Photo by Brett Jordan of scrabble pieces that spell

Wellness Privilege in the Workplace

By Yolonda P. Harrison

Each August, “National Wellness Month” activities are held to teach us the importance of self-care, creating healthy routines, and stress management.  During this time, some people work towards their self-care and stress-management goals by eating healthier food, working out more, and attending outdoor retreats.  While others do not have the financial means or time away from work to do so – underscoring the association between “wellness” and “privilege.”  Studies have shown that the majority of Americans do not have healthy lifestyle characteristics, making those who do, the holders of “wellness privilege.”

Whether for cultural, socioeconomic, or geographic reasons, the majority of Americans do not consume a healthy diet and live off of overprocessed foods.  “Food deserts” exist throughout the country – making healthier foods a dream rather than a reality for numerous BIPOC, urban, and working-class communities.  For many people, a lack of access to healthy food carries over to the workplace. Individuals who work grueling hours, who aren’t granted time off or even adequate breaks throughout the work day, and who do not have healthy food options near their job tend to live with unbalanced meals, a lack of exercise, and a plethora of stress that compound over time.  This increases instances of employee illness, injury, premature death and often results in poor job performance, absenteeism, presenteeism, or departure from an organization.   

Although wellness includes multiple components – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual, some people focus mainly on their physical wellness during National Wellness Month.  This focus includes everything from joining new fitness programs to obtaining pricey full body scans.  Interestingly enough, a great deal of wellness activities originate from BIPOC practices, especially those of Asian and Indigenous communities.  However, many of these practices (such as yoga, acupuncture, and meditation) have been appropriated, monetized, and offered in ways that block BIPOC and working-class folks’ participation.  In addition, the lack of diversity among wellness practitioners continues to be an issue that exposes BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and other underrepresented groups to bias, microaggressions, and discrimination within wellness spaces.

When we think of the mental, emotional, and spiritual components of wellness – privilege often lies with individuals who receive benefits and time away from work to attend therapy, counseling, and other forms of self-care.  According to data from the American Psychological Association, more than 80% of therapists are white, which often leads to BIPOC being less likely to seek out or stick with therapy.  There is even wellness privilege with regard to having access to nature, which has been shown to promote mental clarity, improve emotional wellbeing, and deepen spirituality – however, millions of Americans do not live or work within walking distance of green spaces or nature trails.   

Promoting wellness in the workplace requires more than emphasizing self-care each August.  It requires organizational leadership and employees who have wellness privilege to put in the work to shift their organization’s culture.  This means instituting (and requiring team leaders to follow) policies, procedures, and practices that:

  • Provide balanced workloads, adequate breaks, remote-work opportunities, and more paid time off to employees; 
  • Increase opportunities for professional growth and reduce micromanaging across all job roles/functions; 
  • Maintain green spaces, wellness activities, and healthier food options at/near your office(s); and
  • Prioritize having open conversations with and providing authentic support to employees throughout the year, especially employees who are underrepresented.

*Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash