Most of us already know what we should do to improve our health and well-being: Eat better, move more, don’t smoke. So why do fewer than 3% of Americans put these basic behaviors into practice every day? Why don’t people just do the things that will make them healthier, even when their workplaces provide benefits like yoga classes and farm-share pickups?
It’s not just because Doritos taste better than broccoli. It’s because society by default favors the unhealthy choice.
While self-help books might insist that making the healthy choice is within reach if you just tweak your habits, a growing body of research suggests that the issue is more systemic. Our society produces an overabundance of processed foods, for example, and cultural norms favor sitting for long hours.
This issue is further complicated by societal inequities. For example, time in nature has been shown to generate both physical and mental benefits. But 100 million Americans don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of their home, according to the Trust for Public Land.
So adopting behaviors that improve health and well-being is much easier for some than others. In other words, some people have more wellness privilege than others. And with that privilege comes the opportunity to act as an ally to create more wellness privilege for all.
What Is Wellness Privilege?
Like any privilege, wellness privilege is an unearned benefit that some groups hold and others don’t. It refers not only to the physical aspects of well-being, but also to emotional, social, financial, professional, community, and other domains. You might have wellness privilege because your work permits taking breaks to exercise or rest during the day, because you can afford your medical insurance co-pays and deductibles, or because you have a short commute, to name just a few reasons. The more wellness privilege you have, the more likely you are to be flourishing in all respects, both at work and home.
Having wellness privilege can improve not only your health but also your professional growth—and the two directly impact one another. People who are struggling with health issues may find those struggles impact their work performance, and people who feel unseen, disrespected, or discriminated against at work often have higher levels of stress, which negatively affect overall health. Gallup research shows that the reverse is true as well: People who are thriving in their careers are more than twice as likely to be thriving in their lives overall.
Yes, everyone can take steps to improve their well-being to become their better selves, but let’s acknowledge that workplaces—and the extent to which we hold wellness privilege within them—play an essential role. For example, we’re more likely to take time off to rest and relax when our manager encourages us to do so. We’re more likely to feel valued when our team ensures everyone gets equal speaking time in meetings. We’re more likely to attend career-growing networking events when we feel welcome and safe.
Some organizations are more successful at fostering well-being overall than others. And if you take a close look at any organization, you’ll find that even within them some people hold more wellness privilege than others because of their seniority, organizational clout, or the team they work on—or because of their gender, race, age, health, or physical abilities. To put it another way, there are systems at play that make it easier for some people to access wellness privilege and more difficult for others to do the same, which limits their ability to thrive personally and professionally.
How Do We Create More Wellness Privilege for Everyone?
If you do hold wellness privilege, you’re in a great position to drive change. You can take action to create more wellness on your team or within your organization. This mindset is similar to what we see in the diversity and inclusion space, where allies use their privilege to create more inclusive workplaces. They speak up when they see non-inclusive behavior, and they advocate for systemic change so that everyone can thrive.
10 Ways You Might Have Wellness Privilege at Work—and How to Spread It Around
We created the 50 Ways You Might Have Wellness Privilege at Work assessment to raise awareness of how allies can create more well-being. Use it to help discern how much wellness privilege you have (or don’t have) at work. Then consider how you can act as an ally, whether you’re a manager or an individual contributor.
Here are 10 of the ways you might have wellness privilege at work, along with practical steps you can take to spread that privilege to others:
1. I Can Carve Out Time to Engage in Well-Being Activities During the Workday Without Organizational Repercussions
It’s a wellness privilege to be able to weave wellness activities into your workday, such as getting outside for some fresh air, using an onsite gym, or taking a break to stretch or even close your eyes.
Unless you work in an hourly job with predetermined breaks during your shift, be a role model for carving out time for your well-being. And do so loudly. Change your Slack status to, “Getting some fresh air.” Add a “walking one-on-one” to your public calendar. If you’re in the office, write, “On a mindfulness break; back in 10 minutes,” on a sticky note and leave it on your desk.
2. My Workplace Supports Time Off to Rest and Recover
Another wellness privilege is to work for an organization—or boss or leader—that values time off to recharge, including providing and encouraging the use of paid vacation days and discouraging after-hours emails and meetings outside of normal work hours.
Let’s face it. Many of us feel compelled to check email and respond to messages while we’re on vacation. The McKinsey/LeanIn 2021 Women in the Workplace report put a spotlight on the importance of setting boundaries, especially with the growth in flexible work arrangements. Unfortunately, their survey found that more than a third of employees (of all genders) feel like they need to be available for work 24/7.
So here’s another opportunity to be a role model for more well-being if you’re in a position of wellness privilege. Don’t reach out to colleagues who are on vacation. Unplug when you’re on a caregiving leave or just taking a day off. Reschedule any recurring early evening meetings to core working hours. And if you send emails late in the night because that's what works best for you, make it clear you don’t expect people to respond until the morning.
3. I Feel I’m Fairly Compensated for the Work I Do and for My Performance
If you’re worried that you’re being underpaid, chances are you’re going to feel stressed, which takes a toll on your physical health. Unfortunately, pay inequity is a well-documented phenomenon, with numerous studies revealing that women earn less than their male counterparts, and that women of color earn even less.
When Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff heard concerns in 2015 that his company was paying women less than men, he was initially in denial. Yet a company audit uncovered a statistical difference in pay between genders. Benioff admitted, “It was everywhere. It was through the whole company, every department, every division, every geography.” Over the next two years, Salesforce spent almost $6 million to close the gap.
If your company hasn’t already instituted a pay equity review, or hasn’t done one recently, there’s work to do. Do you have the power to make this happen for your team—or, better yet, for your department or business unit? Do it. If you don’t have that power, consider submitting a question about pay equity for an upcoming all-company meeting. Or advocate for sharing compensation information with colleagues (and set a personal example by doing it yourself).
4. I Can Afford to Join Out-of-Office Lunches or After-Work Social Activities
When you feel that you’re doing meaningful work as part of a team, you’ll be more engaged in your job, feel happier, and have lower levels of stress.
But when employees feel like they’re outsiders or don’t belong, they’re not set up for success. Without a healthy network of peers, they may never learn the unwritten rules for getting things done and they may miss out on career-growing opportunities. Ultimately, research shows, their performance and their health can suffer.
One way to build professional relationships is to spend time together outside of the office. But not everyone can afford to go out for lunch or after-work drinks, and not everyone has spare time to participate in weekend or nighttime social activities. Make sure your team plans a variety of activities, including some free options and some during work hours, to be inclusive of everyone.
5. I Feel a Sense of Control Over My Time at Work
Managers and leaders can create more of this wellness privilege by building in opportunities for self-direction. Give team members the tools they need to accomplish the task at hand. Offer professional development opportunities and then step back. Delegate work without micromanaging.
In turn, this process can build more trust within the team and research has shown that trust within a team is one of the biggest drivers of engagement with work.
6. I’m Confident That I Can Raise Concerns, Share Bad News, and Take Risks Without Fearing Retaliation or Damaging My Job Status
This wellness privilege builds on the concept of psychological safety: the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake or share bad news. It means you feel comfortable speaking up about inequities or other issues that need to be addressed. It helps you feel confident when you recommend a new, unproven approach, knowing that your manager will have your back.
Now reflect on your culture and how you might nurture more psychological safety for everyone. When someone raises a concern, do you adopt a learning mindset and get curious to hear their point of view? Do you ask for feedback on how you could improve, without getting defensive? If you hold debriefs or retrospectives after completing a project, are you focused on learning to get better versus blaming people for mistakes?
7. I Get Equal Speaking Time in Conversations and Meetings and I Feel Valued and Rarely Interrupted or Ignored
When you feel that your words matter and your colleagues respect your opinions, you’re more likely to be engaged in your day-to-day work and feel lower levels of stress.
Yet, talk to a woman, and she’ll tell you about a time (or two or 10) when she felt frustrated, if not downright dejected, in a meeting. Perhaps she was asked to take notes or get coffee, even though those aren’t her responsibilities. Perhaps she was talked over or ignored. Perhaps someone claimed credit for the idea she had proposed earlier.
Even if these things don’t happen to you, chances are they’re happening to others in your organization on a regular basis. Look out for them in the meetings you attend and adopt best practices so that everyone feels welcome and heard.
8. My Team and Manager Know When I’m Feeling Upset or Left Out and Reach Out to Check on Me
You’re more likely to be thriving when you feel connected to colleagues and manager, knowing that they care about you as a person. When you’re confident that your team will check in and support you on days you need them, you feel a stronger sense of community and well-being.
While none of us has a crystal ball that reveals how others are feeling, we can pay attention to slights and microaggressions happening around us. Reaching out after someone is left off a meeting invitation or was on the receiving end of an offensive comment, for example, will go a long way. First, let them know that you noticed what happened. Then, ask if they’re OK and if they want you to say or do something.
9. There Are Public Green Spaces That I Can Access During Breaks at Work
As noted above, nature heals, and it’s a wellness privilege to be able to access it during the workday. Being in nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it also contributes to your physical well-being by reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones.
Consider creating a map of local public green spaces near your office and sharing it with coworkers. Ask if a living vegetation wall can be installed in a quiet area of your building to create a green space that everyone can easily access. Even viewing scenes of nature helps—so if your workplace is virtual, encourage coworkers to share photos of their favorite outdoor spaces.
10. My Employer Provides Paid Time Off to Volunteer in My Community
Given research showing that doing good boosts health and well-being, it’s a privilege to be able to spend time on charitable causes that matter to you. Better yet is when your company gives you paid time off to volunteer in your community.
If your company provides this benefit, make sure you’re utilizing it. If not, offer to organize a simple option for coworkers to give back, such as a warm coat drive or a blood drive through the Red Cross. You can find more tips to start your company on the path to service here.
Now keep going. These 10 ideas are just the beginning in terms of how allies can help close the gap between those who have wellness privilege and those who don’t. As a next step, review our 50 Ways You Might Have Wellness Privilege at Work assessment and identify additional actions to achieve more wellness in your workplace—for yourself and for your colleagues.
This article was adapted from 50 Ways You Might Have Wellness Privilege at Work. Copyright Karen Catlin and Laura Putnam 2021. It has been republished here with permission.