The History of Wellness at Work

Wellness has been a part of history for millennia. What can we learn from the past and where are we going next?

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Wellness, as a concept, has a long history across the world. In fact, it started in about 3000 BC with Ayurveda in India. This practice focused on the alignment of body, mind, and spirit. This is a sentiment that is still reflected in many yoga classes you might take today. While wellness might have been around for a while, it didn’t become globally popular until much more recently. And it wasn’t until then that wellness became a popular topic at work. So, where have we been and where are we going with workplace wellness? We are constantly talking about wellness at work, but we have never discussed its history. Let’s learn more!

The Early History of Workplace Wellness

The first wellness book to gain popularity was “High Level Wellness” by Halbert Dunn. This book discussed the importance of physical health and how it interacts with your environment, as a way of understanding total wellness. His book came out in 1959 and steadily gained popularity over the next 20 years or so. In the 1970s, John Travis wrote about 12 wellness areas, such as self-love and finding meaning in life, that were intended to allow individuals to measure their wellness. This popular framework also denoted that individuals can increase their wellness as they strive to achieve important goals. This set the stage for the links between goal achievement at work and improvements to overall wellness.

Also during the 1970s, Richard Nixon shifted the responsibility for healthcare from the government to businesses. As a result, workplaces started to worry more about cost containment for employee healthcare. The National Wellness Institute was founded in 1977, in response to growing interest in wellness. Companies also started to incorporate employee wellness into their values at this time as well. Johnson & Johnson started a groundbreaking program, called Live for Life in 1979. This program focused on fitness, nutrition, and stress management at work. It served as an example for other companies looking to incorporate wellness into their employees’ day to day experiences. Over the next two decades, more and more workplaces followed suit, adding workplace wellness programs to their company offerings as well.

The history of workplace wellness is long-standing.
The history of workplace wellness is long-standing. But, we can still do more to grow!

Where Are We Now?

Since Johnson & Johnson started their program over 40 years ago, the wellness industry has really gained steam. It is now a 4.5 trillion dollar industry, including money spent by organizations on wellness. Over a third of employers now offer full-blown wellness programs for employees, and more than half have some sort of health promotion program at work. More and more, employees are looking to their employers to provide wellness offerings, so it’s not just the right thing to do. It also helps you to attract the best and brightest talent!

The dimensions of wellness have been condensed to six, by the National Wellness Institute, including: emotional, spiritual, physical, social, intellectual, and occupational. Indeed, the Healthy People 2030 report, which has been released each decade since 2000, sets economic stability as a main area of wellness. So, workplaces have a big responsibility to provide good jobs, that support wellness across these areas. We have talked about the importance of thinking comprehensively about wellness before. There are so many resources to support your wellness now. Take advantage of them. They weren’t always so readily available!

History has given us a lot of different ways to think about wellness.
Historically, there have been many different ways of thinking about wellness. Which do you need to focus on more?

What Can We Learn from History?

Wellness has really increased in popularity over the years. But, what are the trends that we can learn from? First, it took a few trailblazers to really go out on a limb to invest in wellness early on. So, if you have the opportunity to adopt benefits that others don’t yet offer, try to take the chance! People might look back and remember you or your company as groundbreaking. Second, if you haven’t gotten on board with wellness at work yet, it isn’t too late. It’s better later than never. Start small in one of the six dimensions and then broaden out. Every little bit counts.

Finally, people initially got involved in wellness at work because they thought it would save them money. And sometimes it does! But, that’s not the real reason to invest in wellness. Companies have a real responsibility to provide work environments that support happy, healthy lives. If your company is producing tired, burnt out people, they can’t thrive in life. Think about how much human potential is wasted because workplaces aren’t concerned about wellness. If we learn anything from history, it’s that life is short! Whether or not companies focus on wellness matters to employees and to the communities they live in.

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