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Employee wellness vs. employee well-being: The differences

The terms 'employee wellness' and 'employee well-being' are sometimes used interchangeably, but many consider them to be different. Here's what you should know.

Healthy employees are likely to have lower healthcare costs, they are out sick less frequently and they are likely to have better morale, to name just a few benefits. However, COVID-19 and its effects have made helping employees get and stay healthy even more difficult than it was before.

Many business and HR leaders realize that employees need their help during this challenging time, and that it will cost the company if they don't help. If you are examining your own company's health-related efforts now, you need to understand the distinctions related to employee wellness vs. employee well-being, and how terminology might contribute or harm your program.

While there is no ironclad universal agreement on exactly what each term means, common associations and connotations do emerge. Here's a look at each and why terminology might matter.

Employee wellness

Wellness is the state of good health. It has a definitive sound to it, and its extension to the workplace reflects that. In the realm of corporate wellness, employee wellness tends to focus only on physical health. In other words, employee wellness tends to be about getting fit, losing weight or improving other physical indicators.

Employee wellness programs tend to emphasize concepts like disease management or nutrition. Many wellness programs have a limited focus or consist of one-time endeavors such as health screenings. As a result, employees may see these programs as ineffective, duplicative of what they already know or simply inadequate to address any real issues, and in turn, ignore them.

There are clear advantages to helping employees get healthier. But it may be important to establish the terms related to those efforts.

As responsive businesses and HR departments recognized these issues, they've broadened the employee health-related focus to employee well-being.

Employee well-being

In comparison with wellness, many definitions of well-being are more holistic. Programs that focus on employee well-being tend to comprise an expanded view of health. Employee well-being encompasses physical, emotional and mental health, and is closely associated with happiness. Some programs that focus on well-being even include financial health in that mix. Professional development can also be part of well-being, too, since employees who are feeling valued at work are likely happier overall.

Many old-fashioned wellness initiatives happen on a single day, but well-being program events take place over a longer period of time. For example, an ongoing employee support group might be part of a well-being program. This reflects the program's emphasis on long-term health rather than quick fixes.

Employee well-being might include components as varied as a volunteering initiative, mental health programs and a flexible work policy.

Research is mounting to support the belief that well-being is important to productivity. Studies have found that workers who are doing well with each facet of well-being (physical, emotional and mental health) are more likely to be productive in the workplace.

Happiness, which is closely associated with well-being, also has close associations with productivity. A study conducted by the University of Oxford's Saïd Business School found happy workers are 13% more productive, while research conducted by the University of Warwick concluded happy workers are 12% more productive.

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