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Mar 28, 2024 | by What Works Centre for Wellbeing

What we know about working age and workplace wellbeing 2014 – 2024

We believe that taking a whole-life approach to wellbeing is core to building resilience, and progressing and thriving as a nation. 

As other organisations in the What Works Network concentrate on early years or those in later life, we have specialised in ‘working age’. This is because life satisfaction peaks at ages 23 and 68, and is at its lowest during working life. 

Here, we bring together what we know across our working age focus area, and consider what needs to happen next to improve the wellbeing and reduce inequalities in this life stage.


Working age has been a priority area from our inception, with our Work and Adult Learning programme partnership with the Department for Business, Innovation and Department for Work and Pensions, funded by ESRC. 

This is reflected in our launch announcement by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Cabinet Office, in partnership with BT, published alongside complementary research exploring worker wellbeing and workplace performance.

We know that adults in midlife are at risk of low wellbeing. We also know that what we do, and our associated health and ability to do it, matters for our sense of purpose.

Our public dialogues with over 4,000 people across the UK, and stakeholder engagement, further reinforced employment and working age as a priority area, shaping our 2014-18 delivery plan.

The work, learning and wellbeing strand of conversations indicated the importance of good working conditions, learning opportunities, work being enjoyable and inspiring, and jobs reflecting needs and skills. 

Understanding the wellbeing effect of unemployment

Examining the effect of being out of work, our 2017 review found strong evidence of unemployment having a negative effect on mental health (figure 1), a lasting impact on life satisfaction (figure 2). 

Bar graph showing the effect of work status and working conditions on mental health.

Figure 1. The effect of work status on mental health

Visual that explains how unemployment alters the ‘set point’ for life satisfaction.

Figure 2. The lasting impact of unemployment on life satisfaction

The evidence is clear: unemployment is damaging for wellbeing and people do not adapt in the long-term.

Resulting recommendations included prioritising efforts to support those most at risk – younger age groups and the long-term unemployed – and focusing on job quality not just employment.

Job quality – a key aspect of workplace wellbeing

Having established that being employed is a driver of wellbeing, we looked in more detail at the aspects and characteristics that make a job ‘good’ for wellbeing.

To further explore this, we looked at Which jobs make us happy? We analysed 10 years of data to investigate the association between subjective wellbeing and different careers, finding that life satisfaction was higher for those in permanent roles and for those that work at home.

The evidence challenges assumptions that work quality is simply being employed, or even receiving a particular level of pay. Rather, it is about the wellbeing that the job produces in the person’s life, which may be different for different people.

This was reinforced by City University’s research about key workers pay and job quality, which suggested pay is only one part of how work can improve wellbeing.

Job quality is an area where we need better national and local data, which we explored in our project on understanding local needs for wellbeing data, stressing the importance of base metrics for what drives wellbeing at work, performance and job satisfaction. This informed the 2018 Working Group on Measuring Job Quality, which considered the practical challenges of implementing national job quality measurement in the UK. It presented a measurement framework for tracking progress towards the outcome of good work for all.

There has been some improvement on data and measures through the updated Office of National Statistics (ONS) Labour Force Survey.

Understanding which interventions are effective

There are lots of different activities and programmes that can be used in workplaces to improve wellbeing. For employers, financial and time investment matters. Without the right evidence, actions or initiatives could be ineffective or may even do harm. 

To grow and collate the evidence base and discover ‘what works’, we analysed wellbeing data and brought together existing evidence through systematic reviews and secondary analysis.

Over the past decade we have investigated experiences, identified trends and grown our understanding of:

Work transitions and their effect on wellbeing

Wellbeing at work

Workplace culture 

The role of learning

Much of our work in this area was conducted as part of a University of East Anglia led consortium with Essex, Sheffield and Reading universities. Over the years we have produced evidence and resources with further academic partners and with the support of the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Department for Education. 

We have also platformed partners’ work including: the Wellcome Trust’s global research to look at the evidence behind workplace interventions, a summary of a thesis about the wellbeing effects of ‘wellness’ programmes in workplaces, a systematic review of resilience training in the workplace by one of the authors, the state of evidence for mindfulness in the workplace by an academic, a blog from the Money and Pensions Service discussing improving financial wellbeing at work and a discussion from the author about a PhD on using wellbeing in workplace design

Learning how to use the evidence 

Beyond what type of activity or programme an employer chooses, it also matters how any given intervention is implemented to help it achieve the intended wellbeing outcomes.

We reviewed the evidence and discovered that while ad hoc or stand-alone initiatives can have impact, activities are most effective at improving employee wellbeing and performance when they are integrated into an evidence-informed strategy. Further enablers of success for implementing wellbeing interventions in the workplace are a positive, supportive workplace, the delivery of tangible outcomes, and effective governance and systems. 

The review findings were used to derive five principles for practitioners to consider when implementing wellbeing programmes: communication, coherence, commitment, consistency and creativity. See our guidance for better wellbeing at work. This suite of materials includes a how-to guide, user manual and calculator to help evaluate and compare the cost-effectiveness of a workplace wellbeing activities.

For a quick overview, our factsheet outlines the evidence-based case for investment in employee wellbeing, and what actions employers can take at individual, team and whole organisation levels. 

Five key drivers of workplace wellbeing

To support effective implementation, we developed one of our core products: an evidence-informed model (figure 4) that details the domains of wellbeing as they apply in the workplace. This framework helps organisations understand which factors may be contributing and then identify areas to target resources in order to have the greatest likely impact.

Alongside the model, we published a suite of accompanying resources in 2020 including a question bank with in-depth validated, comparable survey questions to measure and track wellbeing, a snapshot survey to quickly capture how people are doing, and methodology resource introducing and explaining all the materials.

These can be used as a basis for monitoring wellbeing in a workplace and to introduce a more rounded approach when developing an integrated workplace wellbeing strategy. 

To illustrate this process, we published a practice example on what business can do to support employee wellbeing. We then developed this implementation methodology further in specific guidance for measuring staff wellbeing in schools and colleges, which offers a comprehensive toolkit to help educational institutions take action to protect and promote the health and wellbeing of staff.

Guiding, convening and mobilising

Our work informed the Thriving at Work Review, which went on to inform the UK Government’s voluntary reporting framework for reporting on disability, mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, developed to support organisations and drive greater transparency. Increasing the capture, reporting and visibility of information will enable us to have better national benchmarks and a richer and more relevant understanding about staff wellbeing across sectors and sizes of organisations. 

When we started this implementation work in 2017/18, only about 30-40% of organisations reported having a wellbeing strategy. That has grown to 65% of organisations across multiple sectors including health, education, policing, law, banking, convenience stores, construction, shipping, and farming.

We have further built on our core findings, research and knowledge to provide recommendations, tools and guidance to improve workplace wellbeing.

In 2022, we focused on organisational leadership of wellbeing, including exploring how board-level wellbeing leads and wellbeing assurance roles are being delivered in practice. Insights from our literature review helped us produce a wellbeing Non-Executive Director theory of change model to help ensure that employee health and wellbeing is promoted in all policies and procedures.

We also investigated what works for authentic leadership of wellbeing in the workplace, using the pandemic as an opportunity to explore how businesses balance wellbeing and performance during a crisis. Looking at five case study organisations, we found that mutual gains are more likely to be achieved if the organisation implements visible and ongoing actions aligned to its values and priorities. Responses to the crisis were more positively received by staff in places with established interest in employee wellbeing. These insights confirm the benefit of having an integrated, evidence-informed wellbeing strategy in place.

To share peer learnings, we have gathered examples of practice. For example:

  • Small businesses – Examples of practice from small businesses across the country to hear what steps they were taking to improve staff wellbeing. It demonstrated the practical and cost effective measures that all businesses can take.
  • Job quality – Retail case study showed job quality played a key role in staff productivity.
  • Mental health and productivity – what matters? Using the example of a financial services firm.
  • Adopting joint productive and healthy workplace practices – We asked organisations of different sizes and with ongoing wellbeing initiatives, what they have done to effectively implement them.

During Covid-19, we collated our learnings and shared the relevant insights with our network in a bite-sized 12 week series to help employers navigate and adapt to the sudden changes to working culture and practices. 

Case study: Work and terminal illness

To address a gap in research looking at working age people’s experiences of terminal illness, and identify where research and practice need to go next, we worked collaboratively with Marie Curie and CIPD. 

Over two years, we mapped evidence and practice through a scoping review and survey of HR professionals and then brought together a cohort of people professionals to share learning. The policies and practice developed by participating organisations will cover up to 50,000 employees. 

Further learning was captured in collaboratively produced guidance as a go-to resource in this space, supported by our implementation work with local authority and public health. The value of the work to date has been recognised by the sector, winning the inaugural Marie Curie Clair Fisher Research Impact Award.

Future employment

Our previous work has highlighted that young people are particularly affected by unemployment. Those with lower levels of life satisfaction are less likely to go on to find a job, and while social connection may compensate, loneliness can make the impact of unemployment worse. 

As a result, our working age focus area is particularly relevant for supporting young people and their employment prospects, in order to prevent the very worst future wellbeing outcomes of low income, precarity and unemployment. This is reflected in Mission 5 of Levelling Up.

Last year, we discussed the link between youth employment and wellbeing, summarising a Toolkit by the Youth Futures Foundation. The Foundation, like the Centre, is part of the What Works Network. The free online resource collates evidence on what works to increase employment, improve employability and help young people rejoin the workforce.

The role of higher education

Higher education can improve someone’s employment opportunities through gaining new experiences and formal qualifications. We have looked to apply the wellbeing evidence base in the Higher & Further Education Sector and went on to understand the drivers and determinants of student wellbeing and mental health, to support students to thrive during their studies and establish the foundations for lifelong learning and wellbeing. 

From some of our early work, including our research with the University of East Anglia in 2018, we identified an evidence gap in student mental health and wellbeing interventions. In response, together with Universities UK and the University of Liverpool, we looked at the state of the evidence and published a student mental health review of reviews and summary briefing in 2020, mapping which interventions work in higher education and adult learning.

We continued to support building evidence in this area, by informing research funding through the former Student Mental Health Research Network, the Office for Students Challenge Fund and informing the refresh of the Universities UK Step Change Framework. We also advised on the development of Student Space, an online portal with advice and information set up by Student Minds. 

Together, with the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, we researched the link between higher education and wellbeing in 2022. We produced a report and summary briefing, Beyond the averages: higher education and wellbeing, as well as a related guest blog from two lead researchers. This research was the first in the UK to investigate the relationship between wellbeing and higher education using such a large dataset. 

Our work led to the development of a Student Mental Health Evidence Hub launched in 2023. It builds on much of the research, knowledge and practice we have gathered and produced. The Hub provides information and guidance for the sector on how they can improve the efficacy of their student mental health support. The project was managed by a consortium of five expert partner organisations including the Centre, with TASO as the lead partner.

To explore student wellbeing further, we also analysed UK data to understand how the wellbeing and mental health of students in higher education varies over time and in relation to demographic characteristics and circumstances. We introduced the studies in a recent blog.

TASO will test the impact of interventions run by higher education providers to support student wellbeing in a new project, launching in April 2024.

Amplifying voices

To grow and share knowledge, we have promoted and highlighted wider findings from organisations and academics on wellbeing at work interventions.

Our Business Leaders’ Council event series brought together stakeholders from the business sector with leading academics and policymakers to share insights and discuss practical applications of wellbeing evidence. It included webinars on: finding and keeping work, which jobs make us happy, productivity, wellbeing strategies, supporting employee mental health and more. 

Next steps

We want wellbeing to be at the heart of how we shape jobs, organisations and working practices across all sectors to support future employment, individual wellbeing and the economy.

While action on wellbeing at work has increased at pace, the evidence base has not always done this, despite it being very possible to conduct research in this space. 

We would like to see a what works toolkit of workplace interventions to support employers, based on the key drivers of wellbeing at work, that can be updated as new evidence becomes available. This could include stronger evidence on what works for people management.

Better evidence-informed job quality measures in national and local data are needed to understand what really matters in working life. Our analyses of workplace wellbeing data has been a key part of building knowledge in this area. 

If you are interested to contribute to this area of our work, here’s what you can do: 

As a funder or commissioner

  • Embed consistent evaluation in design and delivery to allow for comparisons across different activities. 
  • Prioritise and support activities where there is an evidence gap. 

As an employer

  • Know your people and know your context: use our workplace wellbeing question bank to design a high quality workplace survey, and then report your results in line with the UK national framework. voluntary reporting framework.
  • Explore our workplace wellbeing resources and discover the benefits of workplace learning.
  • Take an integrated approach to developing a wellbeing strategy.
  • Consider both what you do – does it meet identified needs and is it cost effective? – and how you deliver
  • Evaluate the wellbeing impacts of your projects and programmes.

As an academic, economist or researcher

  • Explore wellbeing impact for populations or contexts where there is less evidence. 
  • Investigate and establish greater evidence around work, the impact of life transitions such as marriage, divorce, parenthood, having a serious/life-limiting illness, bereavement, retirement, and how we buffer shocks.
  • Evaluate wellbeing ‘in the moment’, to give alternative insights to people’s overall assessment of their wellbeing. 
  • Consult departmental areas of research interest (ARIs)

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