wellbeing versus wellness

Wellbeing and Wellness: There is a Difference

At first glance there may not appear to be any difference between the two words. Words like car and automobile or exercise and workout are nearly identical in meaning. However, wellbeing and wellness are more like exercise and spin-class or cat and tabby. The two are related but one has a narrower and more focused meaning.

Wellness is the most common of the two and refers to physical health. As workplace wellness began to take hold, the focus was on physical health with emphasis given to programs and activities such as health fairs, flu shots, walking challenges, biometric screenings, weight loss and tobacco cessation. Many of the awards given for healthy workplaces today still focus primarily on these types of wellness activities. Therefore, in its strictest definition, wellness is all about the health of the physical body.

Over the past few years, however, there has been a shift from wellness to wellbeing. While wellness focuses on physical health, wellbeing is a more holist approach to health. It includes physical health, but it encompasses much more.

“While wellness focuses on physical health, wellbeing is a more holist approach to health.”

Jack Curtis is the CEO and Founder of Corporate Health Partners and the Chair of the Leadership Committee for HERO, (Health Enhancement Research Organization). Curtis has seen the shift from Wellness to Wellbeing at a point blank range and says, “Wellbeing has continued to be the trend for several years.” He illustrated its growing prominence by stating how wellbeing is now embedded in HERO’s mission statement: “HERO is a national non-profit dedicated to identifying and sharing best practices in the field of workplace health and wellbeing (HWB) to improve the health and wellbeing of workers, their spouses, dependents and retirees.” Curtis states that HERO began embracing this shift in 2009 when Gallup announced a project focusing on wellbeing.

The most common of these “other” wellbeing initiatives is financial wellness. Alok Desphande, founder and CEO of the Atlanta based personal finance education company, SmartPath, and author of Fuel, knows how the stress of personal finance has a bearing on the productivity of employees. He writes, “Employers are starting to implement programs that go well beyond retirement savings to help employees get better at day-to-day financial management.” Understanding the connection between financial stress and productivity on the job, Desphande continues, “Employers are increasingly recognizing that finances have a huge impact on overall wellbeing — especially for the 75% of households living check to check.”

Yet, wellbeing is much more than financial wellness. Tom Rath and Jim Harter, in their book Wellbeing, share The Five Essential Elements of wellbeing, however, the array of possible wellbeing components can be even more extensive. Books, articles and lectures provide a boundless list of what makes up one’s wellbeing:

  • Physical wellbeing
  • Emotional wellbeing
  • Psychological wellbeing
  • Mental wellbeing
  • Intellectual wellbeing
  • Social wellbeing
  • Community wellbeing
  • Spiritual wellbeing
  • Financial wellbeing
  • Career wellbeing
  • Occupational wellbeing
  • Environmental wellbeing
  • Economic wellbeing

Wellbeing in the Workplace

Wellbeing is critical in the workplace for the same reasons wellness is critical. Healthy, fulfilled, energized and unencumbered employees are more likely to be engaged and productive. An employee may have stellar test results from their annual physical, but if they are dealing with an impending divorce or repeated calls from debt collectors, then they will not be at their best on the job. Similarly, if their skills and temperament are a mismatch with their role, (lacking career or occupational wellbeing), then it doesn’t matter how fast they can run a mile; Their lack of fulfillment on the job will prevent them from excelling in the workplace.

The growing trend toward wellbeing is one of the reasons why employers who once barely even mentioned their EAP at Open Enrollment, will now make it a priority in their employee communications. These employers are now providing training on stress management, giving their employees access to workplace chaplains on company time, and encouraging community involvement and volunteerism.

For more information on how to incorporate wellbeing into your business strategy, contact one of The Benefit Company’s employee benefits consultants today.


Jack W. Bruce

Jack W. Bruce, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is the Vice President, Strategic Operations for The Benefit Company in Atlanta, Georgia.

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