Wellness is a big business. But what does wellness really mean?

As more organizations offer wellness programs, it’s worth considering what “wellness” actually means.
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Photo Illustration: Dianna “Mick ”McDougall; Sources: Getty Images/We Are, Morsa Images

· 6 min read

To alter a classic-rock song to more accurately reflect the mood of today’s pandemic-weary workforce: The workers are not all right. Since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, numerous surveys have shown that workers’ mental health has taken a nosedive.

How do companies address the plummeting mental health of a range of employees with differing needs: from frontline health care workers to corporate cubicle dwellers and C-suite executives? Could the appointment of a chief wellness officer help steer mental health initiatives to ensure that companies have happier, healthier workforces?

The answers to these questions may depend on what we mean by “wellness,” which for some companies falls outside of traditional mental health benefits.

When the wellness runs dry. Wellness is a nebulous and sticky term, according to Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist and a researcher at Australia’s University of Wollongong. “There’s no real definition of wellness,” he explained to HR Brew. “When you read about wellness in the news…it refers to some kind of vaguely scientific or pseudoscientific thing.”

Yet the wellness industry is vast—a McKinsey report last year estimated its total global value at $1.5 trillion, “with annual growth of 5%–10%”—and purveyors of wellness products and services hawk everything from crystals that promise cardiovascular health to purportedly miraculous weight-loss teas that can leave the body dehydrated and depleted.

The World Health Organization includes mental health in its definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Medical organizations throughout the U.S. were appointing chief wellness officers to provide burned-out medical staff with mental-health resources well before Covid slammed emergency rooms, and wellness consultants offer techniques and insights to workers in other industries.

Interviews with wellness chiefs in the medical field and wellness consultants in other industries suggest that any advice should be backed by science and never treated as a recipe for instant success. “It’s not a magic bullet,” Peter Bond, chief wellness officer at the consultancy Bond Wellness Company, explained to HR Brew.

Chief wellness what now? Jonathan Ripp, dean for well-being and resilience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, likened his job to that of a chief financial officer, only he’s worried about worker health rather than organizational finance. He told HR Brew that “there’s a moral imperative” to his job. “There’s a lot of folks suffering, suffering from burnout, suffering from mental health diagnoses within the health-care profession.”

Ripp says he uses employee survey data to inform his approach, and seeks to communicate “a clear message making the case” for any wellness offerings made to workers, which can include everything from “leadership training to promote wellness-centered leadership” to “resilience-skills workshops.” Ripp also contends that the practice of mindfulness “really can improve one’s resilience and can improve one’s well-being.”

Bond believes that today’s workforce is overwhelmed by an onslaught of “digital distractions.” In a workshop that he offers to clients, Bond teaches workers how to put down their phones to emphasize getting better sleep, and how that can go a long way to promote better productivity and wellbeing in the workplace.

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He’s had success when he gets to know workers on a personal level, he said. In one instance, he got a group of C-suite executives turned on to mindfulness by offering a workshop on mindfulness in golf.  This method was a success, Bond said, because it used “the idea of all these different PGA golfers who are using mindfulness to kind of get an edge on their competition.”

All well and good? Though some research has seen modest short-term improvements to health behaviors, the overall long term efficacy of wellness programs has been unclear at times. Writing in the Washington Post last year, researchers Katherine Baicker and Zirui Song explained that after comparing 25 workplaces with wellness programs to 135 that didn’t, there weren’t “any substantial effects on employment outcomes (such as fewer sick days), health-care spending, or objective health measures” for workers who participated in wellness initiatives over a three year period.

Nevertheless, employee well-being could become a primary metric for gauging employee success in the coming years, according to Gartner’s Seven Predictions for the Future of Total Rewards report, which anticipates that “business leaders will increasingly focus on well-being metrics as a leading indicator of their employees’ engagement, satisfaction, and productivity.”

And according to a 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 1,686 non-federal public and private employers, wellness programs are common, with “42% of small firms and 69% of large firms offer[ing] programs to help workers stop smoking or using tobacco, 44% of small firms and 63% of large firms offer[ing] programs to help workers lose weight, and 48% of small firms and 71% of large firms offer[ing] some other lifestyle or behavioral coaching program.”

Back to basics. Julie Wald, the founder and chief wellness officer of the wellness consultancy Golden, told HR Brew that she’s often tasked with advising workers on the basics, such as how to get more sleep and to eat healthier.

“I can’t tell you how many organizations we go into and when we pull the employee demographic, we learned that people are sleeping an average of four to five hours a night,” Wald said. “Or that they’re really overwhelmed and uneducated in terms of what they should be eating.”

Wald explained that she’s often helping workers who are “lost in the sea of…non-scientific rhetoric all over the internet, they have no idea how to feed their body for their actual needs,” whether they be “physical or mental."—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SammBlum on Twitter. For confidential conversations, ask Sam for his number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.