Is wellness a lifestyle, a luxury or a social media trend catering to the select few who can afford it? According to brands, it’s all three.
Green smoothies, spontaneous getaways and jade rollers have grown into “essentials” for those looking to boost their life. On TikTok, there’s the “that girl” routine urging women to wake up at 5am, do yoga, make an iced coffee and read a book. Over the past year, we have all become projects of self-care. We are all trying to become better versions of ourselves, whatever that may entail. That’s what brands have made note of and are using to their advantage. Brands are marketing products as necessary for an ideal life instead of just a nice addition. This has given rise to the wellness industrial complex.
But first, what is wellness?
The Global Wellness Institute defines wellness as “an active pursuit of activities, choices and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health”. Put simply, it’s about what you do, not what you buy. However, wellness recently has become about buying things that give one the feeling that they are life-changing. What’s more? People have bought into this line of thinking. After all, the global wellness market is valued at US$1.5 trillion.
What is the wellness industrial complex?
Wellness, in itself, is not bad. On the contrary, when done right, it enhances your life and health. However, the new brand of wellness is more about realizing and making up for a “lack” within ourselves. It makes you believe that a gua sha (a traditional Chinese healing practice using a tool to scrape a person’s skin to improve blood circulation) is a rite of passage; or that if you really love yourself, you will take yourself on a spontaneous vacay to the Maldives. Author Liza Kindred noted in a blog post, “While mindfulness (and yoga and meditation and its other many cousins) has real and evident benefits, they’re often wrapped in a superficial commercial culture that broadcasts a smug kind of judgment, superiority and shame to those ‘not in the club’.”
It comes as no surprise then that most wellness enthusiasts are high-income consumers. They follow social media brands and personalities that post aesthetically pleasing images of their lives. They track new product launches and look forward to the latest innovations in wellness—a bitter gourd juice cleanse, perhaps?
Marketing wellness as a commodity
“Vitamin companies are selling wellness. Mattress companies are selling wellness. Your work now has a wellness program,” writer Aubrey Gordon told New York Times. “It’s sort of seen as this uncontroversial way to talk about health.”
Wellness has become more about the fads than long-term health. In fact, almost 9 in 10 organizations across the world offer wellness benefits today (think: free kale salad bowls, complementary lunches and massages). However, these corporate wellness programs in companies are more of a competitive advantage than a genuinely transformational move. In fact, one study found that this only encourages the “already healthy” employees to take advantage of free goodies. The ones actually in need of mental health assistance don’t take up on these offers. Often, wellness products encourage consumerism and take away from the real purpose of wellness: improved health. What’s more? There is no evidence supporting that these wellness products actually work.
“Most of us have confidence that we understand these wellness issues, but we don’t realize that we’re literally just regurgitating things that we saw in a Nike commercial,” journalist Michael Hobbes said in an interview with the New York Times. According to him, many things under wellness are just “rebranded or misconstrued data” that a company sells us.
How organizations can prioritize real wellness
For one, encourage employees to have the “mental health” talk–depart from the performative wellness culture and provide mental health education. This will urge them to seek out emotional support beyond free kombucha. As per research, when leaders encourage employees to be vulnerable, they enhance trust among their workers. This helps boost worker performance and makes employees feel comfortable opening up about their challenges.
Secondly, invest in flexible workplace policies. Researchers found that when there is workplace flexibility, employees’ “performance and well-being thrive”. A flexible environment gives employees room to adapt to their circumstances—be it around “mental health or any other challenges”.
When it comes to wellness, brands and organizations must go beyond offering superficial things. The effective approach to wellness involves looking beneath the surface and providing real help.
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