The Nature of Wellness - in Germany

Unlike in the U.S., wellness has never been a term within worksite health promotion in Germany, with its population of 81 million. Although many kinds of behavioral prevention programs have been implemented in our workplaces since the 1980s, these initiatives have never been called "worksite wellness" programs.

Perhaps this fact is not so disadvantageous, as according to Donald B. Ardell, programs that are so named in America do not represent the original wellness concept at all. In Germany, wellness has become an important term within a secondary health market. This market is comprised of diverse health-related products and services not covered by health insurance or other financial sources targeted to problem areas.

What is most interesting about wellness in Germany is that is has become a marketing buzzword. For at least  twenty years, Germans have been offered wellness socks, wellness shampoo, wellness suits, wellness sausage, wellness drinks, wellness flakes and much more. Mercedes-Benz just developed a wellness truck! Really. (The truck offers the driver certain health and well-being features.)

Most public attention has been given to wellness tourism. Germans love to spend their leisure time in hotels that provide warm water pools, saunas, steam baths, massage and cosmetic treatments. Having an occasional (so-called) wellness weekend in a luxury spa resort is very attractive and one of the highest rated delights for the German people.

It is important to understand that the idea of self-responsibility for health and enhancing quality of life is not part of wellness in Germany - not yet, in any case. Such applications associated with REAL wellness are not featured in this country. International market research does suggest that Germans are seen as the hardest working people in the world. (However, this is not a scientific survey: the same polling showed that the Greek people believe they are the hardest working nation in the world. Go figure.)

Lately, a recognition that stress factors are costly workplace issues and lead to dangerous mental workloads has caused the ill-defined wellness word to assume something of a magic bullet aura. As a  consequence, the term wellness is now employed as a synonym for whatever is pleasurable, whatever recharges, whatever pampers. This kind of wellness is addressed via treatments in resorts, spas, thermal springs and cosmetic salons.

In Germany, wellness is big business. The market volume of all private expenses for health and wellness is estimated at 100 billion euros annually. In this sense, what passes for wellness has become remarkably influential in our society. Unfortunately, as noted, wellness is not understood, yet, as created and described by Drs. Dunn, Travis, Ardell and Hettler. Surprisingly or not, the medical system has not made proper use of the term, either. This could change but, to date, the medical system has seen the term attached to dubious treatments promoted by unorthodox characters with suspect educational backgrounds.

The German Wellness Association (GWA), founded in 1990 as a non-profit organization, has worked tirelessly to advance the original meaning of wellness. We communicate the REAL wellness concept as formulated by Donald B. Ardell. The organizational members of GWA share a common understanding of the wellness concept; they also meet explicit quality standards. Debunking nonsense wellness and awarding good practice have become GWA´s major areas of responsibility. In order to set and establish quality standards for wellness, providers complete a certification program. Members as well as non-members have done so since 2002. To date, several hundred on-site quality checks have been performed by GWA. Hotels, resorts, spas and thermal springs are tested by professional mystery shoppers. When quality criteria are met, organizational members as well as non-members of GWA are awarded the well respected seal of quality. In this and other ways, GWA serves as a trusted guide for consumers, professional providers, schools, students and the media.

Gradually, the REAL wellness concepts of personal responsibility for health and life quality, environmental sustainability (in market research also known as LOHAS movement) and other life enhancement elements at the top reaches of Maslow's hierarchy are gaining more public attention. If this continues, the true and best meanings of wellness will be understood and accepted.

Author: Lutz Hertel, Chairman of the German Wellness Association

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