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Wellness vs. Well-Being: What’s the Difference?

The terms “wellness” and “well-being” are often used interchangeably. However, as the industry has evolved, we believe there are important distinctions to keep in mind when using them. In this blog, we define what wellness vs. well-being means to us, and share why employers should take a broader view of the whole person when implementing or enhancing well-being programs.

Employers should be well versed in the terms wellness vs. well-being. They’ve become staples within the industry to describe anything from good health to actual program options. But, they’re often used together so frequently—and sometimes inconsistently—that it can be challenging to keep them straight.

The varying definitions have led to uncertainty around how to use the terms in the proper context. Here’s what each word means to us—and why we think providing clarity between the two is important.

What is wellness?

The term wellness has been around for several decades and is the more traditional of the two terms. Depending on who you talk to, wellness takes on different meanings. Most tend to include at least a focus on good physical health—with some going a step further to include mental health.

At WebMD Health Services, we use wellness when referring to one specific aspect or dimension of overall health. For example, this could be physical wellness, emotional wellness or financial wellness. We also use wellness in more solutions-based references, such as wellness challenges or workplace wellness programs. To us, wellness focuses on one aspect of well-being. Each area of wellness thus adds up to the term well-being.

What is well-being?

Well-being has gained popularity as a term that goes beyond the traditional focus on physical health. When well-being is used, it generally accounts for the whole person, their lifestyle, or how external factors may affect their overall health.

To us, well-being means much more than getting enough exercise or how we are feeling physically. It’s about taking a holistic view and understanding how the dimensions of well-being—physical, emotional, social, clinical and financial—are intertwined and impact one another.

Think for a minute about the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic forced us to make big adjustments in a short amount of time which resulted in unprecedented challenges and stress. Navigating the blurring of home and work life, managing mental health, feeling socially isolated, and dealing with financial struggles were just some of the major stressors that impacted the health of millions of people. Because elements of our health are interconnected, it’s likely that a struggle in one area negatively impacted other areas of well-being. For example, financial stress has been known to affect mental health and can even make someone physically sick.

In sum, because of the broader net the term well-being casts, we feel it’s the most appropriate way to describe and recognize one’s overall health situation.

Why does it matter?

Increased usage of the term well-being isn’t surprising. After all, when it comes to well-being programs, we’ve stressed for years that a one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t work. There are five generations in today’s workforce, and employers need to constantly evolve to meet the varying needs of those in different life stages. The term well-being is also more personal, reflecting an increased focus on tailoring solutions to what employees need to thrive.

Employee attitudes and expectations are also changing. Wellness programs once viewed as nice-to-have are now considered more as need-to-have. There’s also greater recognition that managing one’s holistic well-being can’t be crammed into a few hours before or after the workday, especially for those who are caring for children or parents.

Employers need to be supportive of employees tending to their well-being during the workday. This includes everything from mental health support, financial wellness, physical wellness and more. Through a holistic approach, employees can receive the support they need to not only be more productive at work, but be happier and healthier overall.

And it’s not just recommended, it’s expected. Our recent study indicated that employees want—and need—more support from their employers in terms of well-being. Here are some highlights from the study:

  • More than 60% of respondents said their company hasn’t provided enough support to maintain good physical and mental health during the pandemic.
  • 48% said their company hasn’t provided enough support to maintain financial stability during the pandemic.
  • 70% think their employers should offer mental and emotional health programs.
  • 54% think their employers should offer caregiver support.40% think their employers should offer social connectedness within programs.

That’s where a robust well-being program can help.

What is a well-being program?

There’s no doubt today’s employees need more resources at their disposal. But too many employers create a program just to check a box. Oftentimes, they fail to meet the holistic expectations outlined above. This can be especially true for organizations with diverse employee populations.

To us, a robust well-being program uses the dimensions of well-being as a foundation and supports and reaches employees no matter where they are. Whether it’s eating healthier, addressing mental and emotional health or managing a health condition, programs should be agile enough to adapt on the fly but also provide a consistent and worthwhile participant experience.

We also believe that a well-being program should be an extension of your culture, and should evolve alongside your organization’s values and goals. This, in turn, allows programs to adapt to fit the needs and expectations that come as well-being is redefined over time. For example, in addition to our own five dimensions of well-being, we also support clients who include the following pillars in their programs:

  • Stewardship
  • Sustainability
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Social justice
  • Educational opportunities

These pillars not only fit what well-being programs hope to accomplish—empowering people to live healthier, happier lives—but also add more layers to what well-being means to the organization and the individuals they support.

Well-designed well-being programs offer holistic benefits that today’s employees are increasingly looking to employers to provide. Creating a well-being program that considers multiple aspects of well-being takes time, but employers who adapt and evolve their programs to meet changing needs will eventually see a difference in terms of improved productivity, better health outcomes, higher morale and lower healthcare costs.

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