Well-Being at Work: A Balanced Approach to Positive Organizational Studies

  • Jamie A. GrumanEmail author
  • Ellen Choi
Living reference work entry


The emphasis in the study of workplace well-being has changed from an early focus on preventing illness to a modern focus on promoting wellness. The contemporary study of workplace wellness is incorporated into the domain of positive organizational studies. The present chapter introduces The Movement Model of Workplace Well-Being which serves to integrate the sundry concepts that have been suggested as indicators of workplace well-being and presents The Balance Framework in an effort to help address some of the criticisms of positive organizational studies and offer a mental scaffolding for effectively understanding research and practice on workplace well-being.

Well-being at work has long interested organizational scholars and practitioners. Tracing the history of workplace well-being, Wright, Emich, and Klotz (2017) note that as far back as the start of the previous century, scholars interested in organizational phenomena, such as Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Hugo Munsterberg, and Rexford B. Hersey, were concerned with how employees’ feelings, such as contentment, affected and were affected by work. In more recent times, workplace well-being has been largely subsumed under the sub-discipline of positive organizational studies (Donaldson and Ko 2010), a broad field of investigation that includes a focus on building “especially positive outcomes, processes and attributes, of organizations and their members” (Cameron et al. 2003, p. 4). However, the field of positive organizational studies is not without its critics. This chapter presents a guiding framework called The Balance Framework that addresses the criticisms leveled against positive organizational studies and offers a more nuanced, robust way to conceptualize theory, research, and practice on workplace well-being. The chapter begins with a brief overview of workplace well-being and presents a new model for considering its various manifestations.

Workplace Well-Being

Perspectives on Workplace Wellness

Traditionally, workplace well-being focused mainly on wellness programs designed to prevent employee illness and the associated costs by inhibiting the onset and progression of disease (e.g., Goetzel et al. 2014). This perspective is still not uncommon. For example, Berry et al. (2010) define workplace wellness as “an organized employer-sponsored program that is designed to support employees (and, sometimes, their families) as they adopt and sustain behaviors that reduce health risks, improve quality of life, enhance personal effectiveness, and benefit the bottom line” (p. 4). Although wellness programs can generate cost savings and produce a substantial return on investment (Baicker et al. 2010; Goetzel et al. 2014), there are a number of limitations with this definition and approach. First, it restricts wellness initiatives to formal programs as opposed to more general workplace influences such as management practices. Second, it focuses on reducing health risks such as obesity and smoking (Baicker et al. 2010) instead of actively promoting well-being. Third, it concentrates narrowly on behavior and ignores other factors (e.g., social, psychological) that promote health and well-being. Fourth, it is decidedly utilitarian in that the ultimate goals involve performance outcomes as opposed to well-being itself.

In contrast to these early program-based ideas about workplace wellness that focused on reducing illness, a defining feature of well-being in contemporary discussions is that well-being is not the mere absence of ill-being (Diener 1984; Keyes 2007). The absence of illness or ill-being brings one to a point of normality or average functioning which does not equate to the presence of health or well-being. Nor is well-being restricted to physical health. These points are reflected in the World Health Organization’s definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (World Health Organization 2020). Grant et al. (2007) explain that in addition to the quality of functioning in the various areas, psychological well-being involves the nature of subjective experiences, physical well-being involves bodily health, and social well-being involves relational experiences. Thus, compared to earlier thinking, modern conceptualizations of well-being are more comprehensive and focus on the promotion of wellness itself as opposed to the mere alleviation or prevention of illness. They also involve more informal mechanisms.

Defining and Measuring Workplace Well-Being

Well-being has proven difficult to define (Burke 2017; Wright et al. 2017). Notwithstanding the broad focus that includes social and physical health, the concept of well-being is often used as an academic umbrella term corresponding to the popular notion of happiness (Burke 2017). However, there exist contrasting views of happiness that date back thousands of years (for a historical account, see McMahon 2006). In the broadest sense, theory and research in this area concerns one of two types of well-being: subjective or eudaimonic.

Diener et al. (1999) define subjective well-being (SWB) as “a broad category of phenomena that includes people’s emotional responses, domain satisfactions, and global judgments of life satisfaction” (p. 277). They also note that SWB represents an area of scientific investigation, not a particular construct. That said, SWB is most often measured using scales that assess satisfaction with life (Diener et al. 1985) and/or positive and negative emotions (e.g., Watson et al. 1988), the latter specifically referring to the hedonic aspect of well-being. Indeed, contemporary perspectives of well-being often highlight positive psychological states (Burke 2017). Wright and Huang (2012) suggest that employee well-being has three defining characteristics: 1) it is phenomenological, involving subjective perceptions of wellness, 2) it involves the experience of predominantly positive emotions, and 3) it is best conceived as an aggregate, as opposed to narrow, assessment. Nonetheless, narrow aspects of well-being are often the focus of interest, as elaborated below.

Eudaimonic well-being (EWB) involves the development and actualization of individual potential (Ryff and Singer 2008) and the exercise of virtue (Ryan and Deci 2001). Within the eudaimonic tradition, it is recognized that pleasant emotions that characterize subjective well-being may not produce positive outcomes and may not generate wellness (Ryan and Deci 2001). However, by acting in ways that realize one’s true self, or daimon, one enjoys an intense feeling of being alive, fulfilled, and authentic (Waterman 1993). EWB is most commonly conceived and assessed using six dimensions: self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growth (Ryff and Keyes 1995). It is also sometimes measured by assessing the satisfaction of basic psychological needs that are considered necessary for growth (Ryan and Deci 2001). Ryan et al. (2013) suggest that satisfying the basic human needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence is related to fulfillment of human potential and essential to well-being.

The exercise of virtue is thought to not only generate well-being but to constitute it. As Park and Peterson (2003) note, “well-being is not a consequence of virtuous action but rather an inherent aspect of such action” (p. 38). Academic work on virtues is dominated by the Values in Action project which enumerates 24 character strengths within six overarching virtues (Peterson and Seligman 2004): wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. This literature recommends that people cultivate their primary, or signature, strengths because those are most likely to generate the deepest emotional satisfaction and be especially fulfilling (Peterson and Park 2009; Seligman 2002). So, the exercise of virtue is not only constitutive of well-being but also associated with other forms of well-being. Indeed, the implementation of signature strengths has been shown to be positively associated with happiness, positive affect, life satisfaction, and flourishing and negatively associated with depression (Schutte and Malouff 2019). We note, however, that Littman-Ovadia et al. (2017) found that although signature strength use was associated with well-being outcomes such as meaningfulness, engagement, and job satisfaction, the magnitude of these associations was no greater than for those associated with the use of weak strengths. Further research in this area is needed.

Although less prominent in the management and psychology literatures, well-being has also been conceptualized as including a spiritual component. For example, Ellision (1983) argues that producing well-being requires satisfying our need for transcendence which involves committing ourselves to purposes that involve the ultimate meaning of life. Tejeda (2015) showed that spiritual well-being predicts job satisfaction even under adverse work conditions.

Numerous other variables have been considered as exemplars of workplace well-being such as hope, optimism, self-efficacy and resilience (individually and collectively as a higher-order construct called psychological capital; Luthans and Youssef-Morgan 2017), vigor, emotional stability, flow, support, self-worth, mattering, gratitude, meaning and purpose, self-esteem, empathy, community, and accomplishment (Marsh et al. 2020; Mills et al. 2013; Reece et al. 2020; Su et al. 2014). Adding to the complexity of understanding workplace well-being, sometimes these variables are considered as outcomes and sometimes as predictors.

There also exist scales that are intended to specifically assess well-being at work. For example, Van Katwyk et al. (2000) developed the job-related affective well-being scale which assesses positive and negative job-related affect (see also Russell and Daniels 2018; Warr 1990). Zheng et al. (2015) developed an employee well-being scale that assesses life well-being, workplace well-being, and psychological well-being. And Parker and Hyett (2011) developed a workplace well-being scale comprised of four factors: work satisfaction, organizational respect for employee, employer care, and intrusion of work into private life.

Given the plethora of variables considered to reflect well-being, there is little consistency in the way workplace well-being is measured. Sometimes it is assessed as a single unidimensional variable (e.g., Muhonen et al. 2013), sometimes as a collection of separate variables (e.g., Byrne et al. 2014), sometimes as a multifaceted variable with a few components such as those that characterize engagement (van Wingerden et al. 2017) and eudaimonic well-being (Oades and Dulagil 2016), and sometimes it is conceived and measured as a comprehensive construct including up to 18 subscales (Marsh et al. 2020; Su et al. 2014). Cooke et al. (2016) provide an overview of many self-report scales that measure well-being.

Conceptualizing Workplace Well-Being

To bring some coherence to this smorgasbord, there have been a number of efforts to synthesize the various conceptualizations of well-being into a theoretical framework or typology. Wright (2014) categorizes well-being into broad concepts such as eudaimonia, subjective well-being, and flourishing and narrow concepts such as hope, job satisfaction, and positive affect. Warr (2007) makes a slightly more particularized distinction between more affectively focused and more cognitively focused forms of well-being at three levels of specificity – broad, moderate, and narrow. For example, global affect is a broad level, affective form of well-being, and satisfaction with pay is a narrow, facet-specific cognitive form. General job satisfaction and feelings about one’s job represent moderate level cognitive and affective forms, respectively.

Wright (2014) further categorizes well-being into four “faces”: 1) objective life conditions, 2) eudaimonic well-being, 3) life satisfaction, and 4) emotion-based well-being. Keyes (2002) distinguishes among emotional, psychological, and social well-being, which together represent flourishing. Fisher (2010) divides happiness at work into three levels: transient (e.g., flow), person (e.g., dispositional affect), and unit (morale). Su et al. (2014) conceptualized well-being in terms of seven dimensions: 1) subjective well-being (life satisfaction and positive affect), 2) supportive relationships, 3) engagement, 4) meaning and purpose, 5) a sense of mastery, 6) feelings of control and autonomy, and 7) optimism. Seligman (2011), the originator of modern positive psychology, enumerated five categories of well-being in his PERMA model, which is an acronym for positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Based on the idea that well-being represents the opposite end of the spectrum of psychological disorders, Huppert and So (2013) identified ten features of well-being: competence, emotional stability, engagement, meaning, optimism, positive emotion, positive relationships, resilience, self-esteem, and vitality. In the applied work domain, the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkley, has proposed the PERK model which suggests that happiness at work involves purpose, engagement, resilience, and kindness (Simon-Thomas 2018).

Each of the existing categorizations offers a valuable lens through which to consider well-being in general, or workplace well-being in particular. However, each lens highlights and downplays different features which have implications for both theory and practice. For example, the distinction that Wright (2014) draws between broad and narrow traits emphasizes differences that are obscured by the inclusive approach to well-being suggested by Huppert and So (2013). These diverse lenses will generate different theoretical developments, research questions, and practices aimed at the cultivation of well-being. In the interest of fostering further dialogue on the topic, Fig. 1 presents a new conceptualization, called The Movement Model of Workplace Well-Being (MMWWB), which offers a novel way to structure the elements of well-being. Note that the constructs listed in Fig. 1 are representative and not exhaustive.
Fig. 1

The movement model of workplace well-being

Moving Towards includes constructs that represent aspects of well-being that tend to foster or reflect active engagement with life. These constructs involve mastery motivation (Shiner et al. 2003), social connection, and/or vigorous participation. For example, optimism fosters confidence and approach-oriented behavior in the pursuit of valued goals in addition to persistence in the face of adversity (Carver et al. 2010). Such constructs are consistent with theories of growth such as the broaden-and-build theory, which states that discrete positive emotions broaden people’s thought-action repertoires and encourage the development of personal resources (Fredrickson 2001).

Moving Against includes aspects of well-being that serve to distance oneself from the status quo, often, although not necessarily, in the service of social justice. This can involve behavioral distancing such as when one demonstrates the character strength of courage by bending a company rule in order to assist a distressed client (Badaracco 2002), or psychological distancing such as when one mentally disengages from work during leisure time (Sonnentag 2012). Moving Against will sometimes involve positive deviance, which concerns unconventional behavior that is discrepant from organizational expectations and thus goes against the status quo (Spreitzer and Sonenshein 2003). Integral to this element is that well-being involves not only social and psychological integration into a social or organizational structure but also separation in a manner similar to the way social identity involves assimilation and differentiation from others (Brewer 1991).

Moving With involves constructs reflecting an immersive congruence with a situation or oneself. The difference between Moving With and Moving Towards involves the degree of perceived fluidity of the experience. In Moving Towards, one is drawn to a situation. In Moving With, one is engrossed in a situation in such a way that it is experienced as unusually natural and concordant with prevailing circumstances or the self. Waterman’s (1993) eudaimonic notion of personal expressiveness is a good example in which people feel that the activity they are engaged in provides “a special fit or meshing,” feelings of being “more complete or fulfilled” and that it is what they were “meant to do” (p. 682). Whereas Moving Towards constructs include approach-oriented emotions that encourage movement towards a destination, Moving With constructs foster feelings of having arrived.

Not Moving involves constructs that reflect satiety and an absence of agitation. In terms of an emotional circumplex (see Wright 2014; Warr 2007), constructs in the Not Moving category are pleasurable emotions reflecting low arousal, such as equanimity or serenity. Except for the ubiquitous job satisfaction construct, variables that reflect Not Moving have been largely absent from Western conceptualizations of well-being.

Some constructs must be omitted from Fig. 1 because their placement depends on specific definitions or context. For example, joy can be conceived of as an emotion that fosters goal progress and thus would represent Moving Towards, or more expansively as a feeling of blessedness that fits better within Moving With (Johnson 2020). With respect to context, the character strength of honesty can involve Moving Towards when it involves offering a compliment, Moving Against when it involves pointing out an injustice, and Moving With when it involves authentically supporting another’s views. Similarly, some facets of eudaimonic well-being such as self-acceptance involve Moving With, whereas environmental mastery involves Moving Towards. It is hoped that these categorizations and qualifications help to shed light on the multifaceted nature of well-being and the confusion in the literature and advance both research and practice on workplace well-being and positive organizational studies.

A Balanced Approach to Workplace Well-Being

Positive Organizational Studies and Its Critics

Research on workplace well-being has largely been subsumed within the subfield of positive organizational studies. Positive organizational studies include positive organizational behavior which focuses on positively oriented employee strengths and capacities (Luthans 2002); positive organizational scholarship which concentrates on “especially positive outcomes, processes, and attributes of organizations and their members” (Cameron et al. 2003, p. 4); and positive organizational psychology which emphasizes positive subjective experiences, traits, and institutions such as work organizations (Donaldson and Ko 2010). In general, positive organizational studies focus on phenomena that support thriving employees in flourishing organizations (Gruman and Saks 2019).

Positive organizational studies build on the more general field of positive psychology (PP), the aim of which is to stimulate a shift in focus from ameliorating the negative in life to building the positive (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2000). In organizations, this perspective involves a shift in focus from problem solving (negative deviance) to abundance (positive deviance; e.g., Lavine and Cameron 2012).

However, positive psychology has been criticized on a number of grounds. As noted by Gruman et al. (2018):

The most prominent criticism leveled against [positive psychology] is that it focuses exclusively on positive qualities and abandons a focus on negative qualities (Fineman 2006; Held 2004; Lazarus 2003). Harvey and Pauwels (2003) argued that PP ignores the energy and productive outcomes that may come from loss and pain, and pays too little attention to death and trauma which are an integral part of life. An adequate understanding of the human condition requires accepting the negative (Pawelski 2016; Woolfolk 2002). Some suggest that negative thinking and feeling is not only useful but indispensable, and that we don’t give enough attention to acknowledging and even welcoming loss and suffering (Woolfolk 2002). Indeed, it may be during our most difficult times that the goods of life reveal themselves most clearly (King and Pennebaker 1998) (p. 54).

Other criticisms include those of Schwartz and Sharpe (2006) who have criticized research and practice on character strengths arguing that an excess of a single strength can produce character defects and that such strengths must be exercised in combination if they are to be valuable and effective. This criticism suggests that promoting well-being requires understanding how strengths, and other well-being constructs, operate synergistically. Lazarus (2003) suggests that PP doesn’t acknowledge the intricacies of emotional experience and that ostensibly positive emotions (love) can have negative qualities (the threat of loss). This criticism suggests that promoting well-being requires a more nuanced view of seemingly positive constructs. In a similar vein, McNulty and Fincham (2011) suggest that traits and processes cannot be considered as fundamentally positive or negative and that context must be taken into account in order to determine whether such characteristics will encourage or compromise well-being. This criticism suggests that promoting well-being requires a consideration of the situational context in which presumably positive constructs are manifested.

Similar criticisms have been leveled against positive organizational studies in particular. In his treatise on the positive turn in organizations, Fineman (2006) contends that the predefined virtues and inherent drive for self-improvement embraced by positive psychology run counter to critical and postmodern perspectives that focus on the construction of social reality. He also questions the legitimacy of considering positive emotions apart from negative emotions suggesting they represent an essential dialectic and that conceptualizations of positivity are culturally biased towards Western notions of optimism, confidence, and expressiveness.

Warren (2010) argues that applications of positive psychology in organizations limit the expression of emotions to those that are organizationally sanctioned, ties emotion management to the goal of self-actualization, and is thus an example of the appropriation of emotional experience. She similarly argues that the genuine expression of negative emotions is necessary for emotional health and that positivity itself is based on a deficit model because it involves the notion of striving for improvement. She also notes that organizations benefit from engaged, optimistic employees, but wonders about those employees who might benefit from less engagement or who choose to apply such qualities outside of the work context.

Linley et al. (2011) present three critiques against positive psychology in organizational contexts: 1) organizations are environments in which the positivity endorsed by positive psychologists is untenable, 2) the separation of positive from negative is unjustified, and 3) the focus on strengths to the exclusion of weaknesses is similarly misguided.

Together, these various criticisms suggest that important issues may be currently overlooked in scholars’ efforts to understand and promote well-being in organizations. Addressing and assimilating these criticisms in a coherent manner could provide scholars and practitioners with a more comprehensive and defensible approach to promoting workplace well-being. The Balance Framework accomplishes this.

The Balance Framework

To address the criticisms and provide a more robust way to conceptualize research and practice on the good life, Gruman et al. (2018) developed The Balance Framework. The framework is meant to help researchers and practitioners better understand positive psychological phenomena that characterize and promote well-being. The balance framework underscores that all positive phenomena have nuanced natures and conditions that determine when they are, and are not, beneficial and desirable. To best understand ostensibly positive phenomena, the balance framework details five ways to consider balance: 1) balance as tempered view, 2) balance as mid-range, 3) balance as complementarity, 4) balance as contextual sensitivity, and 5) balance among levels of consciousness. Together, the five balance perspectives offer a comprehensive framework for conceptualizing the science and practice of well-being in organizations and help to address the criticisms leveled against positive organizational studies.

In the following sections, an explanation of each of the five ways of considering balance is provided along with pertinent conceptual and empirical material offering an application of The Balance Framework to workplace well-being. Consistent with prior work on organizational topics that are informed by non-organizational studies (e.g., Rothman et al. 2017), the present chapter focuses on management research and theory but also draws on other fields as appropriate, notably psychology, in order to fully explicate the phenomena discussed. For continuity, in addition to discussion of general topics directly and indirectly related to workplace well-being, the presentation includes recurrent discussion of two popular workplace well-being topics to which The Balance Framework has previously been applied – optimism (Gruman et al. 2017) and mindfulness (Choi et al. 2020).

Balance as Tempered View

The first element of The Balance Framework to be considered is Balance as Tempered View, which recognizes that ostensibly positive constructs can have negative aspects and vice versa (Wong 2012). Paralleling positive psychology more generally, variables in positive organizational studies are generally treated as unambiguously valenced, but upon reflection the valence of these constructs often becomes equivocal (Gruman et al. 2018). In line with this observation, Taylor (2001) notes that “positive in the most general sense has no verifiable objective standard” (p. 16). Adding to the equivocality, Lazarus (2003) explains that good and bad are two sides of the same coin.

There are numerous organizational phenomena that appear positive on the surface but upon closer inspection have a negative side. For example, positive relationships at work, often referred to as high-quality connections, can promote well-being in the form of feelings of vitality and a high sense of positive regard (Dutton and Heaphy 2003), and are integral to social well-being in particular. Such relationships involve social exchanges which can be manifested in organizational citizenship behaviors (OCB’s) and prosociality. The former refers to employee behavior that supports task performance by preserving and enriching the organization’s social system (Organ 1997), whereas the latter expands on this notion by including a broader set of factors including motives and impacts that positively benefit others (Bolino and Grant 2016). However, research has shown that OCBs and prosociality are sometimes associated with negative work outcomes. For example, Lin et al. (2020) found that employees who help others at work experience increases in meaningfulness but also emotional exhaustion. Reviews of the dark side of socially oriented workplace phenomena reveal that they can deplete employee’s personal resources; foster role overload, job stress, work-family conflict, and unethical conduct; compromise individual and team performance, job satisfaction, and career progression; and promote competition and tension among employees (Bolino and Grant 2016; Bolino et al. 2013). Although high-quality connections are generally desirable and can play a role in the development of workplace well-being, it is important to appreciate that they are not unambiguously positive.

Another positive quality is self-forgiveness, which can be invoked to assuage oneself after committing an offense. Self-forgiveness is “a willingness to abandon self-resentment in the face of one’s own acknowledged objective wrong, while fostering compassion, generosity, and love towards oneself” (Enright and The Human Development Study Group 1996, p. 116). Self-forgiveness is applicable in many work contexts including those involving transgressions such as bullying, failures such as poor performance, and job requirements necessitating undesirable behavior (Woodyatt et al. 2017). It is also associated with a variety of well-being outcomes including resilience, mental health, and lower levels of depression (Massengale et al. 2017). However, although it is generally thought of as being completely positive, it can also have a downside (Wohl and McLaughlin 2014). Wohl and McLaughlin (2014) note that self-forgiveness “does not always lead to positive outcomes. In fact, its offering can promote an array of negative outcomes. This is because forgiving the self for an acknowledged self-directed, ongoing harmful behavior brings about an emotional relief that weakens a person’s motivation to change…” (p. 426). Because of these psychological dynamics, self-forgiveness can lead to the perpetuation of damaging behavior such as smoking, gambling, and infidelity (Wohl and McLaughlin 2014). In like fashion, self-forgiveness can lead to the continuation of bullying, sub-par performance, and other undesirable behaviors in organizations and should be understood in a more balanced manner.

Optimism, the tendency to have positive outcome expectations (Scheier and Carver 1985), offers numerous benefits. Optimistic people suffer less distress in the face of adversity, cope effectively with stressors, enact appropriate coping mechanisms, and enjoy health and social benefits as a result (Carver et al. 2010). It is understandable, therefore, why optimism is typically considered positive. However, optimism can lead to negative outcomes. For example, optimism can foster gambling problems and lead people to downplay the importance of health threats (Carver et al. 2010). People also have a tendency to be unreasonably optimistic which can foster regret, disappointment, and reductions in well-being (Shepperd et al. 2015). Lovallo and Kahneman (2003) suggest that optimism can compromise managers’ effectiveness by leading them to overestimate the benefits and underestimate the costs of their decisions. Conversely, although it tends to be negatively construed, pessimism can sometimes lead to high performance, notably for people who are high in anxiety (Norem and Chang 2004). Speaking directly to the notion of tempered view, Peterson and Chang (2003) note that “optimism and pessimism are complex constructs and it makes no sense to speak of the former as always desirable and the latter as always undesirable” (p. 64). Perhaps a more balanced form of optimism is realistic optimism, which involves maintaining a positive outlook within the constraints of what is reasonable (Schneider 2001).

Employee engagement, the harnessing of oneself to one’s work role (Kahn 1990), is a positive organizational construct that exemplifies workplace well-being and also contributes to the experience of other desirable outcomes such as lower levels of stress and burnout and higher life satisfaction and positive affect (Bailey et al. 2017). However, engagement has also been shown to be associated with territorial behavior, knowledge hiding, and pro-job unethical behavior (Wang et al. 2019).

Mindfulness is regarded as a positive phenomenon that is commonly defined as nonjudgmental, present-moment awareness (e.g., Lau et al. 2006). In a review of the literature on mindfulness at work, Good et al. (2016) note that mindfulness is associated with a number of well-being outcomes including lower stress, better mood, higher resilience, and higher quality relationships. However, mindfulness also has a downside. Research has shown that mindfulness undermines implicit learning (Whitmarsh et al. 2013), reduces feelings of guilt after a moral transgression (Schindler et al. 2019), and makes people more susceptible to false memories (Wilson et al. 2015). Mindfulness is not unequivocally good. There is similarly a dark side to awe (Gordon et al. 2017), courage (Pury et al. 2015), and even the pursuit of happiness itself (Gruber et al. 2011).

Considered from the opposite angle, ostensibly negative phenomena can include positive features. As noted earlier, pessimism can be adaptive. Politics is commonly considered dysfunctional behavior that should be eliminated from organizations (Fedor et al. 2008), and a higher level of perceived political behavior has been shown to be negatively associated with job satisfaction (Abbas et al. 2014). However, politics can also have a positive, functional side that helps push organizations beyond the status quo and demonstrate a positive association with job satisfaction (Fedor et al. 2008).

A particularly good example of how phenomena with positive or negative perceived valences can have oppositely valenced qualities is the research on affect. Negative affect has been shown to have positive consequences including reducing judgmental biases and stereotyping and increasing perseverance and politeness (Forgas 2013), whereas positive affect has been shown to produce negative effects such as increasing judgmental mistakes, stereotyping, and self-handicapping and reducing perseverance (Forgas 2014). In the work context, Bagozzi (2003) explains that negative emotions such as guilt can have positive consequences by, for example, motivating employees to repair and strengthen commercial relationships, and positive emotions such as pride can generate negative reactions such as fear of retribution. Forgas (2013) suggests that a more balanced view of positive and negative affect is warranted. Another good example of a balanced view is work in the area of personality which explores the upside of dark, and the downside of bright, personality traits (Smith et al. 2018). For example, among leaders, bright traits such as extraversion can lead to an overestimation of one’s abilities and hasty decision-making, and dark traits such as narcissism can foster consensus and strategic dynamism (Judge et al. 2009).

Although phenomena such as prosociality, optimism, and mindfulness are generally beneficial in organizations and exemplify aspects of workplace well-being, a comprehensive, accurate, and honest understanding of these ostensibly positive phenomena requires an appreciation of the fact that they have a negative side to them. It is equally important to appreciate that seemingly negative phenomena may have positive aspects. A balanced perspective requires a tempered view of constructs that are casually viewed as positive or negative. Having now established the ambiguity of these terms, in the remainder of the chapter, the words “positive” and “negative” will be used without qualification for ease of exposition.

Balance as Mid-Range

Grant and Schwartz (2011) note that most of the literature on positive topics is based on “the assumption that positive traits, experiences, and emotions have monotonic effects on well-being and performance” (p. 62). However, there is abundant evidence that positive phenomena can be overdone. Balance as Mid-Range recognizes that antecedents and manifestations of well-being may be best experienced at moderate, as opposed to maximum, levels. The Balance Framework expressly refers to “mid-range” and not “mid-point” to reflect the fact that the ideal levels of well-being variables may not be the arithmetic average between high and low operationalized parameters and that ideal levels may vary among individuals (Gruman et al. 2018).

The idea of a desirable mid-range as a path to happiness has ancient roots. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle (2004), taught that virtue lies between the vices of excess and deficiency. In his famous “doctrine of the mean,” Aristotle argued, for example, that the virtue of courage lies between the excess of rashness and the deficiency of cowardice. Similarly, the virtue of friendliness lies between the excess of obsequiousness and the deficiency of cantankerousness. More recently, this same approach has been applied, tentatively, to the literature on character strengths and virtues (Seligman 2015). For instance, the character strength of self-regulation lies between the excess of inhibition and the deficiency of self-indulgence, and the strength of vitality lies between the excess of hyperactivity and the deficiency of restraint.

The idea that well-being may be best reflected at moderate as opposed to high levels suggests that people can experience an excess of desirable phenomena. Pierce and Aguinis (2013) refer to this as the too-much-of-a-good-thing effect, and provide examples from a number of management-related disciplines including organizational behavior, human resource management, and entrepreneurship, of how phenomena that are beneficial at moderate levels become harmful when taken too far. For example, they cite Ames and Flynn (2007) who demonstrated that compared to moderate levels of leader assertiveness, leaders who demonstrate high levels of assertiveness are viewed as less effective.

Kaplan and Kaiser (2010) explain that it is possible for leaders to take their general strengths too far and that effective leadership requires implementing neither too little nor too much of a particular strength. For instance, leadership requires taking charge, but leaders who do so too much can become domineering and callous and demoralize their subordinates. Similarly, effective leadership involves enabling others. But leaders who are too enabling may not hold others accountable, be overly accommodating, and abdicate their responsibility (Kaplan and Kaiser 2003). In line with the principle of overdoing it, there are numerous examples of how variables directly and indirectly related to workplace well-being can be overemphasized.

Conscientiousness is a valued personality characteristic that is positively associated with job performance (Barrick and Mount 1991) and job satisfaction (Judge et al. 2002); however, at high levels, conscientiousness can undermine well-being. Carter et al. (2016) found a curvilinear relationship between conscientiousness and well-being assessed as life satisfaction, job satisfaction, negative affect, positive affect, self-esteem, and work stress. They suggested that this occurs because at high levels conscientiousness crosses a line and reflects obsessive-compulsive tendencies that compromise well-being. In fact, it has been suggested that at very high levels, all of the facets of conscientiousness are maladaptive (Samuel et al. 2012). For example, at extreme levels, competence becomes perfectionism, order becomes fastidiousness, and self-discipline becomes doggedness, none of which promotes well-being.

Social well-being is enhanced though high-quality relationships, but at extreme levels, such relationships can undermine well-being. Harris and Kacmar (2006) found that compared to employees who had moderate-quality relationships with their supervisors, those with high-quality relationships suffered more stress. The authors suggest that this happens because at high levels of relationship quality, subordinates are more likely to be subject to higher expectations, responsibilities, and additional roles that outweigh the benefits of the relationship.

An excess of employee engagement can compromise well-being. Macey and Schneider (2008) note that engagement can be draining because it requires the expenditure of personal resources and that, at least to some extent, there is a limited pool of resources available to an employee. In support of this idea, Halbesleben et al. (2009) found that engagement was associated with higher levels of work-family interference. They concluded that it is possible for employees to be overinvested in work and that it is important to seek balance between engagement and family life.

In line with Balance as Tempered View, adversity is generally considered a negative phenomenon, and although high levels of adversity may cause serious distress, a moderate amount of lifetime adversity is positively associated with mental health and well-being (Seery et al. 2010). Höltge et al. (2018) suggest that an ideal, moderate amount of adversity can promote not just resilience, but thriving, because it offers an opportunity to practice coping skills and develop and use resources. They refer to this as the “steeling effect” (Rutter 1987) in which past experiences of adversity increase resistance to future adversities. As Lazarus notes (2003), stress and adversity can play an important role in the cultivation of qualities needed to flourish.

Consistent with Lovallo and Kahneman’s (2003) contention that positive outlooks can be detrimental for leaders, Shipman and Mumford (2011) suggested that an excess of confidence might foster destructive leadership involving poor decision-making, persevering with failing courses of action, and ignoring evident defects. Supporting this idea, they conducted a scenario study and found that overconfidence was associated with the development of poor vision statements. Similarly, in a study of teams participating in a strategic decision-making task, Papenhausen (2010) found that a moderate level of team optimism was positively associated with efforts to search for ways to improve team performance, whereas at high levels of team optimism, this effort was curtailed.

Discussing the benefits of optimism at a moderate level, Gruman et al. (2017) note that:

In a longitudinal study with inner-city women, Devine et al. (2000) found that moderate levels of optimism at Time 1 were subsequently associated with low levels of depression, but that higher levels of optimism at Time 1 were subsequently associated with higher levels of depression. They noted that their results call into question the idea that greater optimism produces better functioning, and concluded that excessive optimism can be detrimental. Similar results were obtained by Milam et al. (2004) who found that after controlling for disease status at baseline, HIV-infected individuals who displayed moderate levels of optimism had higher CD4 counts (a marker of relative health) months later compared to those with low or high levels of optimism. Milam et al. (2004) concluded that high levels of optimism do not protect against HIV disease progression speculating that high optimism might induce stress when desired positive health outcomes can’t be achieved. Milam et al. (2004) also suggested that there might be an “optimal margin of optimism” (p. 177). Thus, achieving well-being and success may be best accomplished by having some, but not too much, optimism (pp. 469-470).

Mindfulness can also be overdone. Britton (2019) explains that a number of mindfulness-related processes demonstrate an inverted U-shaped association with well-being and can be disadvantageous at elevated levels. For example, Britton (2019) discusses evidence suggesting that at high levels mindfulness can induce emotional blunting, dissociation, and depersonalization. Britton et al. (2014) found that sleep quality is enhanced at moderate levels of mindfulness and compromised at high levels. Mindfulness involves “reperceiving” (e.g., Shapiro et al. 2006), which entails detaching and stepping back from experience in order to observe it. However, an extreme level of detachment may manifest as social withdrawal, avoiding intimacy, and a reduced capacity to experience pleasure (Chapman et al. 1976). Britton (2019) therefore asks “how does one ensure that mindfulness produces the optimal level of psychological distance that ‘steps back’ far enough but not too far?” (pp. 160–161).

Work conditions have been shown to have non-monotonic relationships with well-being outcomes. De Jonge and Schaufeli (1998) found that job characteristics including job demands, autonomy, and workplace social support demonstrated a curvilinear relationship with a variety of measures of employee well-being. For example, compared to moderate levels, a high level of job demands was associated with an increase in anxiety, and a high level of social support was associated with a decrease in job satisfaction. Similarly, Kubiek et al. (2014) found a curvilinear effect of job control on well-being among a sample of eldercare workers. Specifically, whereas moderate levels of job control were associated with low levels of irritation, depersonalization, and high engagement, at low and high levels of job control, the opposite pattern was observed. Curvilinear effects of working conditions are discussed by Warr (2007) who developed a vitamin analogy suggesting that at higher “doses,” certain workplace characteristics (e.g., valued social position) demonstrate an innocuous leveling-off effect, whereas others (e.g., personal control) have a toxic effect and produce decrements in well-being.

The Moving Against aspect of the MMWWB (see Fig. 1) suggests that distancing oneself from work, as occurs during effective leisure time, may be part of the formula for producing well-being. However, even in this domain, curvilinear effects are observed. Lee et al. (2020) found that compared to moderate levels of leisure quantity (average daily leisure time), high levels were associated with reduced leisure satisfaction and happiness. Relatedly, although desirable at moderate levels, high psychological detachment during leisure time can compromise job performance and proactivity at work (Fritz et al. 2010).

It is important to note that not all studies that explore curvilinear effects are successful in finding them. For example, Wiese et al. (2018) found no evidence of a too-much-of-a-good-thing effect in their investigations of the relationship between self-control and happiness. Similarly, Nickel et al. (2019) found no evidence for a curvilinear relationship between conscientiousness and a variety of well-being outcomes. That said, there is enough evidence to suggest that variables associated with well-being, and indicators of well-being itself, often demonstrate non-monotonicity and can be less-than-ideal at elevated levels. Future research is needed to establish the mechanisms and boundary conditions of these effects.

Balance as Complementarity

The third aspect of The Balance Framework is Balance as Complementarity, which broadens the focus beyond individual constructs to consider the ways in which multiple constructs operate in tandem. As Gruman et al. (2018) note, “balance involves not only the gross balance between two poles of a variable, but balance among variables” (p. 56). Balance as Complementarity considers the joint effects of constructs that have opposite valences, such as positive and negative affect, in addition to the combined effects of positive constructs, such as character strengths and virtues (Gruman et al. 2018).

Understanding workplace well-being requires a consideration of the ways in which positive and negative phenomena operate in tandem. As Aspinwall and Staudinger (2003) suggest, a key objective for an appreciation of human flourishing is “to understand whether and how positive and negative experiences depend on each other and work together” (p. 15). Linley et al. (2006) similarly suggest that an understanding of optimal human functioning requires an appreciation of the interrelationship between positive and negative aspects of human existence. The same notion has been recognized with respect to workplace well-being in particular. For instance, Bagozzi (2003) suggests that in organizations “positive and negative emotions reciprocally modulate each other” (p. 178).

Although seemingly counterintuitive, there is evidence that people simultaneously experience positive and negative emotions (Folkman and Moskowitz 2000). There is also evidence that the co-occurrence of positive and negative emotions fosters various forms of well-being. For example, in their study of older adults, Ong and Bergeman (2004) found that individuals who demonstrated greater blending of positive and negative emotions had higher levels of resilience and lower levels of stress. Similarly, in their investigation of adults undergoing psychotherapy, Adler and Hershfield (2012) found that the mixed experience of happiness and sadness was associated with improvements in psychological well-being over time. Hershfield et al. (2013) found that the concurrent experience of positive and negative emotions was associated with fewer physical health problems, and an increase in mixed emotions was associated with better health over the course of a 10-year period. In three studies, Tugade and Fredrickson (2004) found that individuals who experience positive emotions in the face of stressful circumstances that elicit negative emotions recover more quickly from the stressors and demonstrate higher levels of resilience. The simultaneous experience of positive and negative emotions has also been shown to be positively associated with eudaimonic well-being (Berrios et al. 2018).

Why might the experience of mixed emotions promote workplace well-being? Tugade and Fredrickson (2004) conclude that the experience of positive emotions during negative incidents may contribute to individuals’ ability to implement effective emotion regulation tactics. In a similar vein, Adler and Hershfield (2012) suggest that the concurrent experience of positive and negative emotions might better enable people to handle disruptive events and find meaning in their experiences. Berrios et al. (2018) suggest that mixed emotions help individuals to achieve equilibrium when facing conflicting goals. These interpretations build on conceptual work such as the Coactivation Model of Health (Larsen et al. 2003), which suggests that the contemporaneous experience of positive and negative emotions fosters well-being due to its ability to help individuals engage in effective problem solving, make sense of and find meaning in difficulties, and overcome distressing experiences.

The applicability of the concurrent experience of positive and negative phenomena for understanding workplace well-being is not restricted to emotions. Shmotkin (2005) suggests that subjective well-being (SWB) is part of a process of pursuing happiness that works in tandem with the hostile-world scenario (HWS), which refers to an individual’s image of actual or perceived threats. He suggests that SWB operates to establish a favorable psychological environment and positive states of mind that complement the HWS, which scans the environment for perceived dangers. SWB operates as a promotion-focused self-regulation strategy oriented towards nurturance and accomplishment that works in tandem with the prevention-focused self-regulation strategy, represented by the HWS, which is concerned with safety and protection. The dialectical balance between SWB and HWS exploits the relative advantages of each and initiates coping strategies that minimize distress and restore SWB (Shmotkin 2005). This balance ensures that individuals are not overwhelmed by nightmares of immanent disaster nor lulled by naïve pollyannish fantasies (Shmotkin 2011). Shmotkin’s (2005, 2011) ideas suggest that workplace well-being may involve some degree of ambivalence.

Ambivalence is the experience of “simultaneously positive and negative orientations towards an object” (Ashforth et al. 2014, p. 1454). In a review of ambivalence in organizations, Rothman et al. (2017) suggested that ambivalence may be more the norm than the exception and that it is associated with positive outcomes such as psychological and physical resilience, in addition to flexibility, which is a fundamental aspect of health (Kashdan and Rottenberg 2010). As Aspinwall and Staudinger (2003) suggest, “human strengths may primarily lie in the ability to flexibly apply as many different resources and skills as necessary to solve a problem or work towards a goal” (p. 13). Ambivalence can also promote other positive workplace outcomes such as trust, creativity, and wisdom (Pratt and Pradies 2012).

Balance as Complementarity is also exhibited by the interplay of optimism and pessimism. In a sample of German medical patients, Herzberg et al. (2006) found that after taking optimism into account, pessimism offered incremental prediction of quality of life. Similarly, in a study of people suffering from arthritis, Benyamini (2005) found that coping strategies were most likely to be implemented by individuals who scored high on scales on optimism and pessimism concurrently. In short, the dynamic interplay of positive and negative aspects of life appears to be an important part of well-being in general and an integral aspect of workplace well-being.

In addition to balance between positive and negative phenomena, Balance as Complementarity concerns balance among positive qualities. The research on mindfulness provides a case in point. Mindfulness is sometimes operationalized with five facets, namely, nonreactivity, observing, acting with awareness, describing, and non-judging (Baer et al. 2006). Research has shown that different facet profiles are associated with dissimilar outcomes. For example, individuals who score high on non-judging and acting with awareness but low on observing demonstrate adaptive emotional health indexed by low depression, anxiety, affective lability, and distress intolerance. By contrast, individuals who score high on observing and low on non-judging and acting with awareness demonstrate poor emotional health (Pearson et al. 2015). All of the facets are positive aspects of mindfulness, but research shows that the facets operate in clusters to produce outcomes that promote, or hinder, well-being.

In a similar manner, Keyes (2007) explains that in order to flourish, individuals must exhibit adequate levels of positive functioning in three areas: positive emotions, positive psychological functioning, and positive social functioning. Flourishing individuals enjoy well-being benefits such as high levels of resilience and intimacy, low incidence of mental disorders, and few missed workdays (Keyes 2009).

Character strengths represent another realm in which positive qualities may need to operate jointly. As discussed earlier, the literature on character strengths advocates for identifying and leveraging one’s signature strengths; however, some research suggests that balance among strengths in general may be sufficient. Rust et al. (2009) found that students who worked on building their character strengths had higher satisfaction with life regardless of whether they exclusively focused on building their signature strengths or focused on a signature strength in addition to a relatively weak strength. Similar results were obtained by Littman-Ovadia et al. (2017) who, as noted earlier, found that strength use in general, as opposed to signature strength use exclusively, was associated with well-being outcomes. Supporting the value of balance, Young et al. (2015) found that balance among strengths was associated with life satisfaction and argued that the balanced use of strengths is valuable because it enhances the ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

The promotion of workplace well-being requires an understating of how various positive qualities, such as character strengths, operate synergistically. Fowers (2008) argues that isolating a few of character strengths as the basis of promoting what is good is inconsistent with the idea of virtue theory and that the presence of one strength does not compensate for the absence of another. Character, he suggests, involves the combination of numerous character strengths operating harmoniously. For example, he suggests that the character strengths of courage and justice must operate together. The former in the absence of the latter can produce assertiveness that is polarizing; the latter without the former can generate goodwill but not action. Similarly, Schwartz and Sharpe (2006) highlight the potential conflict between other strengths such as valor and prudence, justice and mercy, and leadership and humility and argue that the master virtue of practical wisdom is necessary to help coordinate and balance the others. They conclude that in lieu of a focus on cultivating signature strengths, there must be balance among the character strengths and virtues. Supporting the notion of a need for balance among positive qualities, Allan (2015) found that, in general, the greater the correspondence between character strength pairs such as honesty and kindness, the more participants reported finding meaning in life. He concluded that “balance and harmony among character strengths may be critical for well-being” (pp. 1256–1257).

Balance as Complementarity also involves achieving equilibrium among the various manifestations of workplace well-being. As suggested by the multitude of constructs included in MMWWB (see Fig. 1), workplace well-being is not best represented by a single construct, but by a balance among many. This balance requires dynamic adaptability. Grant et al. (2007) explain that tradeoffs often occur when organizations try to promote employee well-being. For example, enriching jobs can foster psychological well-being in the form of job satisfaction, but compromise physical well-being due to increases in strain and fatigue. The first step in addressing these tradeoffs is to notice that they occur (Grant et al. 2007). The MMWWB helps to point out where important aspects of workplace well-being may be weak or absent in employees’ lives and, correspondingly, areas in which their well-being can be enhanced.

Relatedly, the MMWWB helps to conceptualize how balance can be achieved among well-being constructs that appear to conflict. For example, hope is part of well-being and fits best with the Moving Towards part of the model. Seligman (2015) suggests that a deficiency of hope involves a present orientation, which is considered undesirable. However, the desirable quality of mindfulness, as typically defined, involves an explicit present-moment awareness (Brown and Ryan 2003) and fits best within the Moving With part of the model. Thus, at first blush, hope and mindfulness appear antagonistic. However, the MMWWB helps to synthesize these seemingly incompatible ideas by suggesting that they are both part of a more comprehensive understanding of well-being and are in fact complementary. Similarly, engagement fits within the Moving With part of the model, but psychological detachment fits within the Moving Against part. Again, these apparently conflicting constructs are easily harmonized within the inclusive parameters of the model.

Further research is needed regarding Balance as Complementarity. There is little work on ambivalence in organizations as the topic has only recently become of interest to management scholars (Rothman et al. 2017), there continues to be debate concerning the details of the simultaneous experience of positive and negative emotions specifically (Russell 2017; Watson and Stanton 2017), and there is a paucity of research on the interplay of character strengths. That said, the available evidence suggests that effectively understanding and promoting workplace well-being requires an appreciation of how the various phenomena that bear on this topic complement and balance each other.

Balance as Contextual Sensitivity

Balance as Contextual Sensitivity suggests that different constructs may be positive or negative depending on the context. Gruman et al. (2018) note that “[w]hereas ‘balance as complementarity’ addresses within-person combinations, ‘balance as contextual sensitivity’ underscores that the extent to which a construct can be regarded as positive or negative may be situationally moderated” (p. 58). Additionally, Balance as Contextual Sensitivity recognizes that organizational and cultural contexts play an important role in the ways in which employees value, express, and cultivate workplace well-being.

Emotions can be positive or negative depending on the circumstances in which they are experienced. As Lazarus observes, “any emotion can have a negative as well as positive valence depending on the context in which it occurs” (p. 107). Accordingly, workplace well-being is promoted by experiencing and expressing context-consistent emotions. Expressing positive emotions at inappropriate times can generate undesirable consequences (Bonanno et al. 2007). In their discussion of the contexts in which positive emotions can generate social costs, Greenway and Kalokerinos (2017) give the example of a funeral attendee who laughs out loud as an example of the incongruous expression of positive emotions, noting that such displays can produce deleterious outcomes. They conclude that in order to be advantageous, positive emotions should be expressed in the proper context.

The same applies to negative emotions. In three studies, Coifman et al. (2016) found general support for the hypothesis that the experience of negative emotions in correspondingly negative contexts is associated with adaptive behavior and outcomes. For example, in a study of relationship quality, they found that negative emotional reactions in response to films depicting negative relational themes were associated with higher relationship adjustment. They also found that the experience of positive emotions in such contexts was associated with lower relationship adjustment. Coifman et al. (2016) concluded that negative emotions are functional and promote psychological health and adjustment when experienced in the appropriate context.

Findings such as these underscore the importance of adjusting one’s emotional experience to fit the demands of the situation, something called expressive flexibility (Westphal et al. 2010). Westphal et al. (2010) found that expressive flexibility was associated with well-being and overall adjustment under conditions of high life stress. Under conditions of low life stress and when exposed to a threatening prime, low levels of expressive flexibility were associated with high well-being and adjustment. Westphal et al. (2010) argue that these results highlight the benefits of plasticity in emotional expressiveness, noting that the “flexible regulation of emotional expression in accord with situational demands is more important to adjustment than expression or suppression per se” (p. 92).

The context-dependent value of varying levels of emotional experience is addressed in the Coactivation Model of Health which argues that although the co-occurrence of positive and negative emotions is beneficial for health and well-being, the desirable relative proportion of positive and negative affect is contingent on the severity of the stressor (Larsen et al. 2003). For instance, mild stressors call for a preponderance of positive emotions, and severe stressors call for a greater proportion of negative emotions. As Larsen et al. (2003) note, there is no “specific configuration of positive and negative emotions that is most beneficial in all circumstances” (p. 216). In short, workplace well-being is promoted by the experience of positive and negative emotions, and their co-occurrence, when they are in line with the demands of the situation.

Contextual fitness is also required in order to derive benefits from character strengths. A number of authors have recognized that the positivity of character strengths and virtues is contingent on how appropriate they are for the situation. As Fowers (2008) notes, “enacting virtue is always strongly dependent on the context” (p. 640). Likewise, Newstead, Macklin, Dawkins, and Martin (2018) suggest that in order for an act to be considered virtuous, it must be enacted in a way that is contextually suitable. In line with Balance as Mid-Range, Schwartz and Sharpe (2006) note that the appropriate degree to which one enacts a character strength is not the midpoint of a scale and that “[w]here exactly the mean lies will itself vary from context to context – situation to situation” (p. 383). Similarly, Ng and Tay (2020) note that the appropriate, mid-range demonstration of virtue is “relative to the particulars of the situation in which it is expressed” (p. 4), which they refer to as situation-specific optimality.

Implementing character strengths in the wrong context can compromise well-being instead of promoting it. For example, forgiveness is a virtue that is positively associated with psychological well-being, physical health, and positive relationships (McCullough et al. 2009). However, offering forgiveness in the wrong context can undermine well-being. McNulty and Fincham (2011) summarize research demonstrating that forgiveness can foster more or less positive outcomes when it is offered to offenders who exhibit less or more egregious behavior, respectively. McNulty and Fincham (2011) conclude that “forgiveness is a process that can be either beneficial or harmful, depending on the characteristics of the relationship in which it occurs” (p. 102). Although high-quality relationships are integral to well-being in general and social well-being in particular, contextual factors such as the nature of the relationship and the external environment play a significant role in the association between relationships and well-being (McNulty 2016). Even making an effort to improve the quality of a relationship can promote or hinder well-being depending on the context involving the general health of the relationship (McNulty 2016).

The value of optimism has also been shown to be situationally contingent. For example, in a sample of newlyweds, McNulty and Karney (2004) found that optimism was associated with more stable future marital satisfaction when the couples’ initial interaction behavior was supportive and constructive, but was associated with steeper declines in marital satisfaction when the initial interaction behavior was problematic. When initial interaction behavior was problematic, lower levels of initial optimism were associated with more stable relationship satisfaction over time, and higher optimism was associated with steeper declines in future relationship satisfaction. These results demonstrate that optimism in the wrong context can undermine social well-being.

When problems are easy to handle, optimism may foster well-being because it can promote resolution. However, when problems are difficult, optimism can promote unwarranted persistence and stress and compromise well-being. In support of this idea, Segerstrom (2005) found that optimism is negatively associated with cellular immunity when stressors are complex, uncontrollable, and generally difficult, but positively associated with cellular immunity when stressors are simple, transitory, and generally easy to handle.

The value of mindfulness in fostering workplace well-being may also be moderated by context. The practice of mindfulness encourages approach-related emotion regulation tactics such as awareness and acceptance and the inhibition of avoidance-related tactics such as distraction and suppression (Britton 2019). However, Bonanno and Burton (2013) note that successful coping involves the deployment of various emotion regulation tactics including distraction and suppression and the use of different tactics in different contexts.

Highlighting the potentially situationally contingent value of mindfulness, Dane (2011) offers a number of propositions about the circumstances in which mindfulness is predicted to be positively and negatively associated with task performance. He suggests that that there will be a positive association between mindfulness and performance when employees operate in a dynamic task environment and have a high level of expertise, but the relationship between mindfulness and performance will be negative when employees operate in a static environment and have little experience with the task.

The MMWWB (see Fig. 1) highlights situational appropriateness by suggesting that different forms of well-being may be more or less appropriate and conducive to overall well-being in different circumstances. For instance, certain active forms of well-being that characterize Moving Towards, such as thriving, may be less suitable during efforts to recover from work demands than during work hours, and the psychological detachment that is part of Moving Against may be less fitting at work than it is during leisure time. Perhaps more apropos, varying relative levels of the different forms of well-being may be appropriate under different conditions.

Contextual sensitivity also involves an appreciation of the fact that the organizational context may be more or less conducive to workplace well-being. For example, Rego and Cunha (2009) found that the relationship between opportunities to learn and workplace well-being was stronger among employees who work in organizations with supportive work-family practices. Stiglbauer and Kovacs (2018) found that workplace well-being was compromised when the amount of autonomy employees had was discrepant from the amount they desired. In line with Balance as Mid-Range, Stiglbauer and Kovacs (2018) found that employees’ well-being was reduced when they perceived that they had too much or too little autonomy. Employee engagement is associated with contextual factors such as job characteristics, leadership, developmental opportunities, feedback, positive workplace climate, support, and rewards and recognition (Christian et al. 2011; Crawford et al. 2010). In short, organizational environments create a context in which workplace well-being is encouraged or discouraged. Workplace wellness initiatives that are inconsistent with the underlying organizational culture or climate may be perceived by employees as disingenuous and manipulative. The culture and climate thus represent contextual variables that play a role in determining whether workplace wellness efforts will be regarded as relatively positive or negative.

A final important contextual variable is the broader culture. As Fineman (2006) suggests, it is necessary to be sensitive to variations in the cultural appropriateness of various emotional experiences and emotional display rules in order to properly understand what positivity means in particular environments. Happiness is not the main priority in many cultures (Ahuvia 2001), and the appropriateness of expressing certain emotions varies cross-culturally. For example, Japanese employees score low on employee engagement (Shimazu et al. 2010). However, this likely has less to do with Japanese workers’ reluctance to “bring their full selves” to their roles than it does with the cultural tendency for Japanese individuals to suppress positive affect (Shimazu et al. 2010). Additionally, the concept of the “self” differs across cultures (Kitayama et al. 1997). Therefore, what it means to “bring one’s full self” to a role can vary in different cultures and have implications for workplace well-being concepts such as engagement and authenticity (Saks and Gruman in press).

There is evidence for consistency across cultures regarding aspects of well-being, but there is also evidence for variability. For instance, the relationship between the satisfaction of the need for autonomy and well-being appears to be stable cross-culturally, but the methods for expressing and satisfying this need vary (Chirkov et al. 2003). Similarly, the need for high-quality relationships may be culturally universal; however, Brannan et al. (2013) found that perceived support from friends was associated with well-being in Jordan and the USA, but not in Iran. Results such as these suggest that the expression and drivers of workplace well-being in addition to the value placed on specific forms of workplace well-being may demonstrate cross-cultural variability. As a result, research and practice on workplace well-being must take cultural context into account and should examine not only differences across countries but also differences among individuals from different cultural groups within countries (Teramoto Pedrotti et al. 2009).

Balance as Contextual Sensitivity recognizes that what is positive is contextually dependent. The promotion of flourishing workplaces requires a comprehensive understanding of the “developmental, material and social contexts” that regulate emotional experience, the deployment of human strengths, and foster the experience of workplace well-being (Aspinwall and Staudinger 2003, p. 14).

Balance Among Levels of Consciousness

The final component of The Balance Framework is Balance Among Levels of Consciousness. It has long been known that consciousness exists at different levels. For example, Schooler et al. (2015) distinguish among an unconscious level involving processes to which individuals have no conscious knowledge or access, a conscious level involving mental awareness, and a meta-conscious level involving explicit awareness of the contents of consciousness. However, research and practice on workplace well-being focuses disproportionately on the level of conscious awareness. For example, most studies involve self-report measures of well-being that rely on conscious evaluations and ratings as opposed to implicit measures that assess unconscious processing. There is a relative paucity of research in organizational behavior that uses implicit measures (Harms and Luthans 2012), and research on workplace well-being is no exception. Balance Among Levels of Consciousness recognizes that much of what contributes to workplace well-being involves processes that occur outside of conscious awareness and that a more comprehensive understanding of workplace well-being can be achieved by studying phenomena at multiple levels of consciousness. As Aspinwall and Staudinger (2003) suggest:

Even though reflexivity is one of the major discriminating features of the human species, it may not necessarily be the case that human strengths are always conscious and linked to intentional action or reaction. Rather, it is possible that human evolution, as well as ontogenesis, has produced “strength patterns” of perception, action, and reaction on an automatic and unintentional level” (p. 13).

The importance of studying unconscious processes is made particularly salient by the recognition that the vast majority of human mental activity is unconscious. Commenting on the magnitude of unconscious activity, Wilson (2002) suggests that the depiction of conscious processing as the tip of the mental iceberg is misleading and that it is more akin to a snowball at the top of the iceberg. Addressing the sophistication of unconscious processing, he adds that “[t]he adaptive unconscious does an excellent job of sizing up the world, warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated and efficient manner” (pp. 6–7). Surveying a number of research areas, Hassin (2013) observes that numerous functions historically believed to require conscious processing can occur unconsciously and suggests that unconscious processes can execute every fundamental function performed by conscious processes. Hassin (2013) adds that understanding the potential differences in the ways in which conscious and unconscious processes execute the same functions is a matter for future research. These functions may be implicated in workplace well-being. Therefore, the balanced study of workplace well-being should involve an analysis mental state at different levels of consciousness.

Mental states are commonly conceived as part of a “trilogy of mind” comprised of emotion, cognition, and motivation (Hilgard 1980). Each of these domains is involved in the experience of workplace well-being, and each has been shown to be influenced by processes outside of conscious awareness. A large body of research has examined positive and negative affect as indicators of well-being (e.g., Watson et al. 1988). Emotional experiences are often considered decidedly conscious. As Winkielman and Berridge (2004) note, it seems axiomatic that emotions are available to consciousness, because how could one “have feelings that are not felt?” (p. 120). However, Winkielman and Berridge (2004) go on to summarize research demonstrating that emotional processes can occur outside of conscious awareness and nonetheless influence behavior. For example, people’s affective reactions to neutral stimuli, such as Chinese ideographs, can be altered by subliminally pairing the stimuli with happy or angry faces. Importantly, this effect occurs in the absence of any conscious awareness among participants that their mood has been affected. Similarly, people’s behavior can be influenced by exposure to happy and sad faces without any corresponding changes to self-report measures of affect. Studies such as these demonstrate that people’s emotions and behavior can be affected by unconscious emotions without any conscious awareness.

Emotions therefore have an explicit component corresponding to a subjective feeling and an implicit component associated with physiological and behavioral responses (Kihlstrom 2013). This distinction raises questions about employees’ awareness of the full range of their emotional experiences at work and the correlates of these experiences. Sometimes people are unaware of the perceptions and thoughts that elicit conscious emotion, and sometimes they are aware of their perceptions and thoughts but unaware of the emotions they trigger (Kihlstrom et al. 2000). Facts such as these should lead researchers to question whether there are antecedents of workplace positive affect other than those assessed with self-report measures, and whether there may be organizational variables that elicit positive and negative emotions that are not available to consciousness. Because employees may experience positive affect of which they are unaware, research on workplace well-being should not limit itself to the study of conscious affective experience (Winkielman and Berridge 2004). A more balanced approach that includes the assessment of unconscious affect with indirect measures would provide a more comprehensive account of the nature, antecedents, and outcomes of workplace well-being.

Workplace well-being also involves cognition. For example, a common measure of well-being is life satisfaction, which Diener et al. (1985) describe as a cognitive, judgmental process. Judgments of life satisfaction, and other overall assessments of well-being, reflect conscious, cognitive evaluations. However, research reveals that, like emotions, cognitions can occur unconsciously and are influenced by unconscious stimuli.

Decades of research reveals that cognitive processes involving phenomena such as memory, attitudes, learning, and judgments are influenced by implicit stimuli that occur outside of awareness (Greenwald and Banaji 2017). For example, Lewicki et al. (1988) had participants perform a task in which they had to indicate the location of a target presented on a computer screen by pressing a corresponding key. Unbeknownst to participants, the exposure of targets followed a complex pattern. Over the course of numerous trials, participants’ performance improved demonstrating that they had learned the pattern, despite the fact that none of them was able to consciously identify it. The participants thus learned a complex rule without conscious awareness. As the authors explain, the participants’ performance was “automatic in the sense that it was not mediated by consciously controlled processes” (p. 34).

Other research demonstrates that when people’s behavior is influenced by stimuli outside of conscious awareness, they will often invent explanations for their behavior that in no way correspond to the precipitating stimuli (Nisbett and Wilson 1977). These confabulations are sincerely believed, but often simply reflect widely accepted causal theories instead of an accurate analysis of the behavior in question (Wilson 2002). Elaborating on the questionable accuracy of conscious accounts, Greenwald and Banaji (2017) suggest that “When people attempt to report on their conscious perceptions and judgments, they do so not based on valid introspection, but by using traces of past (possibly biased) experience to construct (possibly invalid) theories of current data” (p. 868). Consequently, explicit evaluative measures of workplace well-being which involve self-reports, like job satisfaction, may be influenced by unconscious processes that result in measures with dubious validity (Greenwald and Banaji 2017).

Studies of workplace well-being are likely to generate novel and broader insights if they balance the use of self-reports with indirect measures that assess unconscious cognition such as tests of implicit association, thematic apperception, and conditional reasoning tests (Bing et al. 2007; Greenwald and Banaji 2017; McClelland et al. 1989). For instance, Kim (2004) developed a measure of implicit life satisfaction that was found to be uncorrelated with a measure of explicit life satisfaction and was less affected by transitory mood, social desirability, and culture than explicit measures (Jang and Kim 2009). Harms and Luthans (2012) developed an implicit measure of psychological capital, which, as noted earlier, is a higher-order construct that includes optimism. They found that after taking scores on the explicit measure of the scale into account, the implicit measure offered incremental prediction of several work outcomes, including satisfaction.

Well-being also involves motivation. For instance, Huta and Ryan (2010) conceptualize hedonic well-being as the motive to seek pleasure and comfort and eudaimonic well-being as the motive to use or develop the best in oneself. Numerous investigations have demonstrated that motives can exist at an unconscious level. For example, Bargh et al. (2001) primed participants with a high-performance goal by embedding words such as “compete” and “succeed” in a word-search puzzle. In a subsequent task, primed participants achieved higher levels of performance than those in a control condition. Importantly, none of the primed participants was aware that their behavior had been affected. Dijksterhuis and Aarts (2010) note that “at least some volitional behavior does not require any conscious awareness at all: Goals and motivation can be unconsciously primed” (p. 469).

In general, being motivated to achieve goals can promote well-being. For example, Sheldon and Elliott (1999) demonstrated that individuals who succeed at achieving goals that are personally important to them enjoy higher levels of well-being. This raises the question of why people might pursue goals that are not important to them and what happens to their well-being when this occurs. Unconscious motivation provides part of the answer. Unconscious motives stimulate spontaneous and enduring behavior that is inherently enjoyable, whereas explicit motives are associated with behavior involving more immediate social incentives (McClelland et al. 1989). As such, unconscious and explicit motives can conflict. Brunstein et al. (1998) found that when individuals made progress towards goals that were consistent with their implicit motives, they enjoyed higher levels of emotional well-being. In contrast, commitment to goals that were inconsistent with implicit motives resulted in a decrease in emotional well-being. Similarly, Baumann et al. (2005) demonstrated that (in)congruence between implicit and explicit motives was associated with (lower)higher subjective well-being and psychosomatic symptoms. Baumann et al. (2005) suggest that motive incongruence can be regarded as a stressor that compromises well-being.

Just like cognitive measures, measures of implicit and explicit motives can be unrelated (e.g., Langens 2007). Therefore, comprehensively studying workplace well-being should involve a balanced assessment of implicit and explicit motives. The importance of Balance Among Levels of Consciousness comes into sharp relief when one recognizes that conscious and unconscious processes can operate in tandem. Greenwald and Banaji (2017) suggest three ways in which conscious and unconscious cognition may interact: 1) high-level unconscious cognition can guide thought and action, 2) unconscious and conscious cognition can operate in parallel but separately, and 3) unconscious cognition can operate prior to conscious attention. Similarly, Bing et al. (2007) suggest that the interaction between implicit and explicit measures is likely to involve either co-action, mediation, moderation, or interactive curvilinearity depending on the constructs in question. As an example of moderation, Zhang et al. (2020) found that the relationship between explicit self-esteem and life satisfaction was significantly positive only for individuals with high implicit self-esteem. It is for reasons exemplified by this study that some scholars have suggested integrating implicit and explicit measures for organizational tasks such as personnel selection (Bing et al. 2007). It is equally advisable to integrate implicit and explicit measures for an improved understanding of workplace well-being.

Mindfulness research and practice offers an opportunity to consider balance among all three levels of consciousness (see Choi et al. 2020). Recall that mindfulness involves “reperceiving” – a meta-conscious awareness of the contents of consciousness that allows people to interrupt automatic thoughts. However, as noted above, people can misconstrue their (pre)conscious experiences. More research is needed on the veracity of meta-conscious insight and the well-being implications of various levels of accuracy and coherence. Additionally, much, if not most, unconscious processing is useful and adaptive. It remains unclear, therefore, what role mindfulness might play in potentially undermining adaptive unconscious processes that support well-being. Research on whether and how mindfulness influences unconscious processes themselves would also be valuable

Research on workplace well-being focuses disproportionately on conscious experience. Balance Among Levels of Consciousness suggests that a better understanding on the nature, antecedents, and outcomes of workplace well-being can be achieved by balancing the current emphasis on conscious experience with an attendant focus on other levels of consciousness.


Early workplace well-being initiatives involved wellness programs that focused on preventing disease as opposed to promoting health. The turn towards positive organizational studies involved a change in this deficiency-oriented approach by introducing a focus on health promotion and a broader definition of workplace well-being. However, instead of promoting a more balanced perspective, the “positive” movement has contributed to the pendulum swinging to the other extreme, resulting in a number of criticisms being leveled against positive organizational studies and limiting the investigation and application of workplace well-being.

In the present chapter, The Balance Framework was presented as a way to address many of the criticisms and provide a more effective way to conceptualize theory, research, and practice on workplace well-being. Balance as Tempered View addresses the criticism that ostensibly positive phenomena can have negative qualities. Balance as Mid-Range speaks to the criticism that employees can experience an excess of positive qualities. Balance as Complementarity resolves the criticism that workplace well-being focuses exclusively on positive characteristics. Balance as Contextual Sensitivity addresses the criticism that context, including culture, must be taken into account when understanding workplace well-being. And Balance Among Levels of Consciousness addresses that fact that research on workplace well-being has been limited to conscious experience. The Balance Framework thus offers a comprehensive way to consider workplace well-being, move past the narrow connotations of the term “positive,” and appreciate workplace well-being in a way that is more faithful to lived experience.

Additionally, in this chapter, an attempt was made to bring some coherence to the plethora of constructs that characterize workplace well-being by introducing the The Movement Model of Workplace Well-Being. The model amalgamates the various constructs and supplements The Balance Framework by demonstrating how they inform Balance as Complementarity and Balance as Contextual Sensitivity. The model represents an initial effort to not only assemble well-being constructs in a meaningful fashion but also elucidate how they can be considered as individual aspects of a more comprehensive perspective of workplace well-being. It is hoped that The Balance Framework and The Movement Model of Workplace Well-Being will both stimulate novel research questions and theory-building.

A Balanced Approach to Theory and Research

Investigations of workplace well-being would benefit from a more balanced approach to theory and research. At minimum, this balance should include longitudinal in addition to cross-sectional research, a consideration of workplace well-being at different levels of analysis, and integrative theoretical perspectives.

Balance Among Research Designs. Most research on workplace well-being is cross-sectional. Research on this topic would benefit from more longitudinal studies for a number of reasons. First, self-assessments of well-being differ depending on whether they represent overall judgments or ongoing ratings. Newman et al. (2020) compared a variety of measures of well-being assessed as global evaluations or aggregated daily reports and found global reports to be significantly higher. The authors concluded that when providing global evaluations, individuals do not accurately replay their life experiences. Thus, longitudinal research conducted with ongoing ratings may provide more reliable reflections of average levels of well-being at work.

Second, longitudinal designs can reveal longer-term effects that are masked in short-term cross-sectional research. For instance, the pursuit of self-esteem can produce short-term benefits but have longer-term costs, such as a failure to satisfy basic needs (Crocker and Park 2004). It is important to map the potential paths associated with the experiences and outcomes of workplace well-being over time. Shmotkin (2005) outlines a number of subjective well-being trajectories such as ascending, descending, curvilinear, and fluctuating. Similarly, Saks and Gruman (2018) present five patterns of engagement that can occur over the course of a year when newcomers join an organization. Greater insight into the time-course effects of positive constructs and their effects would go a long way towards delineating the dynamics of workplace well-being.

Third, longitudinal designs that examine intraindividual variation can generate results that are different from between-person designs. For example, in their investigation of the relationship between self-efficacy and performance, Vancouver et al. (2001) observed the expected positive association in between-person analyses, but an examination of this relationship within individuals over time revealed a negative relationship. Thus, longitudinal research that examines within-person effects can shed light on dynamics that are masked between persons. In line with a balanced view, Ilies et al. (2015) suggest that employee well-being should be considered from both a between-individual perspective and an intraindividual perspective and that the two approaches can complement each other.

Balance Among Levels of Analysis. Workplace well-being is typically conceived at the individual level (Oades and Dulagil 2016). However, as suggested in the section on Balance as Contextual Sensitivity, the work environment can promote or hinder well-being. It is worthwhile to ask about the extent to which individual well-being is supported in organizational contexts that are more or less “well.” Along these lines, Oades and Dulagil (2016) suggest that workplace well-being can be considered at the individual, group, and organizational levels and that there is a reciprocal relationship among them. Fisher (2010) notes that little is known about the causes and consequences of shared happiness at the group, unit, or organizational level. Wright et al. (2017) suggests that future research on workplace well-being should consider expanding the level of analysis from the individual to the team, organizational, and even societal levels. In a similar fashion, Bright et al. (2014) suggest that virtue should be investigated more rigorously at the organization level. They wonder: “Can an organization really be virtuous or ethical, and if so what do these macrolevel constructs look like relative to the more familiar micro ones?” (p. 454).

A more balanced approach to theory and research would consider well-being at multiple levels of analysis. Examples of such efforts include Barrick et al.’s (2015) investigation of collective organizational engagement and Salanova et al.’s (2012) model of healthy and resilient organization. More work in this area with an emphasis on cross-level effects is warranted.

Balanced Theoretical Perspectives. As noted earlier, Fineman (2006) argues that research on positive functioning in organizations is inconsistent with contemporary critical perspectives that focus on the construction of social reality. Although it is certainly the case that much of social reality is constructed, that construction is not arbitrary or absolute. Human beings have inherited an evolutionarily derived mental architecture that circumscribes their perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and ultimately the constructions they formulate. For example, babies are born with pre-existing cognitive, emotional, and behavioral tendencies (Bergesen 2004). Similarly, although there is variation in the expression of emotions across cultures, basic emotional experience is universal (Cordaro et al. 2018). Critical perspectives provide valuable lenses through which to consider workplace phenomena; however, like all lenses, they are limited (Gruman and Saks 2019). A more balanced way to conceptualize research on workplace well-being is through the lens of Constrained Construction, which acknowledges that social constructions do not have unlimited degrees of freedom. The study of workplace well-being conducted through the lens of constrained construction explores the parameters of constructions and the malleability of those parameters in an effort to understand the dynamics and boundaries of flourishing at work. As Peterson (2012) suggests, there are universal capacities underlying the conditions of social life, but the representation of these capacities can vary, and it is useful to understand this variation. Constrained construction helps to integrate nativist and constructionist approaches to the philosophy of social science, resolve the unnecessary friction between the two, and further advance research on workplace well-being.


A balanced approach to conceptualizing workplace well-being addresses many of the criticisms leveled against positive organizational studies and helps to advance the field. It is hoped that researchers and practitioners will consider The Movement Model of Workplace Well-Being and The Balance Framework as valuable tools for considering the nature of workplace well-being that serve to support thriving employees in flourishing organizations.



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© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Gordon S. Lang School of Business and EconomicsUniversity of GuelphGuelphCanada
  2. 2.Ted Rogers School of BusinessRyerson UniversityTorontoCanada

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