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The Business Of Wellness: How to Rise Above the Hype for A More Inclusive and Impactful Future

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Nicole Kidman as Masha in Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers.

In a world still gripped by a pandemic, 21st century companies are under pressure to care for the wellbeing of people, community, and the planet. At the same time, everyone from Hollywood to The Wall Street Journal are talking about wellness, and not necessarily in a good way. How do we rise above the noise and drive business performance with a true systems approach to wellness and wellbeing moving forward?

I’ve been cringing A LOT lately. 

From Nicole Kidman’s entertaining role as a leader of a wellness retreat in Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers to appointments of celebrities as “wellbeing advisors” across industries, I find myself practicing four-part breathing, and I know that I’m not the only one.

We’re all still finding our way out of the most disruptive events in recent history, and for most, the titles on our business cards have taken a back seat to how we live, work, love, and yes, care for our own health and wellbeing. As consumers, we continue to be the driving force behind the now trillion-dollar wellness economy, freshly fueled by the pandemic, yet also often exploited by celebrities and self-proclaimed healers seeking box office hits and Instagram followers. It can be confusing and feel superficial. 

 “The business of self-care has taken the wellness lifestyle from the yeasty confines of health-food stores to glossy global brands. And to artists, it is ripe for skewering.”—Ellen Gamerman, The Wall Street Journal

What can get lost in the noise is the real power behind the business of wellness. For consumers, that’s prevention of everything from lifestyle disease to mental health conditions to toxic work environments. And when it comes to business performance, it’s increasingly clear that a well-executed wellness strategy not only stands to differentiate a company, product, or service, but it also stands to generate greater returns while positively impacting the wellbeing of people, community, and the planet.

Today, it’s worth noting that global wellness expenditures ($4.5 trillion) are more than half the size of global health expenditures ($7.8 trillion, based on data from the World Health Organization), and pandemic hiccups aside, I suspect they will continue to rise.

While some of us may have thought too small when the ambiguous term of “wellness” became part of our vernacular, there are others who continue to see its potential. That is, to extend the length and quality of our lives, reduce healthcare costs, and even mitigate environmental harm.

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So, have we lost our way with the business of wellness, and if so, how can we get back on course?

To answer these questions, and frankly, to pressure-test my own thinking and professional experiences, I’ve decided to dig into four segments of the global wellness economy: wellness tourism, wellness real estate, workplace wellness, and mental wellness to see how they have evolved. I will share what I believe to be the common thread that connects all of these sectors and suggest how we might future-proof the business of wellness moving forward.

Wellness Tourism: From Generic Travel to Niche Travel That’s Nearly Twice as Valuable

Easily my favorite category of all, wellness tourism is also one of the fastest growing. In the years leading up to the pandemic, wellness travel was growing twice as fast as global tourism worldwide, and wellness tourists (travelers interested in maintaining or enhancing their personal wellbeing) were spending up to twice as much as their generic counterparts (178 percent more to be exact). This category of travel was first defined by industry colleagues and researchers at the Global Wellness Institute in 2013, and while I was fortunate enough to help define it, even I underestimated its potential for growth.

In the early days of wellness tourism, many considered wellness travelers as a rare few able to afford a retreat to a destination spa or health resort, or those who regularly consumed spa, wellness, or fitness-related services as part of their travel plans. Today’s wellness travelers have grown in both market size and sophistication, with expectations extending well beyond the four walls of spas and fitness centers to guest rooms, meetings rooms, dining rooms, and even the local destination.

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Wellness Real Estate: From Mere Residences to Purpose-Built Communities Designed with Wellbeing in Mind

Fast forward a few years to 2016, and we started shifting our focus from where people would want to visit to how people might incorporate wellness into where they call home. We named this segment “wellness communities and lifestyle real estate” and shared our initial assessment of the space at the Global Wellness Summit in Austria. 

The only problem—at least initially—was in an effort to be opportunistic, and yes, commercial, many investors and developers simply applied their experience developing gated golf and resort communities to real estate projects that would merely be labeled “well.” This meant adding residences to wellness-driven hotels and destinations or developing spas, health, and wellness centers within residential communities—all absent of any meaningful intention or connection. 

Fortunately, thanks to industry pioneers like Steve Nygren, founder of wellness community, Serenbe, just outside of Atlanta, we started to understand the softer, necessary side of placemaking. That is, how truly intentional design can affect everything from the ease in which residents can connect and socialize with one another to how they proactively care for themselves and their impact on the environment. And, thanks to a brave group of people who volunteered to help the Global Wellness Institute define what a wellness community could be, we now know how to Build Well to Live Well. Our options to live in wellness-driven communities and healthy lifestyle real estate are truly beginning to grow in ways meaningful to both consumers and developers alike.

Workplace Wellness: From HR Programs to High-Performing Company Cultures

Along the way, we’ve attempted to make our workplaces well largely through the development of facilities and programs offered in the places we used to work (that is, before COVID moved our desks from our offices to our homes). And over the last decade, we’ve witnessed everything from the addition of healthy food in our cafeterias to gyms, yoga classes, meditation, and nap rooms in our places of work.

We’ve brought weight-loss companies into our lunchrooms to teach us how to optimally eat and lose weight, and we’ve attempted to motivate colleagues (all smarter than we gave them credit for) with financial incentives to quit smoking or share their personal health data with company insurers. These actions were not necessarily about fostering healthy workplaces, mind you, but instead, to mitigate risk of unhealthy workforces. Big difference. 

In addition, we’ve tasked the payroll and benefit divisions of HR departments to create wellness perks and programs with the hopes of attracting and retaining talent, a task for which few were trained or even qualified, all while company leadership cultivated stressful 24/7 work cultures that made it impossible to take advantage of them in the first place. Tough talk, I know, but it’s time we speak the truth.

The good news is that those of us in the business of wellness (or who have led wellness for big business at large), have recently learned that we need to shift our focus from WHAT we offer colleagues in the workplace (programs) to HOW we enable them to live and work (culture). The bad news is just as we were making progress, COVID disrupted our momentum, not to mention our lives and mental health, which was already well-frayed before 2020.

Mental Wellness: From Employee Assistance to Human Recognition and Acceptance 

Around the same time, technology giant Oracle partnered with research firm, Workplace Intelligence, to explore how artificial intelligence might help to support mental health in the workplace (a compelling topic for another time). What I found most interesting about their research (which surveyed 12,000 people across 11 countries) was the mere statistic that 7 out of 10 people (comprised of employees, managers, HR leaders, and C-level executives) said 2020 was the most stressful year of their working lives. Moreover, 76 percent of respondents agreed that mental health needs to be an employer priority.

In fact, according to another study conducted by NHIS and the U,S. Census Bureau, 4 out of 10 adults in the United States have reported symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorder compared to just one in ten from January to June 2019. Companies today can no longer stand to ignore the impact of these figures on their business. At the same time, I believe we’ve made three mistakes in the workplace when it comes to the state of our mental wellbeing:

  1. Stigma: Before COVID, the stigma around mental health in society at large made it uncomfortable to discuss or even acknowledge the fact that employees show up with mental health conditions in the workplace every day. 
  2. Over-Reliance on Employee Assistance Programs: We’ve mostly approached mental health in the workplace from a medical standpoint (i.e., clinical conditions like depression or bipolar disorder) confidentially assisted by Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) versus a human standpoint (i.e., life conditions that naturally ebb and flow between feeling mentally well to feeling mentally unwell on any given day). 
  3. Lost Humanity: Perhaps most importantly, we have not done a good job of providing tools and resources for said human conditions. Whether taking preventative steps to maintain our mental wellbeing, leveraging tools and resources during temporary setbacks, and/or supporting those with existing and developing clinical conditions, there’s still much work to be done here.

The Common Thread: Missing the Forest for the Trees

In all instances above, and with hindsight literally being 20/20 (yes, 2020), we have continued to make the same mistake—thinking too small. Whether considering wellness tourism, wellness real estate, workplace wellness, mental wellness—and I would argue most any other segment of the global wellness economy, we are treating the parts and not the whole. AND the whole is much bigger than we thought. We now have the opportunity to take a fresh, systems-based approach to the business of wellness—one that is also inclusive, equal, and diverse. By doing so, we stand to make a much greater impact to the wellbeing of people, community, and the planet moving forward.

Stay tuned for part two of this powerful essay—The Future: Activating Ecosystems of Wellbeing™ (EOWs) That Drive Business Performance.

*This article is an excerpt from THE BUSINESS OF WELLNESS: How to Rise Above the Hype for A More Inclusive & Impactful Future

About The Author
Mia Kyricos

Mia is a globally respected thought leader with 25-plus years of cultivating wellness, hospitality, lifestyle, and travel brands across 100-plus countries. As founder and president of Kyricos & Associates, a strategic advisory and referral firm, Mia provides brand strategy, business development, and operational insight enabling public and private entities to thrive in the $4.5 global wellness economy. Most recently, she was SVP & global head of wellbeing at Hyatt, setting a new hospitality industry standard as the leader and curator of the company’s global wellbeing strategy, spanning commercial health and wellness-related products, services, and partnerships, as well as colleague wellbeing worldwide. Prior to Hyatt, she was chief brand officer of SpaFinder Wellness, Inc., where she led the company’s brand evolution, positioning SpaFinder as the global authority on wellness providers and resources. Mia also served as vice president of EXOS, where she oversaw and expanded the workplace wellness start-up division operating on Fortune 500 corporate campuses. Prior to EXOS, she was director of global spa brands at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, where she led the creation of six international spa brands and managed the Starwood Spa Collection – a consortium of 60 wellness travel destinations across 26 countries. Named 2019’s Leading Woman in Wellness and Cornell University’s Alumna of the Year, Mia’s work and expertise has been featured in business and trade publications including The New York TimesLA TimesCNNSmart MoneyHotel BusinessTravel WeeklyLodgingReal SimpleMarket Watch, and more. She holds a master of management in Hospitality Administration (MMH) from Cornell University, and a BA in international relations from Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Mia has served the boards of the Global Wellness Summit and the University of California Irvine and currently sits on the advisory boards of Cornell University, Wellness for Cancer, and the Global Wellness Institute (GWI), a 501 (c)(3) non-profit educational foundation she helped found. 

www.kyricos.com