Wellness: Where Angels Fear to Tread

March 15, 2022 | By Maretha Prinsloo

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For at least 3000 years now, the concept of wellness has attracted much attention from health, medicine as well as philosophical and spiritual perspectives. Since its origins in the Ayurveda tradition, Hindu thought, as well as Chinese and ancient Greek medicine, to its resurfacing in new forms almost every century since the 1650’s, to its modern-day psychological and social media manifestations, questions of why and how we can optimize human life and happiness, persistently and increasingly seem to show up.

Buddhists thought depicts life for most people as an eternal cycle of suffering and rebirth which can only be transcended by spiritual awareness and enlightenment. Physical and emotional pain, impermanence, and the lack of substantiality in life, cause human beings’ feelings of fear, loss, and anxiety. Those emotional responses can, however, largely be attributed to personal cravings and desires, which can be overcome. Buddhist practice thus holds that we need to calmly observe and accept the nature of human life, while aiming to achieve higher states of being. Suffering can thus be seen as valuable in that it alerts humans as to how unaware they really are. Behind pain of any kind, be that anger, grief, fear, envy, hopelessness, physical pain, etcetera, there always is something that we are attached to. Buddhist teaching therefore equates suffering to attachment.

Many find this difficult to accept. They want to believe that life can be without pain and strive to obtain happiness and comfort within a world which is ephemeral and transient. No wonder then that this awareness of wellness has lately been capitalized on by HR, and for commercial purposes across industries, not to mention social media “influencers” with huge followership who promote themselves, health care products and/or lifestyle solutions. In this blog article the concept of wellness will be reviewed and further explored from theoretical, work-related, and societal perspectives.

Within the psychological context nowadays, wellbeing is largely associated with physical health, positive emotions and the subjective experience of self-worthiness, self-sufficiency, self-realization or mastery and personal growth; as well as happiness, hope and meaningfulness or a sense of purpose in life. Many factors may be involved, such as a person’s values, degree of interpersonal connection through empathy, intimacy, affection, respect, and recognition, how one compares to others, as well as the subjective experience of contextual circumstances and opportunities.

Workplace wellbeing is largely seen as reflective of the potential energizing effects of challenge, opportunity, recognition, income potential, variety, expectations of self and others, goal setting, personal commitment, achievement, degree of autonomy, and work-life balance.

The concept of wellness is thus popularly described in terms of the constructs of being, belonging, and becoming. Within talent management circles it is regarded as an important prerequisite for employee engagement, collaboration, productivity, and creative contribution; and often psychometrically assessed and managed.

Psychological Perspective on Wellness

Conventional wisdom regards happiness and subjective feelings of well-being as a function of values and expectations rather than that of external circumstances.

Aspects of wellness are described by many theorists from a variety of disciplines including the following psychological and spiritual perspectives:

  1. Abraham Maslow proposed a 5-tier hierarchy of human needs of which successive levels namely: physiological, safety, love, belonging, self-esteem (all of which he regards as deficiency needs), are integrated and transcended by the highest level of self-actualisation (which he regards as a growth need). Although wellness may centre around the needs at any one or all these levels, self-actualization remains the ultimate criterion of wellness and personal realization.
  2. Erik and Joan Erikson’s stages model of psychosocial development emphasizes the importance of continuous growth through eight successive states which includes moving towards trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, identity, intimacy, generativity, and integrity - as opposed to confusion, stagnation, isolation, and despair.
  3. Marie Jahoda described mental health in terms of a positive self-concept, capacity for growth and development, personal autonomy, and realistic perception.
  4. Gordon Allport’s Trait theory of personality emphasizes the uniqueness of individuals. To him, the mature, healthy, and well-adjusted adult, has overcome childhood traumas and is focused on the present and future. They have empathy and care about others, are capable of intimacy, are emotionally secure, realistic, possess self-insight and personal values based on a unifying philosophy of life. The key characteristic is their degree of integration of the various aspects of self.
  5. Carl Rogers’s Humanistic theory also posits human behaviour as motivated by self-actualising tendencies. The degree to which this is achieved is related to the self-concept which plays a key role in personal functioning.
  6. Victor Frankl emphasized the importance of a “will to meaning” based upon purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty.
  7. Carl Jung’s views of personality functioning reflect the idea of a lifelong process of individuation or self-realization, which involves attaining an independently functioning personality by integration of the conscious and the unconscious.
  8. Ken Wilber capitalizes on the Spiral Dynamics model of Graves in his description of the development of consciousness and emphasises the importance of the integration and transcendence of egotistical tendencies.
  9. Buddhist teaching emphasises non-attachment which can be described as flexible engagement with experience but without fixation on achieving specified outcomes.

These models of psychological growth and wellness primarily address and reflect the following colour-coded value orientations as described by the Spiral Dynamics (SD) model of Graves, which accommodates most of the above-mentioned perspectives:

Largely reflective of the following SD value orientations
Theorists Themes associated with Wellness Purple Red Blue Orange Green Yellow Turquoise
Maslow Self-actualisation
Erikson Personal development towards generativity and integrity
Jahoda Autonomy, positive self-image, growth potential, realistic perception
Allport Integration of aspects of self
Rogers Self-concept and -actualisation
Frankl Will-to-meaning
Jung Individuation and consciousness
Wilber Integration and transcendence
Buddhist Non-attached engagement


Assessment of the nature and degree of realization of the above-mentioned psychological themes, as based on the SD levels of Graves’ model, can be done by means of Cognadev’s Value Orientations (VO); Motivational Profile (MP) and Cognitive Process Profile (CPP) tools.

The Value Orientations (VO) tool measures the worldviews, perceptual systems, decision making frameworks, cultural memes and valuing systems which characterize individuals, groups and organisations in terms of the following themes of consciousness as specified by the SD model of Graves:

SD level of awareness Wellness themes
Purple Family / team belonging, safety and protection, stability and familiar contexts, routine, tradition
Red Personal achievement through power, control, results, productivity, identity, and recognition
Blue Certainty, tradition, depth of specialist knowledge and expertise, structure, hierarchy, clarity, efficiency, achievement through commitment and work ethic, honour, courage, support of status quo and interpersonal respect
Orange Flexibility, focusing on the perceptions of others, image and reputation, win-win solutions, generalist strategic views, accountability, personal status and comfort, innovation, creating and capitalizing on opportunity
Green Understanding of diverse factors / views, theoretical and interpersonal exploration, deep democracy, critical thinking, theoretical complexity, flexibility, relativity, compassion with others and the environment, holistic-integrative perspectives
Yellow Objective integration of physical, emotional, and intellectual realities; understanding of dynamic and vague systems; identification of leverage points; pursuing simplicity-after-complexity; ecological awareness; cutting through clutter; wisdom; learning; moving on
Turquoise Transcendence of the pressing demands of reality; spiritual awareness; basic human experience; integral ecology; proliferation of life, planet as living organism; we all are one
Emerging “Coral” Alignment with the universe; depth of spiritual awareness; resonance with emerging patterns; depth of empowerment; depth of confidence based on intuition; clarity of vision

The results on the VO indicate the preferred organisational culture, energisers, derailers, personal goals, leadership preferences, learning orientations, and cultural imperatives of individuals, groups, and organisations. Cultural values and motives are key to wellness for individuals and groups.

Further aspects of wellness are also addressed by the Motivational Profile (MP). The constructs assessed by the MP include a person’s life scripts, motivational patterns in Life, Work and Relationship, Shadow index, defence mechanisms, personality tendencies, energy themes, energisers, derailers, emotional orientations and behavioural or performance risk factors, all of which will determine how rewarding, inspiring and conducive an individual will experience a particular interpersonal and work environment. In devising wellness solutions, the motivational drivers of individuals and groups should be accommodated.

In the case of the Cognitive Process Profile (CPP) the intellectual preferences and capabilities of a person are measured to inform career guidance and pathing decisions, as well as suitable work placement to ensure a feeling of “being in flow” with the intellectual requirements of work, as this is critical prerequisite for feelings of well-being, job satisfaction and personal growth and confidence.

Wellness on the Global Front

The various states of wellness referred to by the theoretical models above, remain the territory of the chosen few.

Some claim that the world is actually becoming a better place and motivate this view in terms of statistics indicating increased life expectancy, a drop in fertility and childhood mortality rates, GDP growth, the spread of democracies and other socio-economic phenomena, worldwide.

Regardless of these findings, personal wellness as such does not seem particularly common, whereas human misery does. The latter seems rooted in poverty, need, disempowerment, displacement, misunderstanding, group bias, starvation, and exploitation amongst other factors.

While 45% of global wealth seems concentrated in the hands of the top 1%, income disparity is extreme and endemic. The material prosperity of the first world seems largely and undeniably rooted in the exploitation of the resource-rich third world. The heart-breaking implications of these and other factors are clear for all to witness.

Unicef (estimates that there are 153 million orphans in this world. Furthermore, there seems to be 160 million child laborers worldwide. In addition, there are approximately 250 000 child soldiers of which half are girls used as sex slaves. Apparently 280 million people are starving worldwide right now, while 2.2 billion people do not have access to safely managed drinking water and 4.2 billion people have no sanitation facilities and are forced to manage human waste at home. Modern slavery is still trapping something like 40 million people.

The UNHCR reports 84 million forcibly displaced people worldwide and even today, the catastrophic impact of war is felt by 2 billion people. No less than 12 million people worldwide are suffering the soul-destroying effects of incarceration for reasons ranging from legal procedures, petty crime aimed at mere survival, to drug dependency, mental health problems and violence. Not to even mention the 1.5 billion people who suffer from serious psychiatric disorders.

Besides the 60 million children of primary school age who do not have the option to go to school, there are also 800 million adults globally who are illiterate. Noteworthy too are the potential horrors of global warming which is expected to affect 85% of the global population. The list goes on.


At a macro level, current political and corporate solutions to these alarming statistics often seem inadequate. For example, instead of:

  • finding a way to rapidly replace fossil fuels with renewable energy
  • capitalizing on diplomatic solutions to international political crises to avoid armed conflict
  • holding political and military leaders accountable for their decisions and tactics
  • addressing the toxic monopoly power of institutions such as big pharma, food control, electronics, the weapons industries, as well as the penal institution- or prison industrial complex
  • reconceptualizing and transforming the monetary system, largely embedded as it is in centralized banking and the concept of interest and
  • replacing corporate leadership with the right people capable of creating and driving sustainable commercial strategies

it seems easier for policy makers to kick the can down the road while offering small consolations in the form of employment opportunities and benefits to the workforce. This may well temporarily satisfy a small percentage of people on this planet, but it does not address the fact that “wellness” per se is not remotely possible for the majority of people.

The many bottlenecks eroding ecological wellness, or the diversity, sovereignty, and sustainability of systems, are systematically emerging in the media and public eye. To ensure wellness for all, however, requires the political insight and will, as well as the necessary conceptual strategies and the concerted and coordinated efforts of all involved.

The Human Resources Industry

This industry sector has also awakened to the growing impact of factors synonymous with societal and personal harm. Although HRM is the core driving force for directly and/or indirectly leveraging powerful solutions in this regard, what is actually on offer seems somewhat lacklustre. HR is in a position to link the right people to the most suitable roles, with the goal of minimizing employee stress and lack of engagement while optimizing employee motivation. But where adverse employee outcomes and/or lack of motivation do occur, whether as a result of person-job misfit or unavoidable external circumstances, HR often chooses to adopt popular tactics aimed at creating wellness by reducing human involvement, effort, and stress – thereby treating the symptoms as opposed to the root causes of demotivation and low performance.

Typically, on the menu are shorter work weeks, relaxation rooms at work, more pay for less work, work from home, and other initiatives. These seem mostly superficial and may just succeed in lowering productivity; extracting the heart out of purposefulness; discouraging personal passion and dedication at work; and eroding engagement; all of which seem like perfect recipes for creating an uninspiring and generally mediocre society.

Other HR strategies aimed at mechanizing human involvement include the offering of virtual counselling and computer-based chatbot coaching. Ironically, this may only succeed in extracting the “psyche” from psychology, thereby disregarding the deep-seated human need for meaning, personal connection and attention or deep contact. Such short-sighted HR wellness solutions seem to focus primarily on the surface concerns of personal dissatisfaction and anxieties, without addressing the causes of these operating within an unsustainable world.

It is no secret that in countries where social security ensures the financial viability of sitting at home while collecting unemployment benefits; or where teenagers can earn increasing grants for repeated pregnancies, few are likely to choose the high road of dedication to meaningful purposes. This is unfortunate, as an easy life of dependence on external sources tends to diminish one’s sense of personal purpose, worth and control. As Anais Nin pointed out: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage”.

Could the sugar-coated assistance of HR therefore pave the way towards societal implosion?

But how else can HR contribute to wellness?

One possibly viable strategy may be to start with leadership at all levels and categories of work and society by identifying the right people with the most appropriate profiles to create viable systems. This can be achieved through assessing the values and systems thinking capabilities of potential leaders and by matching those personal profiles to appropriate roles. The attitudes of these well-positioned leaders are likely to permeate entire societal, corporate and political systems.

In addition, it is important to keep in mind that the individual’s path to wellness starts from within, from knowing oneself and from being true to oneself, as Ernest Hemingway expressed it:“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know”.

A sense of wellness results from feelings of groundedness, belonging and purposeful contribution. Within the work context it is HR’s privilege and responsibility to offer individuals the means and opportunities to gain self-insight as well as appropriate contextual connection and application. A sense of wellness comes from the heart – not from imposed measures aimed at work reduction – the latter of which is not much more than political window dressing and superficial distraction.