I recently asked Dr. Grant Donovan, one of the earliest promoters of corporate wellness and health promotion, questions about the early years. Here are over a dozen of the questions I put to Dr. Donovan:
1) In what ways was Australia unlike the U.S. for purposes of trying to establish a wellness movement?
2) If you had remained in the wellness business, how might you have expanded upon the wonderful concepts advanced in the early years (mid-80’s and 90’s) when you led Australian conferences, training sessions, wrote books, gave media interviews and engaged in all manner of promotional efforts?
3) Based on your memories of those not-quite-prosperous, golden or halcyon years, how would you describe the key terms of the movement or, if you prefer, the very nature, of a wellness lifestyle, REAL or otherwise as it is or should be today?
4) How much energy did you put into creating a wellness movement in Australia?
5) If you had remained in the wellness business, how might you have expanded upon the wonderful concepts advanced in the early years (mid-80’s and 90’s) when you led Australian conferences, training sessions, wrote books, gave media interviews and engaged in all manner of worksite promotions?
6) Based on your memories of those not-quite-prosperous, golden or halcyon years, how would you describe the key terms of the movement or, if you prefer, the very nature, of a wellness lifestyle, REAL or otherwise?
7) Was there any way the effort could have succeeded (by which I mean “proved profitable” and thus worth continuing)?
8) It seems that corporate and other forms of institutional wellness education has been led by medical doctors, nurses, health administrators, HRA types and maybe a few psychologists? Is there a profession not represented that should have been?
9) Is it possible that a REAL wellness focus, if it comes about, will have more success than the safe, medically based approach that continues to this day?
10) What are best and worst case scenarios for the wellness concept and movement, by any name, ten years or so down the road?
11) Do you believe most people have the capacity to shape and sustain healthy lifestyles?
12) You attended several National Wellness Conferences in the 80’s and 90’s. What is your take on this annual event?
13) Today and since the beginning in the 80’s, worksite wellness has been focused on disease prevention, risk reduction, exercise promotion, stress management, nutritional basics and the like? Is that what you were promoting under the wellness banner?
14) What are the prospects for worksite wellness?
15) When asked, “Grant, tell me please: What’s it all about,” what do you say?
16) What advice do you have for those with little time left, which I suppose is all of us?
I invited Grant to pick and choose as many or as few of these questions to address as he wished. Grant pondered and pondered and pondered. Weeks went by. Reports of pondering going on came in, week after week. Finally, about a month after sending the questions, Grant sent this commentary. In my opinion, his response addresses all the questions and a few that did not occur to me-and maybe one or two I was afraid to ask. Enjoy.
Grant Donovan’s Response
I have been looking at both sets of questions and decided to ignore them all and give you one short answer. Okay, not so much an answer as a wandering series of self-assembling thoughts.
The eighties version of Australian workplace wellness morphed into high performance through self-management. Much more catchy for the bosses. Something they understood and wanted to pay for. Wellness was too esoteric. They wanted hard performance improvements, more dollars and less new age philosophy. They would pay small fortunes for critical thinking, self-management, teamwork, empowering leadership and a range of other wellness skills but little or nothing for programs called wellness.
So we moved on, made a smaller fortune out of real wellness and never used the term once. It was all in the language. The memes.
Which makes me think that wellness lacks a precise meme. When Halbert Dunn and your good self, respectively, coined and popularized the word, it mutated very quickly to become a generic term attached to everything from hand holding and swaying to disease avoidance to alternative medicine to spiritual enlightenment to whatever definition anyone wanted to apply. The genie was out of the bottle very early and it doesn’t appear to be going back any time soon.
Your personal efforts to reset the meme with REAL Wellness is heroic and may succeed but I have my doubts. Not because your efforts won’t be Herculean but because REAL Wellness may only be for the special few. For people like you and a few friends who have the time, money and inclination to dabble. My global observation suggests the rest still need God. Someone to lean on as they slave away at just staying alive. Working hard to exist, without time to contemplate the bigger questions. And this is probably a good thing because if they all stopped to recognize the complete meaninglessness of their lives, nobody would turn up.
By meaningless, I don’t mean life is not valuable or worth living because it clearly is for many people. I personally find it fun, challenging and quirky. By meaningless, I mean it is random and pointless. Totally irrelevant. From a wellness perspective, meaninglessness is extremely liberating. It allows for a freedom of thought and action that cannot be attained through the conforming rigidity of pre-determined purpose. It allows for a rational, critical thought process that renders emotive storytelling mute and lifts scientific logic to a special place, from where we can see the behavioral expression of meaninglessness very clearly.
Okay, so meaninglessness is the answer.
Now you know what Grant Donovan thinks about the issues I raised. I asked Grant for a few lines to go with his interview. He replied: “I’m following the opposite path to Charlie Sheen, with limited or no exposure to the outside world. Your readers will already know that I’m just a good Aussie friend, who doesn’t really have much to say.”
Well, I can respect that, but just the same, here is a brief, unauthorized mini-background bio update on Grant Donovan, Ph.D. A graduate of the University of Western Australia, he is the Managing Partner at Perception Mapping in Perth, Australia and a few other market research firms, including SevenSeventeen and Workplace Global Network. He and I co-authored “Live More of Your Life the Wellness Way” and “Die Healthy” decades ago. We co-presented many times in cities throughout Australia, the U.S., Canada and even Malaysia, but our most memorable performance was a workshop at the National Wellness Conference in Stevens Point, WI. in 1994 devoted to “The Wellness Orgasm.” It was quite a hit.