Advancing the Wellness Profession: Is it Time for Competency Standards and Professional Certification?

NWI Wellness Promotion Competency Model Graphic

The wellness profession has grown significantly over the past 50 years as more and more companies offer worksite wellness programs. Nevertheless, one of the key challenges currently faced by practitioners as how to implement best-practices and pull together the multi-disciplinary nature of these practices to form cohesive wellness programs. Although the literature on wellness strategies and methods is abundant, little is known about the professional competencies required for the practitioner to be effective at wellness promotion.

Wellness is defined as an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence (National Wellness Institute, n.d.). It is a positive and affirming method of personal growth and becoming aware of our multi-dimensional and holistic nature. Counselors, social workers, nurses, health educators, and chiropractors, among others, are integrating wellness concepts into their practice to address the needs of their patients, clients, or employees through a whole-person approach. Despite the growing popularity of the wellness profession and wellness programs, some researchers argue that a misalignment between the philosophy and actual practice of wellness promotion continues to exist, leading to criticism of the wellness paradigm for discriminatory and unethical practices.

As an approach to improving quality of life, wellness promotion lacks a clearly defined set of competencies to guide the academic preparation and professional development of practitioners. The need for professional wellness competencies is evident from the conflation of methods to promote disease management with those that aim to promote wellness. For example, the use of conditional incentives is popular in worksite wellness programs to motivate employee health behavior change, despite being inconsistent with person-centered wellness methods and the human values of fairness and equity. Furthermore, many health behavior change strategies focus on eliciting emotions such as fear, shame, or guilt to motivate individuals to lose weight, become more active, or eat more vegetables to reduce their risk of disease.

While control-oriented methods like contingent incentives or fear-based messaging might motivate individuals to change their behavior short-term, it may have adverse consequences to their capacity to exercise practical autonomy and work toward their own vision of what makes life worth living. Wellness promotion offers an alternative paradigm to the traditional methodologies of health promotion and public health. However, to be fully realized, a standard of wellness practice that is consistent with the philosophy and theory must be adopted.

Competency standards are recognized world-wide as a tool to ensure professionals can competently perform skills and behaviors required to be successful in their role. As an approach to improving quality of life, wellness promotion has lacked a clearly defined set of competencies to guide the academic preparation and professional development of practitioners. Recently, however, the National Wellness Institute published a set of wellness competencies for entry-level wellness professionals. This preliminary iteration is an attempt to bring wellness professionals together in establishing a foundation and vision for the education and professional development of practitioners. Bridging the gap between philosophy, theory and practice by identifying the core competencies of wellness promotion is an essential step in training practitioners to successfully promote ethical and effective wellness strategies.

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