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10 April 2023

Well-Being and Happiness at Companies

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As I described in two previous articles, companies – especially large ones – are taking on social and political protagonism like never before in the history of capitalism. In the first article, I focused on companies’ efforts to give “meaning” to our work and development as people, and in the second, I stressed the “moralization” of companies, in defining what is good and what is bad. This third submission reinforces the idea of the company as a social actor, by fostering people’s physical and psychological well-being. 

At any forum of people management experts, it is currently not at all out of the ordinary to hear we put people at the core, the entire person. It is presented as a discovery by modern management, as if a truth had been revealed and descended and we had discovered that people are an end in themselves and not merely a means of production. But before coming to any conclusions, let’s go over the history a bit. 

The concept of “well-being” as an improvement of quality of life arose in the modern age. The new nation-states have a population in good physical and mental conditions to consolidate their political, military and economic power. At the end of the 20th Century, authors like Foucault theorized about how states’ policy had become “biopolicy” or “biopower”: Rapid development of different disciplines during the classic age – schools, colleges, barracks, workshops; also the appearance of problems related to birth rate, longevity, public health, housing, migration, the explosion of a variety of many different techniques to obtain the subjection of bodies and population control in the field of practical policies and economic observations. This is how the era of biopower began.1 According to this author, life in the broadest sense became an object of policy. In other words, health administration and public well-being techniques appeared for the first time. It was the seed of “well-being”.

BBVA-OpenMind-Bienestar empresa-Michel_Foucault
Paul-Michel Foucault developed concepts such as biopower and biopolitics, which were especially relevant in the work of contemporary public thinkers like Antonio Negri,​ Michael Hardt, Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito. Source: Wikipedia

The 20th Century brought with it the development of welfare states in numerous countries, mainly guaranteeing education, health and retirement. For several years now, many companies have been complementing public programs, and even take them a step further. In addition to promoting physical and mental health, aspects such as social relations with others, managing emotions, professionals and personal guidance and financial health have become complementary to remuneration. “Well-being” has become part of the corporate strategy to attract and retain people.  

These programs include aspects that are more traditionally associated with the labor world, such as career programs, training and mentoring. In addition to professional development, companies are rolling out a much broader offering, what is normally known as a value proposition. Meditation practices, psychological care and stress management are offered, designed for emotional well-being. Measures designed for physical well-being stand out, such as nutrition workshops, sports advice, access to gyms and customized health insurance policies. Activities such as book clubs, volunteering and other types of groups to promote social purposes have also become relevant, not to mention financial health, how to use savings to make a profit, better manage expenses and retirement planning. 

And it is essential to strike an appropriate balance between personal and work life, where hybrid work (in-person and remote) has quickly developed after the end of the pandemic, as well as measures such as more effective meetings or better use of technology. All of this with the aim of improving people’s quality of life. 

BBVA-OpenMind-Ignacio Garcia de Leaninz-Teletrabajo-videoconferencias-k
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the rise of teleworking worldwide. Credits:  Kentaro Toma, Unsplash

In fact, there are already some companies that have a position of Chief Wellbeing Officer (CWO) who is responsible for developing these well-being programs so that people feel better physically and mentally, and therefore, strengthen their commitment to the purpose and objectives of the company. 

Some other companies go even further and are not satisfied with well-being alone. Instead, they have the  position of Chief Happiness Officer (CHO) who is in charge of directly striving for people’s ‘happiness’, and for this purpose, define and measure the ‘happiness index’ in the company. With the results obtained, they propose concrete measures that go from promoting food campaigns to meditation workshops or lines for psychological care to event and team activities.  

And why do companies accept the challenge of becoming ‘well-being companies’ and expanding their ‘value proposition’? In my opinion, for three reasons. 

First, in the current labor market, many companies are discovering how hard it is to find people with the knowledge and skills they need. Whether it is due to an imbalance between supply and demand, a lack of attractiveness of the companies, insatisfaction with the work or any other reason, the fact is that there is a talent scarcity.2 Attracting and retaining talent is vital at a time when companies are adapting to the digital world, or simply do not find the right people for their business. Talent has become the biggest challenge in the corporate world, and it is therefore necessary to offer people the best possible value proposition – one that takes into account ‘the person as a whole’.

The fight for talent is crucial in a global environment in which the competitive advantage lies in finding the ability to innovate and improve productivity
The fight for talent is crucial in a global environment in which the competitive advantage lies in finding the ability to innovate and improve productivity

Second. The issue of health and well-being in a broad sense (physically, emotionally, professionally, socially and financially) has become a key competitive factor. If we want to win the battle for innovation, productivity and exceptional results, we need people who have the best conditions of health to give their utmost. One of the specialized consulting firms, Hintsa, has another  way of expressing this:  well-being is the foundation of sustainable high performance, not a reward for it.3 Therefore it is not only the external conditions of work, such as equipment, flexible hours or other similar measures, which are the focus. Instead, they are geared toward “managing the entire body.” 

Third. The demand for well-being that workers, as citizens, as claiming for themselves is genuine. People perceive the fact that it is employers, and not the public system, that completes the well-being programs in a positive light. If they are also given a purpose, values, and healthy environment, they not only grow as professionals, but they can also live up to their potential and their way of being happy as “people as a whole”. 

In my opinion, the question arises from the evolution of capitalism itself: to the extent that automation advances, we not only need physical strength and endurance, but many cognitive skills, and above all, a total commitment to the corporate purpose. The fight for talent is crucial in a global environment where the competitive advantage lies in the ability to innovate and improve productivity.  

I think that I am not mistaken in saying that many people appreciate their employers for the opportunity to grow personally and professionally through well-being measures. But this positive valuation should not make us lose sight of something fundamental: respect for the individual freedom of each person, beyond whatever the positioning of the company is. And that is something that we cannot forget when we refer to the “person as a whole”. 

There are two limits that should not be overstepped. Unfortunately, I have seen examples that remind us to be cautious when preparing a proposal for a “healthy and happy life” associated with a corporate well-being program. 

First, there are people for whom work is merely a livelihood and they do not want health advice, workshops or volunteer work. They find their well-being outside of the company and do not want to know anything about its programs. It is possible to have excellent performance without having to turn to the plans that the company proposes. Furthermore, it is worth asking whether it would be more appropriate to receive the value of these programs in remuneration and allow each person to decide how to spend it to be “happier”.

BBVA_OpenMind-Bienestar en la empresa-miguel-a-amutio Es importante encontrar el quilibrio entre las propuestas de bienestar en la empresa
It is important to find a balance between the proposals for well-being at the company and employees’ necessary limits

Second, be careful when sharing what the company understands as a “healthy and happy, or sustainable life”. I’ll give some examples. Some of my colleagues have put pressure on me to remove “processed products” from vending machines, or to eliminate the consumption of beef at dining halls. Others tell me about how demanding some managers are when it comes to doing meditation or mindfulness exercises at workshops or some meetings. And finally, what I have heard from some consultants or company executives about “our moral responsibility” to tell people how they should live, what exercise to do, what to eat or how much to save. Respect for people starts by avoid the current temptation of some human resources professionals to set themselves up as prescribers of what is good and what isn’t.  Also avoid marginalizing people who refuse to participate in these programs or simply do not want to hear any advice about physical exercise or social activities and keep their private lives separate from what is strictly work. 

I don’t think that it is the role of the company to drive people to a healthy lifestyle and make them happy. It is to create an atmosphere where people feel good, secure and perhaps happy. Happiness is rather subjective and something that each individual must seek on their own, regardless of whether they are happy at work.

Within philosophy there is also criticism of this new role for companies. In the same way that some theorists denounced biopolitics as the covert domination of “bodies” by political and economic power, more recent authors, such as  Byung-Chul Han, who think that bodies are not only coerced; instead it has expanded to the domination of wills (of “the person as a whole”). It is a subtle form of power that praises the development of individual skills and enjoyment at work. A form of internalizing the self-exploitation. And this, thanks to the control that new technologies exercise over the human psyche. Byung-Chul4 calls this form of domination psychopolitical (in contrast to biopolitical) and predicts the end of free will without us being aware. 

Without excluding the risk of domination and manipulation, the proposals for a “healthy and happy life” in these well-being programs are simply a proposal for people to choose freely. And yes, the goal is to increase productivity, but it can also be useful for many people at the same time. They are not mutually exclusive. 


Therefore, for several years now companies have burst onto the ideological market with the ‘person as a whole’ approach: I position myself in the world through the purpose of my work (it gives meaning to my tasks), it tells me how to act (it gives me a set of values and behaviors) and it takes care of me (it offers me support for my well-being). In other words, the company offers a way of understanding and being in the world that goes beyond work alone – a behavior guide, comprehensive care of the person and a shared goal that justifies my hard work and sacrifice. In short, a model for life. One more..

We work with adults, and companies should not become pulpits to indoctrinate people, but to strive to truly improve the lives of the people based on the most scrupulous respect for their ideas and beliefs. More than two centuries ago, Kant warned us of the danger of paternalism, calling it the worst despotism. He wrote, “No one has a right to compel me to be happy in the peculiar way in which he may think of the well-being of other men; but everyone is entitled to seek his own happiness in the way that seems to him best...”5 

José Martín Huelves


  1.  Michel Foucault, History of sexuality I. The will to know. p. 84. Siglo XXI, 1988
  2. According to Eurostat data, approximately 135,000 vacancies were not covered in Spain in the fourth quarter of 2022 due to a lack of people with the required qualifications. According to a study by ManpowerGroup from the third quarter of 2022, “Spain has the worst Talent Imbalance figures in history; 8 out of every 10 companies say they currently have difficulties finding professionals with the abilities and skills they need.” 
  3.  “How Wellbeing Improves Performance: An interview With Annastiina Hintsa by McKinsey & Company”, Hintsa, February 2021
  4.  Byung-Chul Han, “Psicopolítica” (Psychopolitics) Herder, 2014
  5.  Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment?, Alianza, 2004

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