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Staff wellbeing is key to social enterprise success

Dr Wee Chan Au, Lecturer in Management Practice, explores the realities for staff working in social enterprises who often feel unfulfilled despite their dedication.

1 September 2023

Our latest research explores the realities for staff working in social enterprises who often feel unfulfilled despite their dedication. We explore their subjective experiences which can leave them questioning the impact of their work and explore how better understanding wellbeing can support staff retention as well as the organisation’s goals.

Most people go to work with the intention of improving the organisation that employs them. However, new research has revealed staff who work in social enterprises feel unfulfilled even though they’re trying their best to have a positive effect on the organisation and the world around them.

Desire to make a difference

Our study, conducted in collaboration with King’s College London, UK and Citrine Capital in Selangor, Malaysia, shows that individuals start and join social enterprises to achieve some social good, but may not subjectively experience their work as impactful. It analyses how they question the effectiveness of their work and how they engage in sensemaking practices to feel a sense of achievement.

The findings highlight the importance of staff wellbeing in social enterprises. They raise the question of whether these organisations can achieve their goals if they have difficulty in recruiting and retaining satisfied workers.

One of the authors of the report, Dr Wee Chan Au, a lecturer in Management Practice at Newcastle University Business School, says: “Social enterprises are businesses that are established to tackle social problems, improve communities, provide access to employment and training, or to help the environment. In essence, they exist to achieve social, environmental or community benefits.

“However, a lot of people get excited about the idea of working for a social enterprise, but end up disappointed. They don’t experience the positive vibes that they wanted to feel when they first joined the organisation. Against this background, we wanted to explore how members of social enterprises maintain their subjective experiences of impactful work.”

Refocusing research into social enterprises

Dr Au explains: “Most existing research on social enterprises has focused on the workings of the organisation itself. Our research focuses more on the people behind it and the sense of meaningfulness and fulfilment they get from working there."

There have been many examples of how to build a good social enterprise model, but less emphasis on the importance of staff wellbeing. Nobody has educated staff on how to take care of themselves and that’s what our research is trying to highlight.

Dr Wee Chan Au

Dr Au’s research investigates the experiences of staff in two Malaysian social enterprises: one that’s trying to combat climate change and another that’s tackling the refugee crisis.

Staff impact in doubt

The research explored the experiences of people who work in these social enterprises via a series of structured interviews (77 in total). The findings show they questioned the impact of their work when experiencing ambiguity, when they didn’t receive cues that confirmed they were having a positive impact.

They also reported a discrepancy between anticipated and experienced impact, caused by receiving cues confirming they were having a negative effect or not having a positive impact. In other words, the research participants thought their work was having less of an effect than they had originally anticipated.

The research goes on to uncover two ways in which staff made sense of the impact of their work. Sometimes they internalised their work to address ambiguity; on other occasions, they engaged in the act of compensating to tackle discrepancy.

Dr Au explains: “When individuals perceived impact as invisible or slow to manifest, they internalised to create a feeling that their work was still worthwhile.

“To give an example of this, some of the interviewees encouraged themselves to accept that it takes time for their work to have a useful impact and for the organisation to achieve social good. Another interviewee said that just because she couldn’t see the impact she was having, this didn’t mean she wasn’t helping the organisation to make a positive difference.

“The practice of compensating to tackle discrepancy requires the creation of new interpretations that highlight how staff are having broader impact beyond the walls of the organisation. This could involve the pursuit of novel activities to support a wider range of beneficiaries, for example.

“Some interviewees said that their work’s effect on refugees was only one aspect of how they could make a difference; they acknowledged that supporting one another also brought benefits even though that wasn’t the primary aim of the organisation. Another said that educating family members about refugees was an alternative way to feel that their work is impactful in increasing awareness about the refugee crisis.”

Implications for social enterprises

The findings have serious implications for social enterprises and the staff who work within them.

Dr Au says: “Founders of social enterprises need to understand and acknowledge the wellbeing of their workforce. Staff go through a lot of emotional labour when working for this type of organisation; dealing with underprivileged people and hardship can take its toll emotionally. Some staff are not equipped to deal with this, so perhaps more wellbeing training is needed for social enterprise workforces.

“Poor mental health also has an adverse effect on the organisation itself. It’s difficult to run a sustainable business if staff are unhappy. This can lead to a high staff turnover and it then takes time to train new workers to get them up to speed with the aims and mission of the organisation. Many social enterprises have limited resources and don’t have much time to train new recruits to the required standard. 

“Our research also shows that staff can help themselves by using different tactics to remain motivated, such as visiting the beneficiaries of their work, educating others about their work or acknowledging that even small tasks contribute to the wider aims of the organisation.”


by Dr Wee Chan Au - Lecturer in Management Practice, Newcastle University Business School


Article originally published in Reach magazine, September 2023