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Employee wellbeing vs wellness: What’s the difference and why it matters

There is a crucial difference between employee wellbeing and wellness. If we don’t recognise this nuance we could spend big bucks on a superficial offering that offers little value. Be warned!

Working as an organisational wellbeing consultant over the last decade I have observed many shifts and trends in this industry. Some for better and some for worse.

The pandemic has increased the levels of health consciousness among the population, with people becoming more concerned about their levels of fitness, diet, sleep and other factors affecting physical and mental health.

The increasing mental health crisis, combined with the increasing cost of living, and inaccessible public healthcare calls for businesses to take more responsibility to look after their people.

As a result, we have seen a huge demand for organisational wellbeing services, resulting in nearly 25 per cent growth when compared to pre- and post-pandemic levels.

But here is the problem: the factors that shape health and wellbeing are incredibly complex and individual, making it difficult to cater for at scale. The result? The industry is full of superficial, tick-box initiatives and commercial talking-level solutions, that are not embedded strategically into the business.

These initiatives make little difference to individuals, as can be seen from low levels of engagement and a lack of clear impact measures.

We need to approach employee support with a strategic, long-term view, in a way that is measurable at both individual and company levels

Wellness versus wellbeing

Now, what does wellness or wellbeing have to do with this? Our inability to differentiate between the two make it difficult to choose the right services and providers, specifically matched to employee needs.

Very often I ask businesses about their wellbeing strategy, and they start telling me about all the perks and wellness benefits they have in place. But your yoga class, gym membership and mediation app is NOT the wellbeing strategy.

Wellness is all about self-care practices, habits and daily routines that can help to maintain your state of physical and mental health. This may include your fitness routine, diet, sleep, meditation practice, or spa weekend.

Wellbeing is much more than that. It is a state of being that includes how happy you are with your life, work relationships and, most importantly, with your own identity.

Wellbeing includes your levels of resilience, ability to cope with challenges and stresses, capacity for emotional regulation, balance between different areas of your life, sense of meaning and purpose, access to safety, opportunities and resources.

Wellness is an individual process (even if it’s shared with others), while wellbeing includes an ecosystemic view of social, economic and environmental factors that shape your health and happiness.

While both processes are closely linked, it is important to realise that gym membership won’t cure your depression, a yoga class won’t fix a toxic working environment, and no meditation app can get you out of an abusive relationship or end your financial struggles.

A safe and supportive environment … creates the right conditions for innovation and growth, ensuring long-term resilience of the business.

The importance of the environment

As a neuroscientist, I continue to study how the nervous system of individuals is shaped by their environment. I was curious why certain individuals can thrive and grow with challenges, while others struggle to cope in exactly the same environment.

In psychology research, too much emphasis is placed on our history, upbringing and genetics. But in reality, our levels of wellbeing and resilience changes with time and are much more strongly influenced by our current environment.

For example, we can place the strongest, the most resilient person from a privileged background under too much stress and pressure, and sooner or later they will burn out, or won’t be able to perform at their best. In contrast, we can place the most vulnerable individual with traumatic history into a supportive environment, and they will still thrive.

To make this happen, we need to prioritise wellbeing over wellness in organisations. If people are working in a toxic environment, if they are stressed and have no work-life balance, then a yoga class or a gift voucher will not solve the problem.

To make a difference, we need to approach employee support with a strategic, long-term view, in a way that is measurable at both individual and company levels.

But how to build a wellbeing strategy in the right way?


Start with WHY

At Elite Mind Academy we talk about doing the right things first, and only then focusing on doing things right. But what are the key areas to focus on that make the biggest impact?

First, we need to establish the ‘WHY’. Understanding the purpose of our wellbeing strategy will help define the right criteria for success. It is crucial that we don’t start building our interventions based on something that is trendy, what everyone else does, or something that simply makes us look good in our marketing campaigns.

What do we want to achieve through this? The wellbeing strategy is not a goal in itself, but the means to get to your strategic objectives, and the way to balance the needs of the business and individuals. Before we do anything else, we need to know what success looks like to all the stakeholders in our organisation, including the leadership team, employees, customers, and you personally.

Next, we need to assess employee needs. We need to truly understand what your people are struggling with and what support they need to make a difference in their wellbeing, performance and happiness levels.

We need to look at this relationship from different angles. On one hand, we need to understand how the workplace affects individual health and wellbeing. Does it support their happiness, maintain personal growth and improve performance? Or does it lead to stress, pressure, burnout, and not time for their personal life?

Wellbeing is a stable foundation on which we can build our wellness house.

On the other hand, we also need to consider specific experiences that your employees are facing in their personal lives and how those struggles impact on work performance.

Once we fully understand this relationship between employees and their working environment, we will be able to choose the right solutions to address those needs. This will also avoid unnecessary costs because we will be providing solutions that are valuable to our employees.

Finally, we need to ensure that we deliver those solutions in the right way. In order to do this, we need to have clear impact measures and feedback loops between individual and organisational levels of wellbeing and performance.

This way, we can monitor the change process and measure the results of our interventions. Those measures must include assessing the health of organisational culture, psychological safety, ways of working, communication strategy, leadership effectiveness, and support infrastructure, to understand what impact it has on the wellbeing of every employee in the organisation.

Measure the effectiveness of the process, not just outcomes and results.


Building our wellness house

In summary, the environment can make or break us, defining the effectiveness of daily habits and routines. Wellbeing is a stable foundation on which we can build our wellness house.

By ensuring that our environment supports people in the right way, we can improve retention, boost performance and productivity, build brand reputation and attract the right talent. Most importantly, a safe and supportive environment also creates the right conditions for innovation and growth, ensuring long-term resilience of the business.

Establishing employee needs and building the right strategy is no easy task. People are often reluctant to share their personal struggles at work and, in some cases, companies don’t want to know, because they don’t have the capacity, resources or knowledge to support people in the right way in order to address underlying concerns.


Take part in research

Thankfully, there are opportunities to receive this support and guidance as part of a government-funded research project. Eligible organisations can receive free support to assess employee needs, design wellbeing strategy, and establish a clear implementation roadmap. It also includes defining custom impact measures to track what matters to your business and your people. This research participation is an opportunity to shape the future of the organisational wellbeing industry at the level of national strategy and policy.

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