I’m sure you’ve noticed that the word “wellness” is growing stale and that the fresh new word is “wellbeing.” Some wellness vendors have completely switched to the new word; others are phasing it out.
To some degree, this is a natural cycle – a word becomes boring over time and a new buzzword takes its place.
The transition to the word wellbeing, though, represents a big shift. Let’s start with definitions.
The term wellness implies a goal of bending a company’s medical cost curve by helping employees develop healthier habits. Programs focus on walking, nutrition, smoking, and the like. Data is collected through yearly screenings and HRAs. Key metrics include blood pressure, glucose, and cholesterol.
The term wellbeing implies a focus on the health of the entire individual – their happiness, life satisfaction, sense of empowerment, love of work, and pursuit of meaning. You can imagine that the metrics for measuring wellbeing are quite different than traditional wellness. Blood pressure doesn’t directly measure most of those values.
Wellbeing is about optimizing your energy, attitudes, and emotions. Your human potential. A subjective experience of happiness and health, rather than your objective biometrics. I think of wellness as the physical aspect of wellbeing. Physical health is still important, but in the context of wellbeing, it is part of a broader, more complex web of factors.
Companies understandably want data and programs to help control healthcare costs, but blood pressure data and walking challenges are not sufficient, by themselves, for meeting that goal anyway. Wellness programs can be effective with intensive effort, but in practice, resources are often limited. There’s also the danger of alienating the workforce in the process, should you get too heavy-handed in your efforts.
Over the past couple of years, as the practical challenges of moving the needle have become more widely acknowledged, the wellness industry has stared at itself in the mirror and done some soul searching. Who I am?, the industry asked. What is my purpose?
Fortunately, the overall spirit of corporate wellness is good and well-meaning. Most of the people who get into employee wellness genuinely want to help people, not rip off companies with oversold services. Thus, the answer was staring the industry in the face the whole time.
By seeking to help employees feel good about themselves and enhance their lives on their own terms, without the “you’re overweight” guilt trip, wellness can become wellbeing.
But… why should companies care if an employee is happy? Why should they care if employees control stress… feel included and respected… love their work?
Simple. Most companies realize that happy, satisfied employees are far, far better for the health of the company than miserable, spiteful, resentful ones.
Not only that, but happy employees don’t leave, thus curbing the huge costs of turnover.
Furthermore, they refer others to the company as word gets out, helping recruit good talent.
Finally, boosting employee happiness and reducing their stress probably reduces your medical cost curve more than asking them to track how many times they went for a walk.
To put a fine point on this, keeping your employees happy is more productive to your business, and possibly better for healthcare costs too, than sticking them with needles to find out their cholesterol value.
Biometric tests have their role, when done right. That means following established screening guidelines and implementing robust processes for helping employees take the next steps toward diagnosis and care. Blood glucose can be useful, though I was never a big believer in corporate BMI testing, or even total cholesterol. Blood pressure is helpful but requires multiple readings over several time points. All that said, biometric testing and other traditional wellness programs are just part of an overall wellbeing approach. There are lots of exciting ideas to try, and the more that companies experiment, the faster we’ll hone in on what works.
Think about a manager who belittles an employee every day, gives unrealistic or changing deadlines, and never recognizes the employee’s effort. That employee is going to have a ton of additional stress in their life. Stress like that eats away at you and destroys your health in countless ways.
Manager training should be high on the list of any company that wants to boost an employee’s wellbeing and reduce stress.
Obviously, institutional change is a big deal. A few token efforts or tossing the employees some perks is not going to cause employee happiness. It’s all about the culture, and culture is the DNA of an organization.
You don’t just do a handful of wellness activities and suddenly you have yourself some new corporate DNA.
Those of us in the wellness industry have often said that a wellness initiative has to be supported by the top, by the executives, in order to make a difference. This is even more true of wellbeing. The only way for a “company” to care about its employees and actively seek ways to improve the employee’s lives is if the leadership actually cares.
If the leadership doesn’t care, or puts other priorities ahead of caring, the company has bigger, more institutional issues that need to be addressed first before it launches a walking program or health coaching.
To me, this has always been common sense. I am glad the wellness industry is shifting in this direction. Wellbeing is about the totality of the employee experience, so before you think about telling employees to “take the stairs instead of the elevator,” look at the biggest factors impacting their health and happiness. It might be management training or more flexible policies. Improve those areas and you will reap the dividends of a more supercharged workforce.
I was at the Limeade Engage conference yesterday, where Josh Breslin, a Deloitte analyst, talked about his concept of the Simply Irresistible Organization.
I love the phrase. It conjures up the notion of a company you would really love to work at, where you felt validated, rewarded, and spurred on to do great things by a team that values work-life balance.
Does such a thing exist? Yes, there are plenty of examples you could point to. And in the future, I hope there will be many more.
That possibility is exciting.
– Greg Juhn