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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 these terms mean to us, and share why employers should take a broader view of the whole person when adapting well-being programs—especially now that there are so many new factors that impact our health and well-being.

Employers should be well versed in the terms wellness and 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 on 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, 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. And each area of wellness 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 that resulted in unprecedented challenges and stress. Navigating the blurring of home and work life, managing mental health and dealing with financial struggles were only some of the major stressors that impacted the health of millions of people. And each stressor likely impacted other wellness areas. For example, financial stress could exacerbate mental health issues and even make someone physically sick. And so, these areas of wellness worked together to negatively affect their overall well-being.

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?

The expansion of the use of well-being isn’t exactly shocking. It seems more personal. And 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.

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

It’s an ongoing process—and more than just a number on a scale. As a result, focusing on well-being needs to occur 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.
  • 47% think their employers should offer pain medication 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 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 programs offer the benefits all types of populations are looking for. It takes time, but employers who can adapt and sustain engagement will ultimately achieve success in the long term. The potential benefits of improved productivity, better health outcomes, higher morale and lower healthcare costs are more than worth the wait.

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