Healthy Mind

Why Time—Not Just Money—Needs To Be Part of the Conversation About How To Make Wellness More Accessible

Erin Magner

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In an ideal world, digital media entrepreneur Amber Nash would love to go to therapy once a month. She’d also be thrilled to take a 30-minute daily walk outside and lift weights three times per week. But as a working mother of three, she simply doesn’t have time to consistently fit basic wellness practices like these into her life. Having her kids home full-time due to the COVID-19 pandemic is only making her feelings of time poverty worse, despite the fact that she’s fortunate enough to have part-time child care four days per week.

“I feel panicky and overwhelmed daily because I have no time for wellness or me-time and I’m just 5 months postpartum,” says Nash. “Because I’m nursing my new baby and working around meetings, I have only lifted weights once in August and once in July. It’s my go-to wellness activity.” Although she compensates by walking on a mini-treadmill at her desk, she knows she’s not feeling as well as she could if she were able to lift. And although she did make a therapy appointment months ago for postpartum issues, she ultimately wasn’t able to fit it in around work and parenting duties.

Nash’s story illustrates a reality that studies have confirmed for years: Time is a luxury, and many people don’t have enough of it to make wellness a regular practice. For instance, one 2018 survey showed that 35 percent of workers named time as the biggest barrier to sticking to wellness-related New Year’s resolutions. Another study, published in 2010, indicates that time may be more important than money when it comes to creating a regular exercise routine. That said, time poverty often goes hand-in-hand with financial poverty. If someone works multiple low-wage jobs, lacks access to transportation or childcare, or can’t afford time-saving solutions such as a dishwasher or grocery delivery, they’ll naturally have less free time available to focus on their own well-being.

Clearly, time needs to be part of the conversation when we talk about making wellness more accessible. Yet it’s largely been absent from the discussion up until this point, to the detriment of those who arguably need wellness practices the most. “Men and women who have been wellness geeks for years are not the ones that need help learning about self care, yet we continue to see a lot of solutions being created for the same self-selecting audience,” says Sabrina Mason, MPH, co-founder of hormonal health support platform Pollie. “What about single parents that work two shift jobs and don’t have enough money for proper child support? How do we reach them?”

COVID-19 has exacerbated the effects of time poverty, even among higher-wage earners. This is especially true for parents and other caregivers, many of whom are devoting extra time to their dependents in the face of school closures and social distancing. In a June survey, 67 percent of caregivers said that they or their partner were the family’s sole source of childcare that month. What’s more, caregivers who have lost childcare due to COVID-19 reported higher rates of stress and anxiety than those with childcare. A growing number of people are also caring for older family members due to the pandemic. In 2019, nearly 44 million Americans provided unpaid health-related care for their loved ones, but that number is believed to have doubled since COVID-19 hit the U.S.

Fortunately, a growing group of wellness entrepreneurs is creating platforms and programming with time poverty in mind. Some are creating A.I. tools that streamline the time-consuming process of finding and partaking in health care. Others are hosting bite-sized, virtual wellness workshops that can be accessed any time, any place. All are fueled by a desire to bring self care and health care to those without time privilege—and to ultimately make the industry more accessible for all.

What are some of the time-related barriers to wellness that we should be considering?

Time privilege shows up in the wellness world in many ways. The most obvious one? Most fitness classes, wellness workshops, and other in-person engagements are scheduled to suit those with a Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 work routine. However, this excludes the many people who aren’t available for a one-hour (or longer) session on nights and weekends—hospitality employees, health care workers, and first responders, to name a few.

That’s one of the main reasons why Michelle Pellizzon, founder of digital wellness community Holisticism, offers a wide range of online-only events that people can watch whenever they have time. “To schedule live classes, workshops, and trainings during non-‘working hours’—aka 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.— really excludes so many people from participating in these opportunities,” she says. “What if you have a child to care for? What if you have a long commute from your job? What if you don’t work a traditional 9-5? What if you’re chronically ill and you just don’t feel well enough to attend something that you signed up for when you were feeling really good? What if you can’t sit for an hour straight?”

Wellness retreats, too, require not just a hefty monetary commitment, but a time commitment that’s out of reach for many—even those with the privilege of paid vacation days. “When I was working super-corporate jobs and had maybe two weeks all year of time off, I was trying to balance family gatherings and weddings with things that would feel like a vacation,” says Tara Aura, co-founder of inclusive wellness event platform Blind Seed. “Then, once I transitioned into something that was more freelance, I recognized that if I don’t work, I don’t get paid.” In both scenarios, she recalls, she found it hard to string together enough time off to leave the city and focus on her wellbeing—a reality that inspired Blind Seed’s popular series of half-day “urban retreats,” which offer retreat-style programming without the need for a plane ticket or PTO.

Even health care is often inaccessible for those without a lot of free time. For one thing, simply finding the right provider for one’s needs—factoring in things like expertise, availability, location, and cost—is incredibly time consuming. Mason says this was one of the key reasons why she and co-founder Jane Sagui created Pollie, a digital platform that matches patients with hormonal health providers after they take a two-minute quiz. “To have time to even care about your hormonal health is a privilege, let alone having the time to spend hours, if not days, searching for wellness resources like a hormonal health expert,” Mason says. “Self-education takes a lot of time. Right now there is a lot of information out there if you’re consulting Dr. Google, but this can be overwhelming and lead women down inefficient research rabbit holes.”

Sagui experienced this herself when she was diagnosed with PCOS in college. “It took a year to receive a diagnosis and another year to find a team of specialists that I enjoyed working with,” she says. “Over the years, I have returned to hormonal health specialists to support periodic symptom flares. Each time, I  was amazed at how long it took me to sift through what was out there—I am more educated than the average person about hormonal health, and yet I still repeatedly found it to be a discouraging and time-consuming process. Hormonal health resources [will] never be truly accessible without first tackling the problem of finding support.”

The same is true for mental-health—finding the right therapist or psychiatrist can take a lot of trial, error, and time. Once that connection is made, ample time is still required to get the most out of treatment. “Time commitment is probably the most common reason that people state as the barrier to starting or continuing therapy,” says Sage Grazer, LCSW, therapist and co-founder of mental health startup Frame. Like Pollie, Frame matches users with therapists while offering educational mental health content. “In my experience, the most common reasons that people don’t have time to see a therapist regularly are because of work or caregiving responsibilities.”

Unlike other realms of wellness, those with 9-to-5 jobs are often the ones who aren’t able to commit to therapy, as there are often limited night and weekend appointments available. What’s more, the work doesn’t exactly end when the hour-long appointment does. “Therapy is not only about the time you spend sitting in front of your therapist. The amount of work that you’re willing to put in outside of sessions is going to impact how much you get out of therapy,” says Grazer.

With all of this in mind, it’s easy to see why those with time poverty sometimes have no choice but to opt out of health care and wellness practices, despite the fact that their overloaded schedules make them more vulnerable to burnout and other negative health outcomes.

How wellness can become more accessible for those with time poverty

So what’s the solution to wellness’ time privilege problem? Well, one key learning has come about thanks to COVID-19 and the rise of digital everything. “One way to work with time poverty is to host virtual events that are recorded, so everyone can enjoy them on their own timing in a space that’s comfortable and supportive of their needs,” says Pellizzon. “I also like to give a caveat at the beginning of class that anyone who joins will receive a recording, so if at any time they need to duck out or take care of themselves during the live class, they absolutely should and they won’t miss a thing… That’s what we’ve offered at Holisticism for the last few years, but even more during the last 5 months.” In the early weeks of COVID-19, Holisticism offered more than 50 free well-being workshops, all of which are now accessible on-demand at the platform’s Liminal Library.

Aura urges wellness practitioners to continue offering digital fitness classes, meditation events, and other modalities even after studios are able to reopen again. “Acknowledge that not everyone is going to be able to do the transportation and the time,” she says. “Continue to record or live [stream] whatever it is—then archive it and let that practice resonate in a timeless way.” As a yoga instructor Aura is doing this herself, having recently launched a YouTube channel. “I’m figuring out new ways to package things people can download or use at their own convenience,” she says.

Telehealth, too, is likely to continue resonating with time-strapped Americans in post-pandemic life, allowing them to save precious hours that would have otherwise been spent in transit to appointments. “Anecdotally, I’ve had clients that traveled 90+ minutes on the bus to get to [therapy] sessions when I was unable to provide them with telehealth, because Medicare would not cover telehealth sessions until the pandemic started in March,” says Grazer. “I believe in many ways, COVID has opened the eyes of clients, therapists, and third-party payers to the benefits of telehealth and potential for meaningful therapeutic work to be conducted remotely.” Mason adds that virtual medical appointments make it easier to sneak health care into breaks in one’s day—during a lunch hour, for example—which allows people to visit with a provider without necessarily taking time off from work.

Another way in which wellness providers can cater to those with time poverty is by offering shortened sessions. For example, while many in-studio yoga classes are 60-90 minutes long, Aura has found that the sweet spot for her pre-recorded classes is around 40 minutes. She’s also started to record five-minute sound meditations and breathing rituals, and is experimenting with 20-minute sessions as well. “I want to give people something where they don’t feel like they have to cut it off or start it in the middle or abridge it in any way,” she says.

On the educational front, Holisticism has created “Spark Guides” for members of its private North Node community—bite-sized overviews of wellness topics that outline key information at a glance. This allows members to digest the main ideas from the platform’s content before deciding whether to invest time into a deeper dive. Frame has a similar offering with its Digital Discussions, which are live-streamed conversations between a therapist and volunteer participants. “It’s important to offer alternative ways to engage in personal growth outside of lengthy therapy sessions,” says Grazer. Viewers can access these conversations to learn about mental wellness topics such as self-care, intergenerational trauma, and coping with heartbreak

Finally, Aura says wellness practitioners should recognize that many students don’t work traditional hours and program their offerings accordingly. “When I was teaching in studio, I taught a 9 p.m. restorative class—on a certain level I was thinking, This is bedtime yoga,” she says. “But then there was someone who came to the class a couple of times and said ‘This is perfect, I’m on my way to work… I work a night shift and it starts at 11pm.’ So acknowledging that a restorative practice might not be an unwind before bedtime—it might be the start of someone’s day.”

In the future, wellness platforms would be wise to consider offering specific accommodations for those whose free time is consumed by child care—especially given that many parents will be taking on the additional role of teacher once the new school year starts.  “One thing that I’m thinking about a lot is the predicament that working parents are in. So many are trying to balance working from home and raising kids during the hellscape that is 2020, which sounds impossibly hard,” says Pellizzon. “So I’m left wondering, How can I support the parents in my community? Should I offer concurrent classes for their kids? Can I make activities that go along with our classes that parents can use to keep their kids busy? “

One thing’s for certain: As the wellness space works to become more financially accessible and culturally inclusive, it also needs to address the ways in which it caters to those with time privilege at the expense of everyone else. Those leading the charge are hopeful that more businesses and providers will soon follow suit. “Honestly, I think more people have become aware of time poverty and its implications during the last 5 months,” says Pellizzon. “I think that 2020 has created an incredible opportunity for us to think about this and find solutions.”

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