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by Donald B. Ardell, Ph. D.
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Wellness in the Headlines
(Don's Report to the World)

The Workplace -- Not the Healthiest Environment for Most People in Modern Times

Sunday November 4, 2001


Since the Industrial Revolution, the workplace has usually been the kind of environment nobody would consider attractive from a health and well-being perspective. Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Upton Sinclair are among the better known economists, revolutionaries and reformers who chronicled the plight of the working stiff in the past century or so. Yet, we now know that work can enrich or diminish human lives, and most realize that the latter effect has been the norm for most workers before, during and long after the Industrial Revolution but want to change things in the 21st century.

Listen to a few of today's top business executives wax eloquent on why the workplace should be among the healthiest environments for people in modern times. These quotes are from leaders of WELCOA, the councils of major companies that band together to support well-company ideas:

Warren Buffett, Chairman, Berkshire Hathaway: "There's no question that workplace wellness is worth it...the only question is whether you do it today or tomorrow and if you keep saying you're going to do it tomorrow, you'll never do it. You have to get on it today."

Dennis Richling, Assistant Vice President Health Services, Union Pacific Railroad: "The greatest asset to a company is its people. And we need to make the same types of investments in our people that we traditionally have made in our clients, property, and equipment. By doing so, what we end up with is an employee that adds a tremendous amount of value to the organization."

Glendon Johnson, Chairman & CEO (Ret.), John Alden Life Insurance Company: "I do know that workplace wellness affects the bottom line. We have less absenteeism, we have greater productivity. We have a family feel that people say, 'this is a happy place to work.' We try to make it a good place to work."

Esther Williams, Manager of Corporate Benefits, Seagate Technologies: "So...what type of culture are we going to create in the corporation? It's important that you're well as a whole person.'"

Bill Kizer, Chairman, Central States Indemnity: "For small business owners who often measure profits in the thousands of dollars, the net effect of healthy employees could mean the difference between profit and loss."

That is the new spirit. How different from the way it was, and still is for many, if not most, workers in America. For a sense of what work entailed for our forbearers, think of the representative workplace in today's Eastern Europe, Middle East, China and underdeveloped countries around the globe or, go back farther and recall Fredrich Engels descriptions of the workplace known to English textile workers at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Engels believed there was little difference in their exploitative situation and the plight of the Saxon serfs in 1145! Reread any of Charles Dickens novels (David Copperfield, for example) with his colorful accounts of similar times. These people had no rights, faced arbitrary rules, were subject to abusive supervision and had to endure a total disregard for their safety and welfare. The most popular management practice was probably an insidious "divide and conquer" attitude to discourage workers from organizing to better their conditions.

Even today, the idea of a well-company, despite the bold statements of the leaders cited above, is not a high priority or even a vision that can be imagined in most parts of the world.

Yet, some of us do have a shot at worksite wellness, if we choose to seek it as such. This assumes you have the good fortune not to live in areas on this Earth where the focus must be on basic needs at the foundation of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy. Given your advantages, it would be a pity not to "seize the day" by seeking to fine-tune your work setting to enable a self-management environment. As William Faulkner observed: "You can't eat for eight hours a day, you can't sleep for eight hours a day, you can't even make love eight hours a day. All you can do for eight hours a day is work!" Since we spend so much time there (2000 hours a year, on average), why not put energy into making the most of it?

In one respect, the corporate arena is the single most promising venue for wellness. Here more than anywhere else wellness issues can be put before the lifestyle disadvantaged, not just the true believers already aware of and guided by wellness principles.

OK, everyone realizes that work environments have been mighty ghastly for 98 percent of populations nearly everywhere since time immemorial and especially since the urbanization of labor during the 19th Century. Still, you may ask, "How are we doing in relatively civilized places like Australia, Canada, Norway and, naturally, the U.S.? Have things changed much?"

Probably not a lot, for most. Each year in modern America there are 100,000 deaths and 340,000 disabilities from work-related injuries and/or diseases; conservative estimates of the psychological damages are five times greater. Studs Terkel, author of Working, a landmark study of jobs in America, prefaced his opus with these words: "This book, being about work, is by its very nature about violence, violence to the spirit as well as the body."

Some disturbing studies suggest that the picture remains bleak. A project by a research team from the University of Michigan showed that one in four employees at a major industrial plant are so ashamed of the quality of their work that they themselves would not buy their employer's products. People who would not patronize their own company probably are not deriving a lot of satisfaction from the work they do.

Three basics are required for worksite wellness to be seriously addressed: First, people need a base level of financial satisfaction that enables them to pay their way in the world at a decent level. Second, work should provide a chance to pursue interests and passions. It should be a vehicle for self-expression. Third, work should make a contribution, putting talents and gifts to work and on display.

When reality falls short of these basics, you have three choices: gradually change your worksite, change jobs or accept mediocrity (or worse). Only you can decide which option to adopt, over time. If you have a vision of workplace wellness, the first two options are the acceptable, but the third never is.

Be well. Best wishes.

Domain: physical
Subdomain: adaptations and challenges

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