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Well-being at Work

The University of Oxford, partly as a result of the pandemic, has recently begun to develop a new strategy and programme to support staff well-being. Last term, Frances Parkes, the Wellbeing Programme Manager, gave a fascinating presentation at the Oxford Uehiro Centre on well-being at work, and the resources available to staff to assist in various areas of their lives – not only work itself, but also, for example, finance and health.

Well-being has long been a subject of debate in western philosophy. The question of what eudaimonia – ‘happiness’ or ‘flourishing’ — consists in has been debated since before the time of Socrates, in the fourth and fifth centuries BCE. In general, the philosophical debate has been between two camps: hedonists, who believe that pleasure or enjoyment is the only good thing in life, and pain the only bad, and those now called ‘objective list’ theorists, who tend to agree that pleasure is one of the goods, but believe that there are others, such as being virtuous, friendship, knowledge, or accomplishment.

One obvious point to note is that at least some items on the objective list are things people tend to enjoy – helping the needy, spending time with friends, acquiring and using knowledge, or achieving things. (Hedonists will of course say that this is no coincidence, and that we’re making the mistake of thinking that these things that give us pleasure are good in themselves.)

That means that many of the things which the university is seeking to promote will be welcomed by both hedonists and objective list theorists. But there can be conflicts between potential goods. One seems particularly salient when it comes to staff well-being. It’s probably fair to say that the main aim of the Wellbeing Programme is to minimize pain or unhappiness at work, while a second aim is promote pleasure or contentment at work. But what about a case in which someone is offered a promotion that they know will enable them to accomplish significantly more than in their present job, but in various ways will clearly make their life less enjoyable overall (even if they will enjoy contemplating their success)?

Philosophers don’t have the answer here about which option to choose. But they have thought hard about the issues, and, given what’s at stake, it might be worth anyone in a position like this thinking hard about whether they are a hedonist or an objective list theorist, and if the latter how much they think pleasure matters in well-being compared to accomplishment. Two places to start might be the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on well-being (full disclosure – I wrote it), and for something going a bit deeper Guy Fletcher’s excellent The Philosophy of Well-being: An Introduction.

This blog is co-published with the Thriving at Oxford Staff Wellbeing blog.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Seems like a worthy enterprise. Sociologicly soothing. I wish there had been something like that when I was still in the employment grind.

  2. On those three lines, beginning with: one obvious point…
    If the retort to this is the hedonist view then, they are a sorry bunch of pessimists, seems to me, to wit: if such things, as mentioned, are not “good in themselves”, what things are? If, for example, charitability is not*good in itself*, assuming if, and only if, reciprocation is neither expected nor implied?
    I am not invoking any tired faith-based platitudes here. Simply applying something I call uncommon sense, because whatever once consisted as common sense, OUAT, is no longer available, other than in platitudinal dialogue.

  3. Well being contains much conceptual duality (even when viewed as a singular prescriptive answer) which appears to mask/hide rather than reveal any fully rounded conceptual base.
    Using the current paradoxes experienced by the medical profession as an example and this duality may become apparent. A burdensome life is not perceived as containing a pre-determined quality which justifies life, so may be terminated. (in the case of intelligent life for whatever good is perceived as correct. In the case of foodstuff most often because it does not meet a certain criteria.)
    Inside the worldviews solely promoting the goods of life, because of various factors, including empathy, it is possible to perceive a move away from what could otherwise be seen as normal. This move does differ dependent upon each individual’s tailored worldview and in some cases clearly develops into quite abhorrent behaviours. (e.g. Lucy Letby and earlier similar cases.) In the circumstances of social groups this abhorrent behaviour is likely to be the subject of a defensive behaviour extending out of accepted conduct designed to protect the group reacting to what is perceived as an empathic reaction aimed at assisting or reducing suffering. The well being of individuals becomes promoted by arguments and actions reducing suffering or maximising the good whilst the well-being of the social group becomes tied to those same arguments and actions.

    This type of motivational force, which in the example given, hinges around the value applied to life itself, is frequently not perceived as a cause, because other reasons may more easily be applied to the more obvious emanation of the problems caused. e.g. individual psychological problems/social group mismanagement. But maximising well being in many forms may be seen as a contextually creative cause.
    It does seem that the documented thinking in this area sometimes identifies that, but most frequently allocates other causes by discounting the available motivational forces at work.

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