The systemic inequities present in the wellness industry are all the more apparent as our country grapples with a growing outbreak
Wellness is the fastest growing industry worldwide, and as we head into Q2 2020 the hot new workout is the twenty-second hand washing routine. In just a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has knocked the wellness industry off its feet, creating a swift reckoning with our relationship between “health and wellness” and “privilege and access”.
Now, coronavirus itself isn’t responsible for the inequities that persist in wellness. Instead, it’s merely exacerbating them; mirroring systemic inequities that are persisted in this industry — and throughout society. Here‘s what this virus is exposing us to in the industry, along with recommendations for moving forward as students, instructors, entrepreneurs, and business owners. Leave a comment below with your thoughts you’d like to add.
And remember, we can’t simply wash our hands of this. As we consider the short-term symptoms below, we must also address the long-term and persistent source of these issues. Only the latter will help us build more sustainable businesses for the future.
1. Diminishing foot traffic will create crippling financial impact
Despite gym and studio’s efforts to clean more thoroughly and encourage sick folks to stay home, foot traffic to studios and gyms will diminish. This is partially driven by general xenophobic tendencies, but accelerated by the relationship between work and workout — as more companies encourage or force their staff to work from home, less people will be making to class that was usually part of their daily commute. Whether it’s breathwork or cardio, acupuncture or hot yoga, expect less people in class.
“I am only working out at home or inside now.”
— Anisha, San Diego.
An important part of this is teacher trainings. Even if we see a swift return to everyday life soon, there may be many people that have already decided not to participate in an upcoming teacher training; concerned about making the time and financial investment of spending 200 hours in close proximity with other humans. Many yoga studios depend on teacher trainings (especially during slow seasons) for that boost of revenue — and this can have a lasting impact on their performance. One teacher in Michigan notes that attendance is already “way down” at their studio, despite the fact that there’s no confirmed cases in their area.
The timing of this couldn’t be more ironic; depending on physical location, fitness spaces tend to see a lull in traffic between those new year resolutions and the next uptick from those seeking the ideal beach body for the summer months. This exacerbates an already tenuous time of year. This dip in revenue may be written off as just a bad quarter for larger studios. But for small businesses, it could be fatal.
I’m second guessing the classes I book and what time I’m booking. Will they be too hot, too crowded, too humid?
— Dana, NYC
When considering financial accessibility, there’s likely to be two conflicting results. On one hand, expect more discounted drop-in and subscription rates for your favorite in-person wellness experiences, which might decrease the financial burden of practicing. On the other hand, philanthropic and cause-based initiatives might be more difficult to justify during this economic downturn, which may affect social entrepreneurs building brands that work with the wellness industry to thrive.
What to do:
- Manage your cash flow. It’s going to be hard times for everyone. Do what you can to reduce spending without throwing your staff for a lurch.
- Lower long-term forecasts. Consumers are likely to decrease spending overall, even after the coronavirus clears.
- Make contingency plans. Planning for the worst is sometimes the best, in cases like these.
- Support your local businesses. Even if you’re temporarily staying out of your studio, can you still commit to buying a few classes, or a class pack, to keep them afloat?
2. The fight for job security, benefits and insurance for instructors will surge.
Out of this, we’ll see more urgency around conversations related to fair wages, job security, and benefits. Teachers that are paid per attendee will be directly impacted, and class schedules might be changed to offer fewer classes (especially around the work schedule). Remember that the wellness industry thrives off of hourly wage workers, and that goes beyond the instructors. Cleaning services, maintenance staff, greeters and more will also feel the pinch of diminishing foot traffic.
It’ll also push the conversation around benefits: most instructors in wellness do not receive health insurance as part of their work and are in the work of being in close physical proximity with lots of bodies. Like many wage job workers in America, instructors are putting themselves at risk every time they step into the studio, and oftentimes can’t financially choose not to participate. Studio spaces are going to have to grapple with their responsibility to protect the health and well-being of their staff during this tenuous time.
Another sticky factor: insurance. Most insurance policies don’t have a straightforward response to how they cover property losses and workers’ compensation, among other things. But these specificities are critical for wellness spaces that rely on close physical contact with people (yoga studios, gyms, meditation spaces, etc). Studios and gyms could easily find themselves in a lawsuit if they’re encouraging contractors to go to work, making them susceptible to catching the virus. They can also be held responsible if a customer believes it’s their fault they contracted the virus while on their property. Income loss as a result of the virus could be covered, as it as for some business in the past during SARS, Zika, etc, but it’s really up to the specific policy and its wording.
What to do:
- Instructors: Get organized. If you’ve been working on a proposal for your studio or gym on improving your job conditions, or considering unionizing, now is the time.
- Studio/gym owners: Get organized. Understand how coronavirus falls into the Ts and Cs of your insurance policies. Get clear on the level of risk you’re committed to based on these details.
- Take care of your staff. Consider tipping extra, keeping your hours the same even if traffic is the same, and paying whatever you can.
3. Digital, at-home fitness and mindfulness platforms will thrive.
On the flip side, it’s not a bad time to be Mirror, Peloton, or other digital workout streaming platforms. In fact, Peloton shares were up 14% last week, showing strength amongst other essential quarantine services like Netflix, Zoom (the video conferencing platform), and Slack. (This doesn’t put them completely in the clear after a disappointing Q1, however). It’s too early to say whether this uptick will create lasting, sustainable change for all at-home streaming platforms, but investors will be assured by these metrics and continue to view these low-cost, accessible platforms as promising opportunities against in-person alternatives.
We’ve already seen a steady uptick of digital spaces replacing physical practices, and encouraging people usually overlooked by the industry to join in. This virus will accelerate it.
What to do:
- Get online. Make a plan for how you can leverage digital touchpoints to stay in relationship with your clientele.
- Don’t get too excited. One thing to note is regardless of promise and potential, it’s expected that investors will be much more conservative in the coming months as the global stocks tank and uncertainty persists. If you are running a digital wellness business looking to raise, don’t get discouraged if deals aren’t closing as quickly as you expect.
4. The shift from shared mats and props will impact accessibility.
Many studios, including the CorePower Yoga studio chain with over 200 locations in the U.S., have encouraged their staff to decrease the use of props and mat rentals in their studio, which at first glance can seem like a fair way to prevent the spread of germs. However, consider how removing mats and props from public use can make the practice more inaccessible to students. Some people don’t have workout equipment at home or the time to travel from work to class with one on hand. There are many people that require props as a way to safely practice, and discouraging use during class can make them feel uncomfortable and judged.
We know that the virus can be spread through water droplets on both hard and soft surfaces, but most studios don’t have the capacity to clean their soft props (like blankets, bolsters, and straps in yoga studios) regularly anyway. Cushions on megaformers and gym equipment, too, will be difficult to clean frequently. So although cleanliness is undeniably a best practice, it’s unclear how much removing props from yoga studios will actually do to solve these issues.
What to do:
- Don’t alienate your userbase. Shaming people for the sake of health is harmful. Be sure that props and mat rentals are still available without judgment.
- BYOP. If you have your own props, mats, blankets, weights, bring them with you if you can.
- Stay alert. Take your fears out of props, and focus on more high-touch areas of your workout space, like entrance and locker room doors, the lockers themselves, sink handles, etc.
5. Spiritual bypassing is being marketed as health.
The wellness industry is notorious for its “thoughts and prayers” response to major societal issues, and coronavirus is no exception. Shamefully promoted workshops and classes are being offered as spiritual ways to address coronavirus, with attempts to heal or prevent catching coronavirus by changing your vibrational energy or creating an abundance mindset around health.
There are undeniable benefits of focusing on the positive and maintaining a healthy immune system all the time, particularly during a global outbreak. But let’s be clear — coronavirus won’t be cured by spiritual bypassing. There are deep systemic issues that are causing the spread and gravity of coronavirus, including and not limited to a broken healthcare system, inaccessibility of health and wellness resources for vulnerable communities, economic inequality that keeps people in low-wage jobs without sick days or paid time off, etc.
Coronavirus makes clear what has been true all along. Your health is as safe as that of the worst-insured, worst-cared-for person in your society. It will be decided by the height of the floor, not the ceiling. — Anand Giridharadas
What to do:
- Don’t center your wellness work as a cure for coronavirus — unless it LITERALLY is a cure for coronavirus.
- Call out whenever you see spiritual bypassing happen in the community.
- Coronavirus is not a marketing trend – it’s a deadly outbreak. Don’t use coronavirus to sell your next thing, no matter how tempting it is.
6. Travel woes will affect conferences, festivals and retreats.
We’ll also see travel concerns directly impacting wellness events. Expect dwindling numbers in local and international yoga retreats, which tend to increase in popularity during the spring and summer months. Eager to just get out to a weekend festival or conference? Don’t get too excited — many of those favorite events are getting canceled, too. Wanderlust canceled all activations in the U.S. for 2020 after the coronavirus outbreak affected their programming in Asia. The Evolution of Yoga Summit, an event co-hosted by Accessible Yoga and the Yoga Service Council, was indefinitely postponed.
This has a direct and immediate impact on the venues and staff support that makes these productions possible. But it’s likely to have long-term financial implications, too — preventing production facilities and experiences from offering events in future quarters, even affecting the level of experiences available next year, long after we’ve got the outbreak under control.
And what will take its place? Likely, increased investment in digital conferences and live-streamed opportunities for communities to gather virtually, and organizations to recoup some costs. Webinars, online seminars, teleconferences, etc. And it’s not a bad thing — the nature of digital meetings are usually more accessible and cost-effective.
What to do:
- Take caution if you’re investing in festivals as an attendee or speaker. Most aren’t offering refunds on flights, lodging, and ticket sales upon cancellation.
- Hosting an event in the next six months? Might want to consider canceling. Expect low turnouts, and potentially losing some speaker talent. Forecast out a few scenarios to get informed.
- Secure your bag. When speaking/teaching at conferences, check your contract to see if there’s a cancellation policy. Negotiate to receive at least some of your speaker fee in the event of a cancellation.
- Think long-term. If you’re optimistic about how things will unfold, now’s the time to start booking venues and travel for conferences and retreats in late 2020 and 2021.
7. Community matters now more than ever.
Will it all be doom and gloom? It’s hard to say. Certainly, there are many people that are shrugging off the hype by washing their hands and continuing on with everyday life. Xavier in SF isn’t stopping his workouts at the gym, just “carrying Purell and wiping down the equipment before I use it.”
But it’s bigger than that. There are many people that feel that, amidst all the avoiding and quarantining, community is needed now more than ever. For many of us, we practice not just to be in deeper relationship with ourselves, but to others. Laura Stoffel from MN notes that “if anything, I’ve wanted to practice yoga more with all of the constant worry.” Sarah Matuszak is staying loyal to her studio, Embody Yoga Milwaukee, and going to class more often because classes are less crowded.
So whatever you’re feeling about this outbreak, and however you choose to respond in your practice, remember that you’re not alone. We’re all exposed to this virus and everything that comes with. And the only way we’ll get through it is together. Now is the opportunity to redefine how we stay well so this industry can thrive for all of us — regardless of whatever global outbreak we face.