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Is society obsessed with health?

Authors Andre Spicer and Carl Cederstrom explain why the pressure to be healthy is causing a society to fall ill with the wellness syndrome.

With new diets, health plans, gym memberships and wellbeing programmes everywhere you turn it is becoming increasingly evident that being healthy is a hot topic in today's society. Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer's new book The Wellness Syndrome aims to shed light on the subject.

Cederstrom, an associate professor of organisational theory at Stockholm University explained when he first felt that the notion of 'wellness' has become an obsession.

“I was sitting with my dog waiting for a bus smoking when an older women came over and started to shout at me as she found it terrible that I was smoking in the presence of my dog. I saw a growing impatience for people who were not healthy and people being obsessed with health seems to have turned into something moral,” said Cederstrom who lives in Sweden.

The authors, who met in 2006 at Lund University when Cederstrom was a PhD student and Spicer was a visiting professor, both felt there was a problem around the issue of wellbeing.

Spicer, a professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School, City University said: “What we want people to do is to say sure maybe having a healthy diet and exercise is important but don't turn your whole life into a big wellness project.”

What is the wellness syndrome?

The book focuses on how becoming obsessed with health and wellbeing is leaving the public with additional problems. It also examines the political side of this obsession, which is partly caused by employers.  The wellness syndrome is described by Cederstrom as, “when you become conscious of your own health to the point that it provokes anxiety and guilt, in other words you develop an unhealthy relationship with your body; we become paranoid about whether we take care of our bodies as well as we should, so we live a life that is constantly riddled with anxiety and nervousness”.

Spicer continued: “Wellness is about this emphasis on health and we say it's a syndrome because it involves all parts of your life and cannot just lead to positive outcomes but negative outcomes as well, were we are constantly under pressure to maximise our wellbeing”.

The Mental Health Foundation website states that “most people want to be less anxious in their day-to-day lives…people are believed to be more anxious now than they were five years ago”. Perhaps one source of this anxiousness could be linked to the constant pressure Cederstrom and Spicer say people are facing to be healthy.

Negative effects

The book highlights the negative effects of being obsessed with wellbeing and health. Cederstrom said: “What we argue is that in society there is a high amount of pressure for people to always try to impress their well being and that means always focusing on their individual health and happiness, but people become paranoid about how happy they are and when they are in a good mood.”

Spicer added: “It can often backfire, people follow diets and loose weight but we know that somewhere between 80-95% of diets don't work which can end up making people more overweight so this can make people in worse places than they were before”.

Pressure from employers

The authors go on to highlight that one of the repercussions of this 'syndrome' is employers putting pressure on employees to be healthy.

Spicer said: “One of the things that has become much more important is employers not just focusing on things like corporate culture but increasingly they are focusing on their employees wellbeing not just giving them gym memberships but having all sorts of things like meditations classes, stop smoking programmes and looking down on people who are smokers; increasingly employers are promoting people who were seen as being fit and healthy being representative for being good at their job.”

Cederstrom expressed his worries that, a top item of the agenda of the NHS Five year forward view is to emphasize employers' responsibilities to make employees healthier through activities taking place in the workplace.

“I would say there are two very pressing problems with that, one is that there are fewer and fewer people who have access to a stable employer. The trend is that one third of people are in temporary work and it is unstable so giving more power to corporations to look after people's health means that the growing number of people who do not have a stable employer might be at risk of missing out.”

Employers may be a contributing factor in the outbreak of this health obsession but it is difficult to pinpoint a single trigger.

Cederstrom said: “It's hard to explain why this health obsession is happening, I think human beings have always been obsessed with health, but it's now the case that the idea of wellness is being linked to productivity.”

Spicer gave two reasons: “One is that there has been a decline in religion, it's disappeared practically within many peoples lives so they feel they are looking for something else to believe in, the second side is that most of us feel we don't have control over things that are important to us; our jobs, family life, and even our personal life so we turn to the only thing we feel we have control over which is our bodies.”

NHS growing pressure

Society is certainly concerned about the NHS as it comes out as the top election issue in many polls. Given the stresses placed on the NHS from diseases associated with lifestyle choices perhaps a preoccupation with wellness is not a bad thing unless it tips into obsession and results in anxiety.


Fact and Figures 

NHS England conducted a patient survey in 2014, which involved 183 patient. A notable proportion of these patients said they have problems with anxiety or depression with 31.7% suffering from problems ranging from slight to extreme.

Just under half of people get more anxious these days than they used to and believe that anxiety has stopped them from doing things in their life. Most people want to be less anxious in their day-to-day lives. People are also believed to be more anxious now than they were five years ago.

Between 1993 and 2013, there was a marked increase in the proportion of adults that were obese; from 13% to 26% among men and from 16% to 24% among women. The prevalence of obesity increased steeply between 1993 and 2000 and then more slowly. It has been between 24% and 26% for both sexes in recent years.


 (above Andre Spicer)                       


(above Carl Cederstrom)