Over the past decade the concept of wellbeing has changed dramatically as organisations and employees respond to the challenges of modern life and work. The scope of occupational health, views on the responsibility of organisations for their staff and the business benefits of different areas of wellbeing have all driven the development of the concept and the terms we use to define it.

It’s vital to stay in touch with these changing trends – not just so that we know the right buzz words, but so we can make wellbeing as relevant as possible to modern employees and organisations. But getting a handle on the work and wellbeing zeitgeist is a tough task. 

Using Google Trends is a good starting point. If you’re not familiar with it, it enables you to tap into Google’s massive archive of search data and track what people have been searching for since 2005. This gives us as an interesting top line measure of which wellbeing terms are generating wider interest, and allows us to drill down by geographical region.

The following is a list of some top trends in health and wellbeing at work, and what Google can tell us about their evolution:

Employee Engagement

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As expected, interest in ‘employee engagement’ has steadily grown over the past eight years. As a subject, engagement has benefitted from plenty of PR in 2012 with the launch of Engage for Success, the Government-backed initiative to bridge the UK’s productivity gap.

But when examining the search term by geographic region, it is India which shows by far the most interest in the subject of employee engagement. It is clearly a big theme for Indian business – a Kenexa report of 2010 ranked India at the top of their global employee engagement index and employee engagement has been credited as the source of many the country’s business successes, for example Tata Group. Another interesting piece of research clearly lies in connecting aspects of national culture and business practices to the wellbeing themes and approaches that are most prevalent.

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Resilience is a harder term to measure. When trying to drill down into resilience – resilience at work, the resilient organisation, personal resilience etc – there is a lot less data available than for the more traditional management and business topics. Terms such as ‘resilient business’ and ‘resilience at work’ have started to register with Google since late 2009, early 2010 and what is clear is that the general concept of resilience is one which is on the rise.

As a socio-economic term, the need for resilience is discussed regularly in the context of the economic crisis in the euro zone as well as its knock on effect for organisations in the public and private sectors. A good gauge of ‘resilience’ as an emergent term and priority is also the World Economic Forum’s next event in Davos, which I will be attending. The agenda is ‘Resilient Dynamism’ and there sessions being run for world business and political leaders on individual and organisational resilience. 

The graph below maps ‘economic resilience’ (blue) against ‘resilience at work’ to give an idea of how resilience, applied to work, is starting to catch up with the wider application of the resilience concept as applied to socio-political ideas. Robertson Cooper’s online i-resilience tool backs up the growing popularity of personal resilience – over 30,000 people have now used it to measure and build their resilience.

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Stress management vs new paradigms

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As we’ve already shown, newer disciplines such as employee engagement are gaining influence, and it’s useful to track these against older conceptualisations to see when we are likely to reach a tipping point. The graph below shows employee engagement mapped against health and wellbeing and stress management. Stress management is showing a gradual decline in interest since 2005 and at some point the more holistic ideas of engagement and wellbeing look like they will overtake it in terms of search volume. This points to a general trend towards wider wellbeing concepts, those that do not just focus on rectifying a specific problem such as stress but give a more positive, preventative approach.


In pursuit of happiness

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More and more people are searching for happiness (on Google at least) – more than double the volume of searches are made on the term ‘happiness’ than five years ago. 

As life speeds up and, facilitated by technology, the way we work changes, we are increasingly looking to understand the basic human idea and emotion that is happiness. Increasing consumption, challenges with work-life balance and changes in the way we communicate have perhaps driven our pre-occupation with understanding happiness and how we can achieve it. 

And our relationship with happiness is maturing – some media commentators were initially sceptical about the idea of Government money being spent on measuring happiness as part of the ONS UK national wellbeing study. Now there is more discussion than ever online about what makes a happy place to live and work, and the psychology of happiness. (I’ve recently written an introduction to happiness and including some links to our relationship with work for TedStudies.)

This is just a snapshot of the wealth of data available through Google. If like me you can’t resist a graph, get online and start mapping those wellbeing and work concepts that you’re interested in. This kind of data is a litmus test of whether a wellbeing concept has really been universally adopted and acknowledged by the wider public and it can throw up related terms and interesting trends for future investigation. 

The wider point from all this data is the importance for HR and other groups within organisations to plan wellbeing strategies that really resonate with their people, and also relates to the challenges of the modern workplace. We must stay tuned in to these wider trends if we are to keep evolving the way we approach health and wellbeing within organisations.