The shift from wellness to well-being

Historically, the health care industry focused on wellness as a public health discipline, including health promotion and disease prevention. The research surrounding wellness included the behaviors and lifestyles that put people at premature risk of disease and death, such as smoking, inactivity, poor diet and stress.

While understanding how all these lifestyle factors contributed to our health was helpful, wellness wasn’t giving us the full picture. Today, we’re seeing a shift from what kills you sooner (wellness) to what helps you live longer (well-being).

Well-being is the research and the science of the lifestyle factors that put you at a greater likelihood of living a longer, happier life. It’s a holistic approach that focuses on the lifestyle factors as well as things like mindfulness, gratefulness and creativity. With well-being, the goal is to understand how these factors affect people in terms of social connection, physical environment and longevity.

The wellness approach vs. the well-being approach

In comparing wellness to well-being, it’s important to consider how both approach different lifestyle factors. Looking at something like activity, wellness focuses on things like aerobics and weight training, whereas well-being focuses on being consistent, outside and being social.

It’s the same with diet. Wellness focuses on managing calorie and carbohydrate intake. Well-being focuses on eating moderate portions with foods of different colors and types.

Well-being also focuses on areas not covered in the wellness approach, such as sleep. Today, we’re seeing more people focusing on getting a good night’s sleep than on weight loss.

Likewise, financial well-being is of great interest. If you’re stressed about making ends meet on a daily basis, you’re not thinking about diet and drinking enough water.

In short, well-being looks at every aspect that contributes to health, not just things like diet and exercise.

The five dimensions of well-being

In order to help people live longer, more fulfilling lives, well-being programs take into account five key dimensions of health:

  1. Physical — the ability to maintain a healthy quality of life and to have enough energy to accomplish daily activities without undue fatigue or physical stress
  2. Social — the ability to relate to and connect with other people in our world; having supportive, positive relationships and feelings of social belonging
  3. Financial — the ability to effectively manage your current and future economic life
  4. Community — having a feeling of connection and engagement with the area in which you live
  5. Mental — the presence of positive emotions and moods; the absence of negative emotions; the ability to cope effectively with life

These five dimensions work in unison to achieve well-being. Consider the following tips from these dimensions to help your employees ensure they’re doing everything they can to live a healthier, happier lifestyle:

  • Make getting enough sleep a priority
  • Be active outside when possible
  • Have a positive attitude. Be grateful
  • Eat well with moderate portions
  • Be mindful, stay in the moment
  • Be social and stay connected
  • Don’t use tobacco
  • Find ways to be creative
  • Take actions to be financially secure

The success of well-being programs

Optum and the National Business Group on Health surveyed more than 2,000 employees on the impact of the five dimensions of well-being. The research showed that the greater the number of dimensions addressed in their workplace, the higher the levels of reported overall well-being.1

Employees who report their employer addresses 4–5 dimensions of well-being compared to 0–3 dimensions are significantly more likely to2:

  • Have an excellent or very good impression of their employer (77% vs. 50%)
  • Report that their usual job performance is “excellent” over the past year or two (88% vs. 81%)
  • Be eNPS “promoters” — have high recommendation intent (57% vs. 33%)
  • Report excellent or very good overall well-being (58% vs. 42%)


Download the white paper to learn about the shift from wellness to well-being, including the five dimensions of health.

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About the author

SerxnerSeth - Full shotSeth Serxner, PhD, MPH
Chief Health Officer, Optum

Seth Serxner, a national expert on behavior change, program design and measurement, brings the breadth of his experience in academia, industry and consulting to his role as chief health officer at Optum.

His versatile skill set ensures processes and outcomes that improve health for clients in all markets. His deep knowledge of behavior change, population health and measurement allows him to visualize and deliver on program innovation.

He is a published author with over 25 years of experience in health and productivity management. He holds a master’s in public health and a doctorate from the University of California, where his research focused on health promotion and disease prevention in social ecology.


1 Optum/National Business Group on Health. Well-being and the employee experience study. 2018.
2 Ibid.

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