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Wellbeing and wellness:
Why the distinction matters

It feels like we are experiencing a real period of health evolution, with so many brands talking about wellbeing and wellness, often interchangeably. However, it’s important to recognise the difference between those terms.

Although there are no fixed rules, it feels like we are starting to see some clarity and consistency on the difference between the two:

Wellness

Wellness is generally about exploring our physical health and taking steps to improve it. Typically this is more measurable, and there are plenty of wearable devices that are allowing people to do just that! A lot of the measurement is ‘progress focused’ – improving fitness, increasing stamina etc. As an ex-competitive triathlete, this was something I focused heavily on and interestingly, my wellbeing probably suffered at times as a consequence. This is where it becomes clear that wellness and wellbeing are not the same thing – and the two can actually be at odds with each other. So what is wellbeing?

Wellbeing

Wellbeing is a much broader concept – it’s a holistic view of how physical, emotional, social, clinical and financial factors intertwine in our ecosystem to affect how we live our lives. This is harder to actually measure in the moment, as it’s more about how we feel, how we show up – our level of resilience, our balance, our sense of purpose and our ability to cope. That intertwining bit is really important. Sometimes we can cope with an event quite well, sometimes the same event might floor us; this is because there are other factors, other than the event, that are impacting our wellbeing and therefore how we respond to the event.

The challenge, then, is we’re only aware of our wellbeing  when something isn’t quite right – there are plenty of measurements and data to reflect this. Stress-related sickness and absence is a big  issue: in the UK, the government believes that poor mental health is costing employers between £33bn  and £42bn a year, and the UK economy as much as £99bn per year.

The employer’s role in wellbeing

There is a lot of focus at the moment on the role of the employer when it comes to wellbeing – let’s take a moment to perhaps consider why:

  • Suddenly during Covid we were able to peer through the virtual window into people’s lives. Wellness and wellbeing became the focus of the entire world.
  • During this time, multiple dimensions of our wellbeing ecosystem disappeared, like our communities shrinking to one household, and financial security become less stable. Work therefore became the main focus for many people.
  • Technology is viewed as a benefit for wellbeing by some (enabling people to work flexibly and not go to the office everyday), but as the problem by others (we are never ‘off’).
  • The average worker sends and receives about 121 business emails a day, checking email once every six minutes – wasting about 23% of their time on unnecessary emails – and sends about 200 instant messages per week (probably staying logged in all day).
  • We have gone from being mainly workplace based to many working flexibly in just 3 years, and in that time changed the way we use technology and manage our workplaces. This is a level of change that normally takes decades, so it’s not surprising that it’s been a bit bumpy!

At times this is probably hard for employers. It can feel like they are responsible for a lot; their people are unique and have different needs, and meeting them can seem overwhelming. So how can this work?

What can employers do?

As an employer and leader of a business that supports clients – and an employee myself – here are my reflections…

Wellbeing is something that is shaped by the ‘ecosystem’ in which we exist – social, financial, career and community all contribute to this. An employer has a very important role in this ecosystem, but it also isn’t, and can’t be, solely responsible for an employee’s wellbeing.

So what could the role for the employer be? I see 3 parts to this:

1. Creating a workplace and culture that supports the wellbeing of all our team

This means making sure that toxic behaviour is not tolerated; being stressed isn’t a badge of honour; providing permission to take breaks and recharge – and role model this behaviour.

It involves regularly checking in with how your people are doing, and recognising that the needs of your new grads is different to the C-Suite. And if virtual and hybrid working is here to stay (which it’s safe to assume is the case), there are wider changes we need to make to support wellbeing. I don’t just mean cancelling the water cooler lease as no-one is using it; it’s about providing opportunities for people to make connections if they aren’t together physically by that water cooler.

This is a core role of the leaders in a business  – in the same way as we need to make sure we manage cash and profit, we also need to manage our workplace and culture. We need to invest in helping them get better at this.

2. Helping your people manage their own wellbeing

Enabling them to show up as themselves, be human and authentic, providing them with skills to build great relationships in the workplace that foster trust and respect. Learning and development is key to this; learning how to live and lead in a way that enables you and others to stay mentally, physically and spiritually well requires a deep understanding of our innate wellbeing, what underpins it, and how to take proactive action to nurture it in ourselves and others – recognising we are all unique and need different things to experience wellbeing.

And, our research showed that 96% of talent rated ‘opportunities for personal growth and progression’ as the best way an organisation can show they value you, so investing in your people not only supports their wellbeing, but also increases retention.

3. Where appropriate, support them to look after their wellness.

After all, this is a contributing factor to wellbeing, and there are some nudges and savings an employer can provide, for such as corporate healthcare schemes which often offer better value than personal ones. Some employees will change their wellness habits if given access to cheaper gym memberships, or see their colleagues participating in healthy activities.

There seems to be a lot of criticism of offering these benefits – I actually think they are valid, they provide cheaper access and encouragement to live a healthier life. That has to be a good thing, BUT it isn’t an alternative to providing a work environment that supports the wellbeing of everyone. You can’t allow a toxic environment, and then offset that with cheap gym access and a bowl of fruit.

If you want to know how wellbeing actually works – and how to achieve it, both personally and organisationally – you’re in luck. Join our event on 25th January where we’ll be doing exactly that.

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