Individual Level Solutions vs Systemic Action for Wellbeing

After a couple of years in her current job, Chloe is finding that the workload is wearing her down. She knew it would be a high-pressure role, that’s the nature of the industry, but it’s still taking its toll. When she spoke to her line manager, she was directed towards some possible things that would help manage her stress more effectively. She started going to the gym regularly, and it has helped a little… but the workload hasn’t changed, so it’s not fixed the problem at hand. It’s still meeting after meeting, with little time to catch up on real work. Instead of being able to thrive and do her best work, Chloe feels like she’s drowning a little more each day.

Jonathan has a similar issue, but due to a chronic physical condition he feels like the gym isn’t an option for him. His partner suggested that he try mindfulness, and the company he works for has an app subscription to help with it. He’s been doing it for a few weeks, and he’s found little benefit so far. He knows that his team won’t take kindly to him bringing up his challenges with the current project, but he also knows that if he doesn’t do something he’ll either end up off sick or leaving the company under a cloud… which won’t fix anything because a large part of Jonathan’s worries are financial, not just the workload.

You’ve probably got people like Chloe and Jonathan in your organisation. Every organisation has. And in these scenarios it’s not that the leadership team doesn’t care about them, it’s just that they aren’t seeing the whole picture.

The wellbeing mistake

What’s the big error here?

All the interventions being suggested are i-frame, not s-frame.

In the area of public policy, these terms are common. The ‘i-frame’ refers to individual level factors and interventions, and the ‘s-frame’ refers to their systemic counterparts.

Examples of s-frame factors could include income, socioeconomic status, inequality and discrimination, food environment, education availability. Examples of i-frame factors could include bias, self interest, personal choices and behaviours.

A paper by Chater & Lowenstein, accepted for publication by Behavioural and Brain Sciences in 2022, details the change in belief of the authors when confronted with evidence that i-frame interventions are not as effective as was previously thought.

In the past, the authors of this paper heavily supported i-frame interventions at a public policy level, such as the use of ‘Nudge Theory’ to change behaviours around food consumption and exercise with regards to health outcomes such as coronary heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. They now believe that, if we look at these issues through a historical lens, we can clearly see that ‘the solution to individual frailty is to change the system, not to enhance the individual’.

It’s worth noting here that the ‘Nudge Theory’ of interventions that so many are fond of is actually based on very flimsy science. A meta-analysis from 2022 by Maier et al, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that, when publication bias was adjusted for, there was no evidence that ‘nudging’ had any effect at all.

The rationale behind the focus on i-frame at a policy level is the idea that the system is just ‘the way it is’, and we need to understand the way individual psychology interacts with the systemic factors to create potential issues (addiction, violence, health outcomes etc). That is to say the rules of the game are what they are, and we must focus on helping the players play the game better. The central idea is that individual actions are purely down to individual knowledge, cognition and self-control.

But Chater and Lowenstein reflect that ‘seeing individual cognitive limitations as the source of society’s problems is like seeing human physiological limitations as the key to the problems of malnutrition or lack of shelter’. Systemic interventions have been necessary throughout history to address systemic problems, so why are we now obsessed with putting the onus onto individuals? People can only make better decisions if they have better options available to them.

What does this mean for companies?

Wellbeing is now on the agenda for most organisations, and it seems that the focus is primarily on i-frame wellbeing solutions, such as seminars, workshops, gym memberships and similar. But is this the best approach?

If we take the historical lens of public policy and use it to view the typical business wellbeing strategy, we see that the focus on trying to change individual behaviours is probably not going to be as effective as we would like it to be. In many instances it also sparks conflict between those in leadership roles who see individual action as the answer, and those on the ‘factory floor’ who see those in leadership as being out-of-touch or shirking their duty-of-care. Any schism such as this one limits the effectiveness of a team, as it erodes trust between the workforce and the leadership team.

We know all too well that if stress isn’t managed effectively, it leads to injury and illness. Physical stress will eventually cause physical injury or illness. Mental stress will eventually cause psychological injury or mental illness. For companies, this can lead to huge haemorrhages of cash, but for individuals this can be catastrophic and life-changing. This is not a zero-sum game, where for one side to win the other has to lose. This is either win-win, or lose-lose.

In the West there is a cultural obsession with binary options. This is borne out (and perhaps even caused by) our approach to politics. We have left vs right, authoritarian vs libertarian, conservative vs progressive. Whichever way you slice a population, you get some kind of partisanship. This is extended into the workplace, with an ‘us and them’ attitude of leadership and worker. What’s that you say? Your organisation is different? Actually, if you’re in a position of leadership you might be surprised at how out of touch you are.

Whichever way you look at it, and however you think this culture has come about, without a combined approach, workplace stress will be less well-managed and individual and business outcomes will be stunted. Each person will have less of an opportunity to thrive, and the company as a whole will have higher costs and lower revenue.

What’s the answer?

So which option should we be looking at: s-frame interventions or i-frame?

The answer is the same as ‘would you like cream or ice cream with your dessert?’ - both.

Some of the factors affecting stress management (and therefore wellbeing) are i-frame, and others are s-frame. The key is knowing which are which, and addressing them with their respective solutions rather than assuming that individual education and support will fix everything.

Without systemic interventions, individual action is drastically limited in terms of effect. But without individual action, any changes at an organisational level will potentially go unnoticed and underutilised.

What does this look like in real terms? Here are three ideas to get you started:

Listen to your people.

For a start you need to open up some transparent lines of communication with your team, and then actively listen. You need to find out the particular sources of workplace stress for your people. It could be workload, physical environment, pay, management styles, colleague relationships… without knowing this first, you cannot begin to address the issues. Look for trends in particular departments or at particular levels in the business.

Educate your leaders.

Prioritise leadership training as much as workforce training, if not more. Senior leaders and team heads within the organisation have a duty of care to the people within their departments, and as such they need certain skills which non-leaders do not need. Their training is paramount to the success of the business, and if you’re too focused on bringing in Tony to do a yoga workshop for the entry-level workers, you’re distracting yourself from whether your managers have a good relationship with their people, and whether they understand their crucial role in organisational stress management.

Get help from outside.

Bring in a fresh set of eyes. Someone who isn’t tied into the existing politics of your organisation will be able to see things which you miss, and won’t be afraid to tell you the harsh truths around what you’re doing wrong (and what you’re doing well of course). Messages coming via a third party often tend to land more with your people, as it bypasses the trust issues which may have developed over time. You know, like how your kids listen to their friends’ parents more than they listen to you? We adults are exactly the same… just ask my wife.


On that third note, I happen to know a guy… if you want a fresh pair of eyes, and some insight into where you could nail your stress management strategy in order to propel your business forward, get in touch and let’s set up a quick chat to see if we jive. No hard sell, and if you don’t like me/my message/my puns then I’ll still leave you with some actionable insights 🚀


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