The difference between wellness and wellbeing

difference between wellness and wellbeing
Or why your employee wellness programme provides no guarantee of improving wellbeing. It is like trying to solve a Rubik's cube with a cricket bat.
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A question mark is hanging over the modern workplace, around understanding what the post-COVID-19 workplace could look like and employees’ expectations of wellbeing. As people continue to work from home, I asked an essential question on Twitter. Do you know the difference between wellness and wellbeing?

the difference between wellness and wellbeing

35% of respondents said they did know the difference, with 65% saying they did not.

Because there are so many different definitions of wellbeing and wellness, it is easy to view them as the same, but in reality, they are not.

Appreciating the difference between wellness and wellbeing can make all the difference in growth, performance and engagement. 

Wellness refers to a state of physical health in which people have the energy and can do what they would like to do in life.

It is the act of practising daily habits to better physical and mental health outcomes – for example, nutrition, exercise, sleep and social connection. Each one of these has a significant impact on your physical and mental health.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) highlights the significance of wellness in its definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

Employers have realised that they can play a significant role in supporting the wellness of their employees. Your organisation likely has some wellness offers. In recent years, employers have also realised the importance of mental health as a positive wellness outcome. Mental Health support is appearing as part of the benefits package.

I think of wellness programmes as health promotion programmes. With a cynical view, you could argue that wellness programmes in organisations are insurance policies designed to lower the risk of low levels of wellness. Eat well, sleep well, get exercise and see people. If that doesn’t work, we will provide access to our Employee Assistance Programme.

And all of that relies on usage and advocacy rates, with literature reviews on the efficacy of wellness programmes showing mixed results. People first have to be aware of the programme and then use it. From there, the impact depends on the nuance and makeup of the offer, alongside the organisational culture.

Wellbeing is a much broader and more holistic concept than wellness.

In this respect, the New York Economics Foundation describes wellbeing as:

“how people feel and how they function, both on a personal and a social level, and how they evaluate their lives as a whole.” 

So as you can see, wellness is an integral part of overall wellbeing, although wellness is just one part of a thriving life – at home or work. Gallup research points to five elements of wellbeing:

  1. Career: You like what you do every day.
  2. Social: You have meaningful friendships in your life.
  3. Financial: You manage your money well.
  4. Physical: You have the energy to get things done.
  5. Community: You like where you live.

An example to bring all of this to life:

Consider someone who exercises every day and eats healthily. They practice mindfulness and see their friends regularly. They are thriving physically. Yet, they dread going to work. Their relationships at work are challenging and the culture is typically dominated by heavy workloads, poor management and little control. On the outside, they may appear well but suffering from low levels of wellbeing. This is why knowing the difference between wellness and wellbeing is important.

For employers, the impact of poor wellbeing goes way beyond insurance as it begins to impact engagement, productivity and growth. Research shows that the person in our example is:

  • much more likely to move to a different employer within twelve months
  • more likely to miss work due to ill health
  • provide negative feedback in engagement surveys
  • speak poorly of the employee experience

This is why just offering a wellness programme provides no guarantee of improving wellbeing.

In many organisations, wellbeing programmes are just rebadged health programmes with mindfulness and financial wellbeing added. It’s an easy, tangible option to demonstrate action – a step in the right direction.

But it is like trying to solve a Rubik's cube with a cricket bat.

Because wellbeing is more than wellness. It runs the risk of thinking that wellbeing is not related to the work itself, ignoring how culture relates to wellbeing. We are still thinking about how employees can change and how we can help them change rather than what needs to change in our culture.

There is very little focus given to how the job influences wellbeing.

The role of a responsible organisation. Do employers have a responsibility for wellbeing?

Yes. In reality, an employer has only a slight influence on wellness and a much more considerable influence over the workplace and its impact on wellbeing

Wellbeing is a personal issue and each individual has personal responsibility for both their wellness and wellbeing. Responsibilities can be further confused by the idea of “personal resilience“, which implies it sits with the individual. But proposing that personal resilience is all in the control of the individual is a myth. Personal resilience is not an opportunity for the employer to pass on responsibility. No amount of personal resilience can make up for a toxic culture. 

And the law is clear. All employers have a legal responsibility under the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure their employees’ health, safety and welfare at work. This includes minimising the risk of stress-related illness or injury to employees.

Bringing it all together: the difference between wellness and wellbeing.

  • Appreciating the difference between employee wellness and wellbeing can make all the difference in growth, performance and engagement.
  • Wellness refers to a state of physical health in which people have the energy and can do what they would like to do in life.
  • Wellbeing is a much broader and more holistic concept than wellness. 
  • In many organisations, wellbeing programmes are just rebadged health programmes with mindfulness and financial wellbeing added. It’s an easy, tangible option to demonstrate action – a step in the right direction
Four key questions you should ask:
  1. Can our strategy claim to cover a wide range of wellbeing issues, or is it limited to wellness?
  2. Can we clearly evidence that our current initiatives directly influence productivity, engagement and growth? 
  3. Do our initiatives put too much emphasis on our employees to change rather than the work and culture?
  4. Do we need to re-evaluate our wellbeing training programmes?
The above questions are a great starting point to ensuring your wellbeing initiatives are not just wellness initiatives in disguise.