The Tokyo Olympics has recently finished and one of the biggest stories of the Games was the decision of American gymnast Simone Biles to pull out of several events in order to, “put my mental health first.”
Biles was not the first athlete to prioritise mental health and her general wellness. Tennis player Naomi Osaka has pulled out of press conferences for the same reason, and England cricket fans will not be seeing Ben Stokes this summer, as he takes an indefinite break from the game to prioritise his mental health.
But the question of mental health and wellness is not just confined to sports stars. It can affect all of us and with attitudes to work changing significantly post-pandemic, an employer’s commitment to wellness can now be a key part of recruiting and retaining the best people.
So just what is “wellness?” And why has it suddenly become so important?
Let’s start with a definition. Broadly speaking, wellness is practising healthy habits every day to give you better physical and mental health.
Despite most people thinking that it is a relatively new term, we can go back two thousand years to the Roman poet Juvenal writing about a “healthy mind in a healthy body.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first mention of the specific term to 1654, when Sir Archibald Johnston wrote in his diary, albeit with a different spelling, “I blessed God… for my daughter’s wealnesse.”
The modern spelling quickly took over, and by the 1950s US physician Halbert L Dunn was lecturing in “high level wellness.”
It is, though, the pandemic that has highlighted the modern concept of wellness. It is well-documented that workers, especially Millennials and Generation Z, want different things from their working life. They want to work for companies that share their values and for employers who understand that it is not just about the pay packet.
So will workplaces and working conditions change to take account of wellness? Yes, is the simple answer, and it is going to mean more than a basket of fruit on Friday lunchtimes.
There was an interesting article in City AM last month, saying that workers will now look for evidence that their company is providing clean air in the same way that it provides clean water. Add in flexible working, working from home and the fact that many people no longer see prospects and promotion as their priorities, and wellness could lead to significant changes in all our workplaces.
“Mens sana in corpore sano” as Juvenal described it in the first century is going to mean that a company’s purpose and values will likely be as important as profits and prospects when they are looking to recruit. With that in mind, wellness could have a key role to play in the UK’s eventual recovery from the pandemic.