Defining Wellness for the Workplace

What is wellness? The answer continually varies. The word 'health' is defined as being free from disease and illness. Wellness widens that health intention with action. Wellness is ongoing and may result in building a sculpted body or maintaining your practice in meditation or yoga. It may even motivate you to create a wellness Instagram profile, which is a powerful tool to keep you accountable and inspirational for others to follow suit.

Staying well is a practice. It takes time, patience, audacity, mental will, and focus. We follow fitness enthusiasts because we understand that wellness will make our lives better. Past behavior has taught us that practicing wellness makes us feel better; we know that making certain shifts in our diet or lifestyle makes us feel more productive, even if just for a few days.

What will make this wellness shift consistent is being around people who are motivated by the same wellness kick. And the best place to find like-minded peers is in a workplace culture that advocates wellness. It’s not going to be a perfect journey to optimal wellness, but taking an honest, active approach is the right direction.

The wellness term is amazingly subjective and intuitive to each person. It allows an open discussion between HR and employee to explore what health and wellness means. The key to understanding and conceptualizing wellness traits is to structure them into manageable categories. According to Pan American Health Organization, (PAHO), “Wellness is defined as a dynamic process of becoming aware of and making conscious choices toward a more balanced and healthy lifestyle. It includes learning new life skills that address both the positive and negative aspects of human existence.” PAHO defines wellness into seven dimensions: SPECIES (Social, Physical, Emotional, Career, Intellectual, Environmental, Spiritual). (2) Companies who plan to invest in a wellness program should strive to implement each of these dimensions of wellness. It will make it easier for your company to perceive wellness on a spectrum and how each dimension of the spectrum builds on the other. For example, the social dimension is easily neglected in a company: usually if employees feel excluded, ignored, or feel they do not connect with their co-workers, their emotional and physical wellness will inevitably suffer, and they will likely leave. Employees usually stay in a company if they like the people, and a wellness program that fosters social wellness and camaraderie can make it easier to implement and nurture the other dimensions of wellness. Holistically, each part and system of the body can affect the whole; it’s the same with wellness. Healing one part of wellness creates a ripple to heal the other parts. On the other hand, it may be overwhelming to target all dimension of wellness; instead, self-assess and discover which areas need special attention.

Another way to define wellness is to compare it to the way general practitioners promote health to their patients. (1) says general practitioners capitalize on 'health promotion', and not wellness. Health promotion only scratches the surface of sustaining overall well-being. Wellness, comparable to self-actualization, is a journey–a lifelong process.

Our general practitioners have been our main source of health information. And a lot of us don’t question what our doctor prescribes or recommends. The patient can best curtail and prevent potential health risks by acknowledging that one part of wellness can impact another. It empowers the patient to take charge of his or own wellness.

The following companies defined 'wellness' in ways that correlated best to employee needs–reducing employee absenteeism, employee turnover, and raising employee engagement:

  • Harvard Business Review says: “In 2001 MD Anderson Cancer Center created a workers’ compensation and injury care unit within its employee health and well-being department, staffed by a physician and a nurse case manager. Within six years, lost work days declined by 80% and modified-duty days by 64%. Cost savings, calculated by multiplying the reduction in lost work days by average pay rates, totaled $1.5 million; workers’ comp insurance premiums declined by 50%.” (3) Onsite medical services such as these are extremely convenient and more personalized and tailored to the wellness program's bottom line. Potential hirers and present employees factor in this company's wellness culture for being robust and onsite. Employees will feel far more secure and safe in a work environment that cares about health and wellness.

  • Harvard Business Review says: The company Nelnet devised a plan that does not require mandatory employee participation. Nelnet “emphasizes early communication and clear explanations to give employees time to ask questions and prepare for change. Today employees embrace Nelnet’s wellness culture: 90% participate in health risk assessments (HRAs); about three quarters of those engage in wellness activities.” (3) Employee health assessments should not be mandatory; it should be an open choice. Like all things, people have to make the decision to change. If an employee sees that a coworker is participating in a wellness initiative, the employee may be motivated to try it too. Again, employees prefer to choose what wellness initiatives work for them–the company needs to listen and go from there.

A few traits of a successful wellness program, according to, is that it is indefinable, easy to implement, inclusive, adapts to corporate culture, and is made for employees. (4). You can see from these examples and Forbes' assessment that most of these traits are personable to the employee. HR should analyze what wellness tools are already relevant and accessible to the employee, and to bridge the gap between employee wellness and its role in the workplace.

Cited Sources:

(1) Page, Lauren. "What is a Wellness Program?" Resource-Center, June 2016.

(2) "What is Health and Wellness? The Seven Dimensions of Wellness." Caribbean Private Sector Response to Chronic Diseases, Health and Wellness Dept. 2007,

(3) Berry L. Leonard, Mirabito M. Ann, Baun B. Baun, "What’s the Hard Return on Employee Wellness Programs?" Financial Management, Harvard Business Review, Dec. 2010,

(4) Kohll, Alan, "8 Things You Need To Know About Employee Wellness Programs." Leadership, Forbes, Apr. 2016.


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