What happens when you work in an industry build on creating wellness and providing consumers with greater happiness, comfort, and services that give them a better life? We think of hospitality workers as people that are always happy and smiling, ready to provide stellar customer service, but what happens when an employee is struggling to be that upbeat, happy person? I’m so excited to share Andrea Martineau’s perspective on what it’s like being on the other side of the service desk. It’s well thought out, brings up important issues surrounding cultural appropriation and calls for greater action from employers, employees, and consumers.
The Wellness Industry is a Little Unwell
By Andrea Martineau
You hear it everywhere you go: mental wellness, physical wellness, spiritual
wellness, #wellness, wellness hacks, wellness blogs, wellness cookbooks, and so on.
If you Google it, you’ll probably be offered a selection of local wellness centres,
counseling centre blurbs, and wellness expo ticket sites. Wellness is described in the
2013 Global Wellness Tourism Report as “a state of complete physical, mental, and
social wellbeing”. This trendy wellness industry, according to the Global Wellness
Institute, grew 10.6% from 2013-2015 alone—we are talking about a trillion dollar
industry that centers on being 100% positive and 100% healthy 120% of the time.
So, what happens when you work in this industry and you’re not actually mentally
well? Is this wellness industry as healthy as it wants to appear?
I have had depressive episodes off and on for several years and have
moderate generalized and social anxiety, and I’ve worked in different aspects of the
wellness industry over the past few years, particularly in hospitality and retail. I
genuinely love the jobs that I’ve had, and that’s why I continue to seek out work in
the same sort of field. It’s an interesting industry to navigate while mentally ill. I’ve
learned so much about my own physical and mental wellness and how customers
and society overall view mental wellness. I’ve narrowed my experiences down to
handful of points—some of the good and some of the bad.
Folks who work in wellness or who are wellness industry consumers are
typically more open to vulnerability and stigmatized topics like mental illness and
mental health. I’ve had so many conversations with clients, customers, and
coworkers, that go something like this,
“So I really like this product/massage/treatment because I find that it really
helps with my anxiety—“
“No way! I’ve been having such awful anxiety attacks lately because of work
stress, what else would you recommend?”
I’ve found that folks in this industry are less likely to judge, because they are
often looking for solutions for similar mental or physical health problems. Even if
you’re not in the same boat, at least you can respect that you’re both floating in the
same harbour. In my experience, I’ve been free to discuss my mental health
concerns and other chronic health problems without fear that my coworkers would
think poorly of me or that management would target me, which is a “luxury” many
employees are not afforded at their own jobs in a majority of work fields. You spend
most of your week at work, so it can really help to be able to talk about what’s
troubling or challenging you, while in a safe space.
As well, wellness companies typically have wellness-related perks for their
employees. Discounted or free spa treatments, fitness classes, meditation classes, essential oils, health foods, supplements, body care products, and other self care
freebies can definitely be a positive addition to therapy, medication, physiotherapy,
nutrition, and whatever else you have going on in your personal routine to take care
of your health. Working alongside health-oriented people and having options like
these at my disposal opened me up to new things I’ve never tried before. Would I
have ever thought to get a massage for my anxiety related tension migraines before
working in a spa? Probably not. Would I have bothered to get back to the gym if my
coworkers weren’t encouraging me along as they did the same? Probably not as
It is genuinely impossible to be “well” 100% of the time. Throughout the
years it’s either been directly stated or obviously implied that I need to be happy,
energized, cheery, and “well” when I come into work. It’s even been said to
employees before that if they aren’t checking in at a certain level of wellness, they
shouldn’t come into work—however, paid sick days were never an option for
physical or mental health issues. A lot of folks who experience chronic illness
(whether it be physical or mental) know that some days they feel like garbage, but
they still manage to make it into work and do a respectful job, even if they aren’t
feeling 100% or aren’t quite as chipper as normal. Should these people be
reprimanded because although they’re not well, they still made it into work and
gave it their all? Many people as well may not actually feel physically well or
mentally well enough to come into work and sell the vibe of infinite wellness, but
cannot afford to stay home because they don’t have paid sick days, or may be
directly or indirectly reprimanded for when and why they call in sick.
In addition, a lot of spaces that are wellness focused are essentially only
spaces for the able-bodied. I myself have contributed to this, as when hearing
impaired customers have come into businesses I’ve worked for, I haven’t been able
to sign in American Sign Language and have only been able to speak loudly, make
unhelpful gestures, or resort to writing things down. It seems like almost every yoga
studio in my area is on an upper level of a stairs-only building, or only has a small,
often-malfunctioning elevator. Most wellness stores I’ve been in either don’t have
enough room for wheelchairs of any size, or have their product stocked so high on
shelves that even tall, able-bodied people have to stretch for them. It’s not fair to
claim to embody wellness yet exclude a decent portion of the population from even
getting through the door.
Finally, the Western wellness industry has a tendency to be culturally appropriative. Many businesses snip up bits and pieces from religions like Hinduism
and Buddhism, simplify them, whitewash them, and then spit them back out for
their (usually primarily white) consumers. Spas, yoga studios, wellness stores, and
even counseling centres often borrow ideas and religious objects from Eastern
cultures to be used in an irresponsible or inappropriate way for profit. While aiming
to provide wellness solutions to western populations, these practices can actually be quite damaging to the wellbeing of those whose cultures are being stolen from and
Does this all mean wellness is bad? Should we boycott the wellness industry
as a whole? No! But we definitely need to be aware of the types of businesses we
support, how we treat our employees, and how we can make “wellness” accessible
for everyone and anyone.
If you’re a consumer, take a look at the wellness companies you support. Are
they accessible to others? Are they ripping off another culture? Are their employees
happy, mentally well, and physically well? Voice your concerns to said companies
and let them know not only that you think they need to make changes, but that you
know they are capable of change. Whether it’s by phone, email, social media, or by
writing letters, any wise company will value its consumers’ input and make
adequate changes if they are a business worth supporting.
If you’re an employer, consider where your staff may be struggling and what
you can do to help them. Are your employees able to take paid sick days? Do they
have health benefits and if so, do they have any mental health coverage? How do you
as their boss speak about mental illness and mental health in the workplace? Does
your public image of wellness correspond with your workplace environment and
the mental and physical health of your employees? Have you actually talked to them
about what sort of wellness-related changes they want or need in the work place?
Change doesn’t happen over night, but even small changes like implementing better
workplace harassment policies, making the staff room a non-stimulating area for
employees to retreat to and de-stress in, or giving staff more appropriate breaks can
make a huge difference in the mental wellbeing of your staff and staff morale
overall. Walk the walk. Practice what you preach. Do what you need to do to make
staff wellness something you can be not only transparent about, but proud about.
While the wellness industry is not a perfect place, and I am by no means perfectly
well, I still believe that we are all capable of growth and change. It may be difficult,
and it may take time, but the time to get these changes rolling is now.