abyss of career despair, you’re reading too fast. Please back up and keep rereading until you’re appropriately distressed.)


In 2010, Gallup’s Tom Rath and James Harter published “Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements.” Corporate America glommed onto the five elements like they were engraved in tablets passed down to us on a mountaintop.

In recent years, Gallup describes wellbeing, based on their massive surveys, as consisting of (these are verbatim):

  • Purpose*: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Community: liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community
  • Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

*Footnote: The Wellbeing book served up the same five elements that Gallup advocates today, except the book used the label “Career,” whereas Gallup now calls the same element “Purpose.” Hmmm.

Footnote to the footnote: Gallup’s measurement of Career wellbeing unleashed unto our world the ad nauseam -quoted factoid “Only 33% of employees are engaged in their job.” Before you build a business case based on this stat, check out Paul Fairlie’s article “The Dangers of False Employee Engagement.”

Footnote to the footnote to the footnote: Aren’t you glad I didn’t call Paul Fairlie “Sir Paul”?

Gallup argues that employers should address all five elements of wellbeing. They offer consulting services to help.

Employers swallowed the five elements hook, line, and sinker, depicting their wellbeing program goals with circles perfectly divided into equal parts — each representing one of the five elements — sometimes shoehorning in another element or two, like “emotional,” “environmental,” or “spiritual.”

Gallup-Sharecare has conducted admirable, albeit (let’s be honest) self-serving, research on wellbeing. And they spotlight the nuances and interdependencies of the five elements.

Employers, however, have not been well-served by their own simplistic pie diagrams, which are used as virtual checklists to perfunctorily confirm that each element is addressed…

“Social? Sure, we have Friday ice cream socials… Financial? 401(k)… got it!… Community? Um… Maybe the United Way bake sale?”

A fragmented effort to address what is in wellbeing, rather than a cohesive strategy to support what wellbeing is, may be one reason why, in practice, nothing but the name has changed.


We plow through the five elements, one by one, as if they’re unrelated and stationary. We tout cheese, sauce, and crust, rather than pizza, to employees, and then complain when they don’t show up to the party.

A pie-shaped view of wellbeing, which we fancy as more evolved than wellness, is actually — with its emphasis on separate ingredients — more primitive. Witness these words from Halbert Dunn’s landmark paper, High-Level Wellness for Man and Society, which in 1959 set the stage for our entire wellness (not wellbeing) industry:

“Harmony will result when the fact is faced that man is a physical, mental, and spiritual unity — a unity which is constantly undergoing a process of growth and adjustment within a continually changing physical, biological, social, and cultural environment.”


Since his groundbreaking review, “Subjective Wellbeing,” first appeared in 1984 (the year 1984, not the book), psychologist Ed Diener probably published more wellbeing research than anyone. Though Diener evaluated the elements of what he calls “subjective wellbeing,” he defined it not by its elements but by the experience. To Diener, wellbeing is…

“…how people evaluate their lives — both at the moment and for longer periods… These evaluations include people’s emotional reactions to events, their moods, and judgments they form about their life satisfaction, fulfillment, and satisfaction with domains such as marriage and work. Thus, subjective wellbeing concerns the study of what lay people might call happiness or satisfaction.

“Happiness or satisfaction.” Isn’t that what we always knew wellbeing to be, before we picked it apart?


With the various definitions of wellbeing circulating helter skelter, Uncle Sam (in the form of the CDC) stepped out of character to play peacekeeper:

“There is no consensus around a single definition of well-being, but there is general agreement that at minimum, well-being includes the presence of positive emotions and moods (e.g., contentment, happiness), the absence of negative emotions (e.g., depression, anxiety), satisfaction with life, fulfillment and positive functioning. In simple terms, well-being can be described as judging life positively and feeling good.”

A difference between Rath and Harter’s description of wellbeing and other definitions of wellbeing is that the Gallup guys, with their 5 Elements, emphasize how you get there — the road to wellbeing. Diener and other psych scholars emphasize the destination and how you are when you arrive.

Not to beat a dead horse*, the five elements are like pizza ingredients — the crust, the cheese, the sauce.

*Footnote: You may prefer the more politically correct and corporate version of the “beat a dead horse” idiom: “Not to convene a committee to study a horse…”


Diener mentioned marriage and work, referring to domain-specific wellbeing. Here’s where that comes into play…

In job crafting research…

[Oh. Didn’t I tell you? That’s where this is all going: future posts about job crafting and wellbeing. We have to get our wellbeing wires straight, first. Amiright?!]

Ahem. In job crafting research — as with a lot of organizational development research — “wellbeing” often is measured in the work domain only. Work wellbeing doesn’t just mean job satisfaction; it goes deeper to how employees are.

How do you measure how employees are at work?

For perspective, consider the symptoms of burnout:

  1. Exhaustion
  2. A feeling of not making a difference
  3. Cynicism

It’s not unreasonable to say that the opposite of burnout is work wellbeing — having energy, purpose, and optimism at work. This is why burnout metrics have, sometimes, been used to measure work wellbeing.

Focusing on work wellbeing — which, on the surface, seems to be just one domain — may be heresy to employee wellness leaders who’ve been commanded to check off their list each element of wellbeing.

But employee wellbeing programs risk getting in their own way if they try to do too much. Would it make sense to help employees thrive at work — the domain over which employers have most control — before trying to get them to thrive in, say, relationships, community, or even physical health?

Would it? (I’m asking you. If I had the answer, this article would’ve wrapped up a long time ago.)

On one hand, focusing on work wellbeing seems to contradict arguments against checking the elements off one-by-one. On the other hand, if the elements are interdependent, bolstering work wellbeing helps support the other elements. And if the others are supported at the appropriate time and place, work wellbeing will benefit.

The moral of this story could be

Ingredients, individually, may not suit our taste, but we still might love ‘em when they’re all baked into one pizza pie.

But it also could be…

If you’re a cheese producer, produce cheese. If you’re a tomato sauce maker, make tomato sauce. Bakers, bake. (If you oversee a workplace, create work wellbeing.)

The important thing is that, either way, wellbeing — like everything else in the universe — is pizza.