The Rise of Workplace Wellness: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

open laptop next to rolled up yoga mat

It seems like everywhere you go you run into health-conscious folks. Whether it’s your coworker talking about the latest superfood craze, the seemingly always jogging neighbor on your block or your friend talking about their experimentation with mindfulness exercises, it’s easy to see how maintaining health is a priority for many. This prioritization of health has also led to the emergence of a new buzzword for employers across the country—workplace wellness.

Workplace wellness is no longer a concept limited to hip startups or Silicon Valley tech companies. In fact, these programs are growing so common and so popular that the corporate wellness market is projected to double in value by 2026.1 More and more, prospective employees consider workplace wellness options before accepting a job offer.

But what exactly is workplace wellness? Or even the vague, but often used, term “wellness” really about? In this article we will take a deeper look at the exciting and rapidly growing sector of workplace wellness programs and their unique ability to positively impact individuals and communities.

What is workplace wellness?

Workplace wellness programs include any initiatives to improve the physical and mental health of a company’s employees. This can take the form of wellness “challenges” such as meeting certain exercise goals, in-office mindfulness classes, or even the seemingly simple change to a vending machine stocked with healthy snacks. By providing these programs, companies hope to foster a community of happier, healthier employees who in turn are able to work more effectively in their positions.

“Generally speaking, employers put workplace wellness programs in place because it can save them money on their health insurance premiums,” explains Sara Routhier, author at Compare Life Insurance. “But the plans often benefit the employees more than their employers. I know this from firsthand experience—taking advantage of my employer’s wellness plan changed my life.”

What’s “wellness” got to do with it?

The term “wellness” has been around for quite a while, as it’s commonly believed to have entered into popular prominence in the 1960s with a book titled “High-Level Wellness” by Dr. Halbert L. Dunn. Dunn was interested in exploring what medicine could do beyond simply treating illness, injury and disability. Rather than thinking about how a patient could return to a basically healthy state after an illness, Dunn suggested doctors consider improving the health of already basically healthy people. Dunn changed the goal from treating sickness to achieving better-than-basic health, leading to a patient’s greater sense of “wellness.”

Though it took some time to catch on, “wellness” has now become a nearly ubiquitous term used everywhere from your local grocery store to your child’s classroom. The more we learn about proactive, or preventative medicine, the more we understand how strengthening the wellness of an individual or community has a massive impact on people’s ability to contribute to the workforce, support their families and live longer, healthier lives.

How is wellness related to the workplace?

Workplace wellness, sometimes called corporate wellness, takes this theory of preventative healthcare into a person’s professional life. Many working conditions put stress on people’s physical and mental health. Some jobs require arduous physical activity, while others keep employees working in the same position leading to issues such as chronic pain or health concerns around obesity. Fast paced and high stress jobs can contribute to poor mental health such as depression and anxiety, two of the leading causes for disability in America. 

Many health issues begin in the workplace and limit people’s ability to continue working. Workplace wellness programs were created with the hope that changing a workplace culture to foster employees’ mental and physical health would cut down later costs in insurance and hiring new workers after sick employees could no longer continue working. While that certainly sounds like a win-win for both employers and employees, it’s worth noting the results of these programs are mixed. Additionally, some workplace wellness programs have come under significant scrutiny for actually decreasing the health of employees by advocating crash dieting (an ineffective, destructive method of weight loss that can lead to eating disorders) or inappropriately asking employees to disclose sensitive medical information. Some have argued that workplace wellness programs offer merely a cosmetic fix to systemic health and safety issues.

While it is important to be thoughtful of ways workplace wellness programs can backfire, many times these programs allow individuals and communities to improve their health in meaningful and lasting ways.

Workplace wellness in action

So how can workplace wellness programs help? Consider these anecdotal experiences. Routhier says she struggled to sleep most of her life. For her, a good night’s sleep was between 4 to 5 hours and this chronic sleep deprivation left her exhausted and deeply impacted her immune system. Routhier tried several approaches to address this: changing her diet to cut out caffeine, over the counter medications, and numerous medical visits, all with no results. Finally, a doctor suggested the root problem might be anxiety. As part of a wellness package, her employer provided up to six months of mental health visits at no cost and with no referral or approval necessary.

“Thanks to a generous wellness benefit offered by my employer, I went from having lifelong health issues that impacted my ability to function on a day-to-day basis to getting at least 7 hours of sleep per night,” Routhier says. “Like magic, I became a healthy, functioning person again. Every single day I wake up thankful for the employee wellness program that gave me the ability to sleep at night.”

Many wellness programs help manage long standing medical issues while others address work-specific issues facing employees.

“I personally struggled with stress management and self-care from very early on in my career and suffered from severe burn out,” says Lauren Micchelli, a holistic nutrition consultant and career coach who frequently hosts onsite wellness workshops. “It’s important that college students know that stress is often regarded as ‘normal’ in a place of business. So normal, in fact, that people are wearing it as a badge of honor or lugging it around like a 100-pound weight. They’re glossing over the mind-body effects short and long term. Wellness in concept is gaining popularity but it is a slow mind shift.”

“Working in the digital marketing realm can sometimes equate to long hours and high-stress situations,” says Tricia Moceo, outreach coordinator at Executive Medicine of Texas. “Learning how to balance my diet as well as making health-conscious decisions has improved my focus at work, reduced stress, eliminated my longing to chase [energy drinks], and enhanced my overall quality of life.”

More innovations in the way we think about healthcare

Wellness programs in the workplace can help individuals shift unhealthy patterns of behavior that can lead to more fulfilling professional and private lives. These programs take a larger scale approach to changing health habits—but that style of approach isn’t limited to places of employment. Community health professionals seek to holistically address the needs of the areas they serve. If you’d like to learn more about this interesting healthcare niche, check out our article, “What Is Community Health and Why Is It Important?

1Transparency Market Research, Corporate Wellness Market: Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Tends and Forecast, 2018-2026 [accessed January, 2020] https://www.transparencymarketresearch.com/corporate-wellness-market.html

Anjali Stenquist

Anjali Stenquist is a content writer for Collegis Education who writes student focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She is passionate about helping students of all backgrounds navigate higher education.

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