As the academic year gets into swing (after the campus-wide internet and database outages, of course), University of Michigan students have increasingly turned their attention to their class Canvas pages. Next time you log in, redirect your focus from your class tabs to the Canvas Well-being diagram. At the bottom of the Canvas toolbar lives a multicolored flower-shaped diagram with petals labeled “physical, emotional & mental, environmental, financial, social, intellectual, spiritual, and occupational.” This diagram serves as a perfect illustration of America’s flawed perception of wellness.
Wellness, as a concept, has emerged quite recently. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the word’s origin in the 1650s, but its modern context did not emerge until the Wellness Movement of the 1950s. Physician Halbert L. Dunn gained recognition as the father of the movement after he published “High-Level Wellness for Man and Society.” He drew a significant distinction between health and wellness: health refers only to the absence of illness, while wellness is the pursuit of higher-level functioning.
Recently, people have been taking their wellness more seriously. In the U.S. alone, 50% of people rank wellness as a top priority in their lives, marking a considerable increase from the 42% that said the same in 2020. Its rising popularity, though, has not only led to an increase in engagement but also provides more opportunities for misinterpretation and possible exploitation.
The corporate world has co-opted wellness. Instead of a liberatory concept, it now serves as just another tool in the toolbox to extract more value from individuals. Both academics and the general public are increasingly embracing aspects of wellness that appear to align with the material interests of the wealthy. One facet of well-being that stands out as a potentially deceptive means of promoting this economic agenda is occupational wellness.
The idea of occupational health was born to link succeeding in professional life with achieving well-being more broadly. On the surface, this connection appears reasonable. Recent data shows that wealthier people, on average, live up to a decade longer than their poorer counterparts. This wealth is often generated and maintained through employment, so it makes sense that medical professionals, practitioners and academics should push the idea that humans should strive to be well in their professional lives. However, professional life may not be as pure as it seems. Companies might be encouraging occupational wellness for selfish reasons, but, nonetheless, people striving for healthy and successful professional lives is a good thing.
Corporations enjoy greater profits if they have highly dedicated and motivated workers. By correlating wellness with professional success, they give their employees a more personal reason to serve the company diligently. This pushes an individual to work harder because they are trying to connect with their higher and “more well” selves. This intrinsic motivation is proven to be much more effective than extrinsic motivation, which workers typically lean on to do their jobs.
While corporations benefit from this view of wellness and the productive working class it creates, they aren’t always the institutions pushing this way of thinking. Educational institutions continually reinforce the importance of professional success above all else. Students are rewarded consistently for indicating to their teachers that they will be greatly productive members of the workforce. Scholarships, grants and exclusive business connections are all awarded to students who are the most productive and academically successful. Even small actions like including occupational wellness on the University’s Well-being Canvas page can covertly push the value of workplace success on students.
And, it makes sense why: Universities benefit from wealthy alumni with successful work lives. Princeton University currently holds the top spot for most alumni donations. These donations help keep Princeton at its No. 1 national university ranking, which continues a cyclic relationship between successful alumni, cash flow and prestige.
However, the emphasis on success in the workplace should not lead to the misconception that well-being itself is unimportant. Occupational wellness has taken precedence over the traditional concept. Pursuing wellness outside of the office is vital for a long and fulfilled life. Our approach, however, needs to be different. Wellness is a highly personal state of being; it can’t be quantified or compartmentalized the way the Canvas diagram and others like it would have you believe. To be content in your body and mind is to be healthy. The internal aspects of wellness, like contentment, are far more important than the external aspects of occupational wellness, like a promotion. Contentment is high-level functioning. Through contentment, individuals can successfully nurture their physical, mental and spiritual well-being, resulting in a 14% longer lifespan and a significantly enhanced quality of life compared to those who prioritize work.
Viewing wellness as achieving contentment in one’s life mitigates the damage one suffers in the workplace. Understanding well-being as an achievable measurement of professional success leads to burnout, increased stress and a shortened, less enjoyable life. Humans are not machines. Thus, professional achievements alone do not lead to wellness because humans crave spiritual and mental nourishment and connection, too.
You don’t have to be well-off to be well. Wellness is a way of achieving complete acceptance and peace surrounding one’s life. It is to go through life functioning at the highest capacity of human-ness and be content with this capacity. Occupational “wellness” cannot exist, because an occupation cannot lead someone to function at their highest level. One can only achieve this intrinsically by nurturing oneself — physically, mentally and spiritually. Occupational wellness should instead be regarded as a medium to nourish interests and values that can be found in the workplace, and not through the work and production itself. It’s time to reconsider and redefine the modern concept of wellness and end the modes by which institutions influence how it is perceived and accomplished. We need to supplant the modern, corporate definition of wellness with the original, Dunn version of wellness.
Rachelle Evans is an Opinion Columnist. She writes about the influence of healthcare and wellness on politics and American culture. She can be reached at email@example.com.