Experiencing life, or human well-being

Fot. M.Werner

Dr Dorota Godlewska-Werner from the Department of Economic and Organisational Psychology of the Institute of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Gdańsk talks to dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz.


- Well-being is a very broad concept. What meanings does it contain?

- It is indeed a very broad concept, and a thorough analysis would require explaining many aspects. Well-being is a scientific term; in popular science terminology, it is called happiness. In the 1950s, well-being was defined by the World Health Organisation as a state of mental, physical and social health and the absence of disease. Today, when it comes to well-being, we speak of two approaches. We distinguish between hedonistic well-being and eudaimonic well-being. Hedonistic well-being refers to satisfaction with life: a sense of happiness and pleasure. In the case of eudaimonic well-being, we rather talk about a sense of meaning in life, fulfilment, self-fulfilment, being at peace with oneself and one's resources, self-acceptance and a sense of competence in dealing with different challenges.

- Can these two approaches, hedonistic and eudaimonic, be combined?

- They can, and even should. Combining these two aspects gives a sense of happiness and fulfilment at the same time.

- The mentioned 1950s and the WHO definition is a short time for science.

- It is definitely still a relatively new concept and there is still a lot of work to be done by scientists. For a long time since the WHO promulgated the definition in 1948, not much happened in the research sphere. It was only at the end of the 20th century that Martin Seligman popularised the phenomenon by developing the concept of positive psychology. He pointed out that when it comes to human mental health, we should not only be concerned with the adverse effects of life and disease states, i.e. disorders of various kinds, job burnout, or stress. We need to focus more on what to do to help a person develop, flourish and grow harmoniously. In Poland, researchers tackled this topic quite early, as early as the turn of the 20th century. As far as organisations are concerned, however, they have been looking at employee well-being for the last ten to fifteen years.


- Why is it that this topic is now so widespread and so recognised? Is it influenced by the dynamic changes in the world, modern technology, and the civilisational revolution?

- First and foremost, we are increasingly aware of what happens when we neglect aspects of well-being. We see the effects of negative phenomena such as stress and professional burnout. We come across this information in the media, and more often than not, we see people around us who experience the impact of a lack of well-being. We are also beginning to feel the results of systemic and economic changes, during which we worked very hard and undertook activities that strained our physical and mental health. Now comes the reflection that we wanted too much and too much, and we begin to analyse whether it is worth permanently exceeding our capabilities.

- My generation, which has experienced all the negative effects of the system transformation, strongly feels the lack of well-being. Younger generations, especially Z, have a completely different approach. They care less about material goods and more about a sense of fulfilment. They get involved in volunteering, want to develop themselves, travel, etc… They are escaping from corporations and looking for jobs that allow them to remain independent.

- These different approaches to the world and to life are due to the inconsistent socio-economic conditions in which particular generations grew up. The older generations focused on accumulating wealth as they built a base of financial security. For them, hard work was a guarantee of professional stability and prestige. There was more focus on wealth as an economic dimension of well-being. Nowadays, older generations should learn from younger ones to enjoy life and be satisfied with experiencing rather than having. Young people today often see no point in accumulating material possessions. They consciously ask the question: why do it? These differences in the area of values and goals are shown, among other things, by the research of Professor Anna Maria Zawadzka, my boss, who identifies materialism and consumerism as phenomena that destroy well-being. Ecological aspects and climate change, which are becoming a priority for younger generations, are of no small importance to 'have less'.

- The post-war generations, and later the generation that entered the labour market just after the transformation change in Poland, valued work enormously and put it first. We felt that we had to constantly 'make up' for something. Younger generations can afford a different approach, partially because of their parents, who have already accumulated certain material goods. Can we say something more about the reasons for this generational change and research on the subject?

- The primary reason is indeed the wealth status of families. Looking generally, society has become much more prosperous. Numerous studies - including Jean Twenge - show that economic and social changes modify the expectations of employers and employees. Therefore, we can identify different values that determine the decisions taken by the representatives of each generation. Thus, we have moved from viewing work as a factor for survival to approaching work as a source of satisfaction. Thanks to the fact that the baby boomers worked hard to support their families, Generation X had to demonstrate greater independence and problem-solving skills. They, in turn, created the conditions for the development of competencies and raised Generation Y, for whom relationships and atmosphere became important. In contrast, the lives of their children, or Generation Z, have been influenced by technological and digital changes, which have accelerated access to information, including feedback on activities undertaken[1]. We cannot yet talk about their descendants, the Alpha generation, in the labour market context. It is also worth pointing out that we have been facing a demographic decline for years, as a result of which the younger generations no longer have to fight for jobs. It is easier for them to decide to change if conditions are unsatisfactory. It cannot be underestimated that younger generations, watching their parents and grandparents, are increasingly aware of the health consequences of a lack of well-being and want to avoid them.

- Is there a connection between well-being and the concept of professional burnout?

- It is still debated in the scientific world whether well-being and occupational burnout are the extreme ends of the same continuum or completely different variables. However, without going into detail, it is clear that the concepts have a lot in common. Organisations focus on areas that help avoid job burnout when introducing various well-being measures. In multiple studies, we find ill-being alongside well-being as two extreme concepts defining life satisfaction or lack thereof, two sides of the coin, as it were.

- What is job burnout?

- We define job burnout as a state of exhaustion in an individual caused by excessive tasks set by the work environment. These expectations exceed the resources at our disposal. We also do not have the right conditions created to allow us to use our resources effectively. The employee feels the frustration of not being able to achieve the desired results despite the great dedication put into the activity. The individual puts so much energy into the work that they no longer have the strength to continue it with their previous effectiveness. There are three groups of symptoms from which we can identify job burnout. The first is related to emotional exhaustion: feeling permanently tired, discouraged, lacking enthusiasm and motivation to perform tasks at work and, consequently, reduced activity. Later, this is compounded by depersonalisation or indifference towards colleagues or clients. We treat them objectively, have less patience, are contemptuous or sarcastic towards them, and finally avoid contact with them. The third component is reduced satisfaction with achievements, a feeling of lack of competence and usefulness at work, and a loss of ability to solve problems and adapt to professional conditions.

- The red light in my head is when I lose my sense of enjoyment in my work.

- But of course, enjoyment of one's work, as well as a sense of meaning, fulfilment and professional development, influences satisfaction and, in turn, the effectiveness of our work. When we are satisfied with our job, we are able to build more constructive relationships with people and perform our duties better and more creatively. Research by the Harvard Business Review has shown that employee happiness translates into work engagement and measurable outcomes, such as increased sales. And research by dr Martyna Wojtaś, associated with our establishment, shows that a positive attitude towards work results in increased well-being and efficiency.

- Are there studies showing how many people suffer from job burnout?

- There are many different reports. Some show that even more than fifty per cent of employees suffer single symptoms of job burnout. Slightly more optimistic ones, such as 'People at Work 2022', indicate that burnout affects one in four employees.

- Are there occupations that are particularly vulnerable to job burnout?

- Until now, it was thought that people who work in helping professions, i.e. professions that involve contact with other people, for example, in the service sector, health care, or education, were most at risk of occupational burnout. Currently, occupational burnout is associated with stress and frustration resulting from the conditions under which tasks are performed.

- Journalists and teachers, among others, are considered to be among the most stressful professions. Does this mean that we should take special care of ourselves?

- Absolutely. These professions involve a wide variety of tasks that need to be performed simultaneously. According to research by neurobiopsychologists, multitasking increases the time it takes to complete a task and increases the risk of making mistakes, which has a negative impact on the perception of success and satisfaction with performance. In addition, the teaching and journalism professions often lack work-life balance. It isn't easy to separate private time from work. Especially in today's world of modern technology, which on the one hand makes our work easier and on the other hand does not allow us to leave it. We are constantly checking emails, attending online meetings in the afternoon, and working on the computer at home to prepare our tasks for the following days. It's not clear when the working day begins and when it ends. Alongside this, there is also an element of demanding contact with other people. 

- Are these the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the spread of remote working?

- New technologies have their bright and dark side. Remote, permanent work is becoming an increasing problem, which is why the term 'technostress' has appeared in the literature. It comprises many factors, including the compulsion or necessity to be available, the so-called connected state. The expectations of our superiors, who think we should answer emails after formal working hours, but also of our co-workers, who require us to be constantly in touch and respond quickly to their messages, are changing. It is becoming increasingly common for employees in various organisations to receive information and work instructions on non-directly work-related private messengers.

- Are there systemic solutions to maintain work-life balance? In France, for example, some industries and organisations have banned using work emails after working hours; mailboxes are simply blocked.

- This is a very good option, especially as a countermeasure to work addiction, but in Poland, unfortunately, we do not have systemic solutions. There are companies that introduce rules to take care of work-life balance, for example, banning contact with employees during holidays or prohibiting overtime at the workplace. However, this is more a question of organisational culture. In this aspect, it is vital to shape the atmosphere appropriately to foster openness, trust, and good interpersonal relations. Many studies show that positive social relations are a primary condition for human well-being, not only within an organisation but also outside it. I am happy that there is a Psychological Support Centre at the University of Gdańsk. It is precisely this type of initiative that should be implemented systemically in organisations.

- Are Polish companies and institutions ready for such changes?

- Polish companies are increasingly shaping their organisational culture in a way that considers work-life balance and employee well-being, often using Western models. In most cases, however, they are concerned with hedonistic well-being. This can also be seen in public institutions. An excellent example is the chillout room set up in our university's Faculty of Social Sciences, created as a relaxation zone. This space is very much used by students and our faculty staff, so the dean's office may soon have to think about creating another similar one. When it comes to shaping organisational culture in terms of well-being, there are companies that employ people in positions related to happiness, such as the Chief Happiness Officer. This person monitors employees' well-being all the time, implements strategies to improve satisfaction and supports the development of competencies related to stress management. They can be approached for support in more challenging work situations; they also organise non-work activities such as going to the theatre, concerts, outings to the forest under the slogan 'hug a tree', or so-called forest bathing, physical activities, and many others.

- As part of a project I am running - 'SUMED - Sustainable multidimensional media content' - I have been to the University of Applied Sciences in Turku. Although I know that Finland is way ahead of us in terms of welfare, I was nevertheless impressed by the university space and the rules there. First of all, it is an open and multifunctional space. Plenty of places exist to hang out, relax, work together, and carry out joint projects. Dedicated rooms for staff are rare, as it is more convenient to use shared spaces; even the rector does not have his own office. You can see the care for removing hierarchy and for tolerance; there are common bars and places where you can meet, discuss, work. The curriculum can be shaped individually; students choose their own subjects and instructors, and they are open to discussion and additional activities. There is no condoning of xenophobia, racism or sexism. There is time for lunch, leisure, and even fun. It was fun for me to slide down the slide to the lower floor. On top of that, there is architectural order and eco-friendly solutions.

- These are fantastic solutions. The proper arrangement of a friendly, harmonious space affects our well-being, which is why companies have for many years been trying to shape it in such a way that it promotes the comfort of employees, makes it easier for them to work, allows them to rest, take a break, and strengthen relationships with colleagues. Large, especially American corporations, provide space and tools for physical activity and fun: the aforementioned slides, billiard tables, and social rooms, where one can have breakfast, lunch, or make coffee, are basic standards. Polish companies sometimes implement such solutions, although with varying results: we have different economic conditions. Employees point out that they do not need a pool table but a higher salary or bonus. However, the right organisational culture not only influences our well-being but also leads to greater productivity at work. Some studies show that taking breaks at work results in greater task satisfaction. After a while, satisfaction with the tasks we perform decreases, and taking a break at work allows us to return to our original level of satisfaction or even increase it. However, it is important to bear in mind that it is not only pleasures and positive emotions that one lives for. It is also important to create choices for employees and give them space to make decisions about workplace issues. This is confirmed by dr Aleksandra Peplinska, with whom I share an office, who has shown that people who voluntarily choose some solutions, even those less favourable to them, show higher levels of well-being in the workplace. In any case, I envy them these slides....

- I'll admit that so do I. What about taking a nap at work? Is it abuse or regeneration? Is such a luxury possible in Poland?

- I think permission to take a nap at work is complicated in Poland. There is a perception that someone who needs a rest during the day is in a weaker condition; therefore, we don't want to flaunt it. But still, organisations are finding small spaces where employees can take a nap. One example is Olivia Business Centre, next door to the University of Gdańsk, where there is such a room. A fifteen-minute nap, no more, allows us to recuperate and return to our tasks with renewed vigour.

- Can we integrate well-being into the broader concept of sustainable development?

- Without well-being, we will not achieve sustainability. Well-being affects so many elements of our lives that it is fundamental to sustainable development. It translates into our overall satisfaction, attachment to organisations and even pro-social behaviour, such as engaging in various collective activities, including environmental ones.

- In the SUMED project I mentioned, we assume the creation of new teaching methods in the field of media education in its broadest sense, including in the areas of media production, public relations, media relations, advertising and marketing, as well as the creation of new initiatives and the implementation of solutions supporting sustainable development. Does the media have a role to play concerning the dissemination of attitudes related to well-being? 

- The media greatly influences the public's knowledge of a specific topic. Unfortunately, they currently have tough competition - social media, which, according to research by mgr Magdalena Iwanowska, is associated with materialism and thus reduces well-being. This makes it all the more crucial for the media to disseminate research findings on well-being and thus create a fashion for a healthy lifestyle in all respects, both physical and mental. They should promote good practices and solutions supporting well-being and responsibility for fundamental values such as tolerance, truth, and openness. In addition, the media can support the development of the so-called competencies of tomorrow, for example, creativity or critical thinking, which will determine our effectiveness and thus increase job satisfaction. And since we mentioned earlier the importance of good relationships for well-being, education on constructive and inclusive interpersonal communication is also an important role of the media.

- In summary, what elements make up human well-being?

- Martin Seligman described a model he called PERMA. Each letter in this acronym stands for one of the elements of well-being. 'P' stands for positive emotions, a good attitude, and a sense of satisfaction. 'E' stands for engagement, focusing on the tasks at hand. 'R' is relationships, and especially collaboration with other people. 'M' is meaning, and finally, 'A' is from achievement, which indicates that satisfaction should be related to successes or visible positive effects of our work. In addition to positive emotions and purpose, Carol Ryff mentions self-acceptance and independence at work in her concept. She also includes a sense of mastery over one's environment, a sense of agency in what we do, and a sense of competence in the face of difficult tasks and situations. The opportunity for self-improvement and self-development is also important in achieving a sense of well-being. The research I carried out with dr Blanka Kondratowicz showed that a growth mindset is strongly linked to well-being. Even when I experience stress, I can achieve contentment if I have a sense of influence over the situation, so I treat the difficulty as a challenge, not a threat. Other internal resources of the individual have a similar effect, for example, the sense of free will analysed in other studies by dr Kondratowicz.

- Which of these is the most difficult to achieve?

- Relatively, the easiest to achieve is a state of contentment resulting from positive emotions. Areas such as relationships with people or self-acceptance already require more work and attentiveness.

- There is nothing left but to wish all of us to achieve these elements and enjoy work and life. Let’s slow down, shall we?

- Above all, let's take care of ourselves. Let's remember that we are like cups; we can fill others only if we are full. Let's slow down to reflect on what is important to us and make time to live according to our values. Let's give ourselves permission to enjoy and recharge our batteries.


Interviewed by Dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz, PR specialist for research promotion, Institute of Media, Journalism and Social Communication, UG


Dorota Godlewska-Werner

Doctor of humanities in psychology, assistant professor in the Department of Economic and Organisational Psychology at the Institute of Psychology, University of Gdańsk. Professionally interested in employee development, effective and counterproductive behaviour in organisations and leadership in a broad sense. She combines science with practice by working with organisations as a consultant, trainer and coach; she supports the development of soft skills. She is a graduate of the 'Masters of Didactics' project at Ghent University and the 'Advanced Qualifications in Teaching' project implemented by the University of Groningen under the POWER programme, as well as the 'Academic Tutoring' and 'Academic Tutoring for Practitioners' courses conducted at the University of Gdańsk.


[1] Generation Baby Boomers, boomers, boomers, BB - people born between 1946 and 1964; Generation X - people born between 1965 and 1980; Generation Y (millennials) - people born between 1981 and 1996, generation Z (generation Z or Gen Z) - people born between 1995 and 2012; https://www.ey.com/pl_pl/workforce/pokolenie-z-co-to-jest(accessed 22.11.2023).

dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz, Institute of Media, Journalism and Social Communication UG, PR specialist for research promotion/ Photo M.Werner