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What is Wellness and Why Do We Need a Wellness Program Definition?

What is wellness? There are more people working as wellness professionals than at any other time in history. Worksite wellness programs have never been more popular than they are today.

Worksite wellness programs started as a niche industry that mostly focused on executive fitness and eventually morphed into comprehensive programs that have become effective business strategies for worksites of all sizes.

Most people are too young to remember a time when the word “wellness” did not exist. Halbert Dunn is credited with first answering the question “what is wellness” when he coined the term “wellness” in 1961.

“Wellness, There’s a word you don’t hear every day.”

Dan Rather, 60 Minutes,  November 1979

Since that time, the use of the word “wellness” has exploded. A quick search under the registered trademarks of the United States shows that the word wellness is part of the trademark of 5,000+ companies. What is wellness indeed!

Today’s wellness professionals obtain certifications and university training designed to help those who oversee worksite wellness programs.

Most wellness professionals work in worksite wellness settings. For them, the word wellness is almost always used to describe employee wellness programs. Unfortunately employee wellness programs can be called by many different names, but all of them refer to worksite wellness programs of some form.

  • corporate wellness
  • worksite wellness
  • employee wellness
  • workplace wellness
  • corporate well-being
  • worksite well-being
  • employee well-being
  • workplace well-being
  • employee health and wellness
  • worksite health wellness
  • workplace health
  • corporate health
  • wellness initiatives
  • health wellness program
  • employee wellness plan
  • wellness strategies
  • wellness program for employees
  • workplace health programs
  • healthy workplace programs
  • workplace health promotion
  • employee health promotion
  • worksite health promotion

These terms are pretty easy to understand, however, once we start talking just about words like “wellness” and “well-being” thing get confusing very quickly. The purpose of this blog is to help clarify the different terms and make it easier for people to understand where worksite wellness ends and the wacky world of “what is wellness” begins.

As we discuss what is wellness and the related wellness program definition, we need to start with the basics. See the diagram below to help you understand where worksite wellness efforts begin and end. The diagram can also help you see how the words “wellness” and “well-being” have morphed into words that can mean just about anything.

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Frequently Asked Questions:

1. What is Employee Wellness?

An employee wellness program includes any activity designed to support better health at work and/or to improve health outcomes. These programs often include medical screenings, incentives, behavior change interventions, fitness programs, social support or competitions.

Many employee wellness programs include activities that also promote well-being. These might include resilience training, yoga, meditation, emotional and psychological well-being, stress management, and life satisfaction.

2. What is Well-Being?

Well-being is the experience of health, happiness, and prosperity. It includes having good mental health, high life satisfaction, and a sense of meaning or purpose. There is no consensus around a single definition, but in general well-being can be described as judging life positively and feeling good.

Some employee wellness programs, especially outside of the U.S., are called employee well-being programs. These programs share many of the same programming characteristics of employee wellness programs, but expand the scope of the program.  Outside of worksite settings however, the terms well-being and wellness have come to mean pretty much anything.

3. What is Wellness?

Traditionally, Wellness is an active process of becoming aware of and making choices toward a healthy and fulfilling life. Wellness is more than being free from illness, it is a dynamic process of change and growth. (W.H.O.)  Some definitions include different dimensions of wellness including physical, occupational, emotional, spiritual, environmental, financial, social, and intellectual.

Each dimension of wellness is interrelated with the others although few actually use the word wellness in this manner. Today, the word wellness generally refers to something related to good health, but even that definition has been altered.

Because the word “wellness” can mean just about anything, academics and government organizations refuse to even use the word.  They are horrified by the term and do not want to be associated with it.  To this day, the CDC hates the word “Wellness”

Instead of using terms like employee wellness, corporate wellness, or worksite wellness, the CDC and many universities instead say “worksite health promotion.”

The rest of the world understands what “worksite wellness” means.  If, however, you leave off the qualifying word, “worksite,”  the word “wellness” has been hijacked by retailers trying to sell more products. Maybe the CDC and some universities are correct to avoid the word wellness, but the meaning of employee wellness is clear to everyone.

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So What is Wellness? It’s the Wild, Wild West!

By the 1970’s, the word wellness had appeared in a few books but most had never heard of the word before. Wow, have things changed. Here is just a sampling of all the different products and services that now claim the word “wellness.”  Be sure to click on the links to see just how diverse and unrestrained the use of the word has become.

wellness –shoes
wellness –socks
wellness –medical equipment
wellness –adult diapers
wellness –bracelets
wellness –floor mats
wellness –cough syrup
wellness –chocolate
wellness –vaping supplies
wellness –marijuana products
wellness –beers
wellness –bacon
wellness –ice cream
wellness –doughnuts
wellness –tattoos

It is not just retail products that have discovered that including “wellness” in their product title can give a boost to sales. Hospitals, chiropractors, fitness centers, dentists, psychiatrists, physical therapists, and other heath practitioners frequently lay claim to the word “wellness.”

alternative medicine and therapies

Now you can even get alternative medicine and wellness therapies:

wellness – Colon Hydrotherapy
wellness – Probiotic Implants
wellness – Infrared Sauna Detoxification
wellness – Healing Touch Energy Solutions
wellness – RainDrop Essential Oil Sessions
wellness – Cranial Sacral Therapy
wellness – Lymphatic Cleansing Sessions
wellness – Holistic Nutrition Counseling
wellness – Guided Detoxification Cleanses
wellness – Thermography Imaging

and my personal favorite…

wellness – enemas  (Apparently, wellness enemas are the solution to most health problems.  This company promotes their home enema kit as a day-to-day wellness and recovery tool.) Okay, now I’ve seen everything!

Melaleuca is a multi-level marketing company (pyramid scheme with a product to sell) that sells anything from toilet bowl cleaners to vitamins and everything in-between. They have rebranded themselves as “The Wellness Company.”  They are proud to be “the largest online wellness shopping club,” whatever that means.

the wellness company

Veterinarians have  taken to the word “wellness” big time. Today, you don’t take your dog to the vet, you take your dog to the veterinarian wellness facility. While there, don’t forget your wellness pet food.

wellness pet food

Exotic tourist destinations used to market themselves as a resort and spa. Today, these are all wellness destinations.

Gwyneth Paltrow and her health and beauty company Goop want you to follow the The Beauty and Wellness Detox Guide.  You can even get a wellness swing, but if you buy one, be careful not to break your wellness neck!

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Collectively, all these wellness centers, retailers, and bloggers would say they ARE the wellness industry. And from a retail perspective they are probably correct. I suppose worksite wellness professional would also claim that they make up the worksite wellness industry.

As Worksite Wellness Professionals, Should We Care About the Wild, Wild, West of Wellness?

The unrestrained use of the word “wellness” speaks of the words utility and amazing staying power.  Can you think of any other word that is used in so many different ways and by so many different people?

Part of the reason for the success of the word “wellness” is because there is no standard definition. Basically, wellness can mean whatever you want it to mean.

The word “wellness” has become more like a seal of approval than an adjective. Any profession or product that connects to the word “wellness” suddenly gains a level of acceptance and endorsement recognized by anyone wanting to have a long, healthy life. The word “wellness” gives all products, good or bad, a hint of legitimacy, and that’s good for sales, even if you are peddling snake oil.

As someone who has spent my entire adult life in worksite wellness, I’m not at all threatened by the pervasive and perverted use of the word “wellness.”

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I’d be worried if wellness vendors offered unethical products or services under the guise of worksite wellness, or employee wellness. Just like every other industry under the sun, there are a few bad vendors in the worksite wellness space but these unscrupulous vendors don’t usually survive long.

Vendors like these, have staying power because they provide valuable services to employers of all sizes. Thankfully, most employee wellness programs that are well-designed produce tremendous benefits to both employees and employers. The success of these programs is one reason they are more popular than ever.

So What?

  1. A good wellness program definition is not as important as seeing an effective wellness program change lives.
  2. Legitimate worksite wellness professionals use qualifiers to distinguish ourselves from all other uses of the word wellness such as worksite wellness, corporate wellness, employee wellness, company wellness, etc.
  3. The word “wellness” now has so many variations and subcategories that there is likely less confusion now than there was a few decades ago.
  4. Businesses and worksites that are interested in improving employee health and in creating a worksite culture of health probably won’t be offering wellness enemas anytime soon.

What do you think?  Share your comments.

People Also Ask These Wellness Questions:


About The Author

Dr. Steve Aldana

Dr. Aldana is the CEO of Wellsteps, a worksite wellness solution that leads the nation in wellness program deployment and engagement. Dr. Aldana authored over 75 scientific papers and 7 books on health risk management, healthy living, and health promotion programs. He has given over 350 keynote speeches across the U.S. on the ability of good nutrition and regular exercise to prevent, arrest, and reverse many chronic diseases.

1 Comment

  1. I love that you talked about business wellness and employee wellness being directly tied together. My son is a new manager at his company and he wants to make sure his employees are happy. He thinks that implementing some things like a gym membership or some other health-related things will make his employees really productive.

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