What Is Workplace Wellness?

The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) defines the workplace wellness market as employer expenditures on programs, services, activities, and equipment aimed at improving their employees’ health and wellness. These expenditures typically seek to raise awareness, provide education, and offer incentives that encourage employees to adopt healthier lifestyles. Workplace wellness programs target a wide range of employee behaviors (e.g., lack of exercise, poor eating habits, smoking, lack of sleep) and risk factors (e.g., chronic illness, obesity, addiction, depression, stress).

Programs can encompass a variety of services, products, and platforms, including: health screening assessments; diagnostic testing; in-house amenities or subsidized memberships for fitness clubs and exercise classes; healthy food offerings at company cafeterias; wearable fitness trackers; health fairs, educational programming, and counseling services for wellness; incentives for participation in wellness activities; etc. While some companies may design and administer their own wellness programs, there is now a sizable industry of third-party service providers who can administer these programs for companies. Many private insurance companies also administer wellness programs for the companies whose employees they insure.

As the concept of workplace wellness matures, especially within larger, multinational corporations and in certain regions (North America, Europe), employers are increasingly recognizing that a compartmentalized, programmatic approach to employee health and well-being is not particularly effective, especially in addressing major challenges related to stress, burnout, work-life balance, and mental health. The sudden and dramatic shift to remote work during the pandemic has also challenged long-held assumptions about what wellness means in the work context. Some employers are beginning to adopt a more holistic approach that encompasses company culture, hierarchy, leadership style, workflow, built environment, and much more.

Very Few Workers Have Access to Workplace Wellness

GWI estimates that about 10% of the global workforce is covered by any kind of workplace wellness programs or services. Across the world, workplace wellness is still not a widespread concept, benefiting only a small slice of workers who mostly work for multinational corporations and in knowledge-intensive industries (e.g., finance, investment, consulting, IT, high-tech, higher education, creative industries, etc.), and those living in the world’s wealthiest countries and cities (e.g., North America and Europe).

Yet, work-related fatalities and injuries remain far too high around the world, and billions of workers do not have access to basic healthcare and essential medications, do not have a stable job, do not make a living wage, and work in fundamentally dangerous or unhealthy conditions. Even in wealthier countries, some of the greatest challenges for workforce health and well-being are related to living wages, availability of sick leave and maternity leave, childcare, access to healthcare, working conditions, and so on – things that are not addressed by typical workplace wellness programs.

Around the world, the “gig economy,” temporary employment, and contract work are on the rise, meaning that a growing portion of the workforce is in jobs with a lack of job security, irregular hours, unstable income, and other stressors. Globally, only one in four workers are in full-time positions with a permanent contract and job security. As we advance the conversation on wellness at work, we must not forget this “90%” and the importance of protecting them and enhancing their welfare.

Measuring Workplace Wellness:

GWI measures the size of the global workplace wellness industry by estimating the expenditures made by employers to improve employee wellness. Workplace wellness expenditures aim to raise awareness, provide education, and offer incentives that address specific health risk factors and behaviors (e.g., lack of exercise, poor eating habits, stress, obesity, smoking) and encourage employees to adopt healthier lifestyles. They include a wide variety of services, products and platforms, such as health screening assessments, diagnostic tests, incentive programs, wearable devices, counseling services, etc. They serve a wide range of needs, from exercise, healthy eating and sleep to chronic illness, obesity, addiction, depression and stress.

For more information:

  • GWI’s 2016 report The Future of Wellness at Work examines the current state of wellness in the global workforce, makes a case for the importance of wellness in the future of work, and provides a framework for actions that will help improve workforce health and unleash human potential.
  • GWI’s 2020 white paper Resetting the World With Wellness: Work, Health, and Dignity spotlights how the dangerous, unhealthy, inequitable and stressful work conditions that have been exposed by COVID-19 can spark a collective will for radical change, which is necessary to bring health and dignity back to our working lives and workplaces.
  • GWI’s workplace wellness figures are also updated and released every few years in the Global Wellness Economy Monitor. For the most recent data and research, see Wellness Economy Data Series
  • Additional information and resources are available through GWI’s Workplace Wellbeing Initiative.