Workplace wellbeing programmes have increasingly become a central part of work and organisational life within a neoliberal economy, offering solutions to stressful working environments and the challenge of maintaining good physical and mental health.

A painting depicting two women in a yoga pose creating a 'W' shape. The women are dressed in swimming costumes and sat on a blue mat in a field with trees visible in the background.
Equilibrium by Benjamin Senior (2013)

But how is wellbeing to be appraised when organisational austerity measures and modern efficient management approaches lead to a lack of wellbeing?

What does it mean when a lecturer has to juggle a relentless workload which affects her mental and physical health, while at the same time receiving emails from HR about her wellness activity options: mindfulness, yoga, gym membership, and so on?

‘Wellbeing’ becomes an imposed free-market enterprise motivated by profit and productivity, rather than an essential part of a good life. The emphasis is on quick fixes that appeal to an instrumentalised notion of wellbeing, negating structural socio-economic inequality and shifting the onus of responsibility away from the employer on to the individual.

My project, Rethinking Wellbeing: Evaluating the Neoliberalisation of Wellbeing in the Workplace Using Artworks as a Critical Lens, examines how contemporary artists critique the obsession with performance and quantification within neoliberal organisations. It also evaluates how different aspects of neoliberalism have appropriated wellbeing, by demonstrating how art adds a much-needed complexity to the debate around Positive Psychology and self-optimisation in the workplace.

I am an artist and British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow based between Henley Business School and Reading School of Art. Part of the research programme includes pairing researchers between the two departments and delivering lectures and workshops on organisational wellbeing to undergraduates and postgraduates in both schools.

This interdisciplinary project aims to raise the stakes in how the free-market economisation of late capitalism in working life and society is evaluated ethically and politically. It is hoped that this interdisciplinary knowledge will encourage more direct engagement with contemporary art practice in business schools.

Critical to this and the research is the need to challenge consumer-centric models of work, organisation and value which have been prioritised under capitalist forms of business-society relations, where such relations have relied upon notions of ethics that prioritise market welfare, which instrumentalise wellbeing accordingly.

Simon Willems is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow based between Reading School of Art and Henley Business School.

A seminar day on Wellbeing and Corporate Wellness under Neoliberalism is taking place on 26 January 2023 at Henley Business School.