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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 Twin Goals Of Worksite REAL Wellness: Improve Employee Health AND Organizational Productivity

Wednesday April 9, 2008

More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly. ~Woody Allen

Workplace wellness programs are at a crossroads. One path leads to continued modest cost savings from a range of investments designed to constrain medical insurance expenses and reduce worker morbidity and mortality; the other path, one not yet taken, might lead to quality of life enhancements for employees. The latter road I call REAL (Reason, Exuberance And Liberty) wellness. Despite Woody Allen's suggestion in his crossroads dilemma, I would not recommend praying for such wisdom. There is, after all, no evidence that praying ever made anyone smarter or better at making choices. However, a closer look at an alternative path to sole reliance upon traditional health promotion might be beneficial. A closer look could, after all, lead to a decision to add REAL wellness to the worksite mix.

A new study, funded by the pharmaceutical industry oddly enough, gives support to my assertion that the highest returns from worksite interventions are most likely to obtain from a quality of life pathway, not continued reliance on a traditional prevention model. The report, entitled "Health And Productivity As A Business Strategy," appeared in the Journal of Occupational And Environmental Medicine (Volume 49, # 7, July 2007, pp. 712-721). The objective of the study was to assess the magnitude of health-related lost productivity caused by medical conditions (including drug costs). The key findings were: 1) health-related productivity costs were more than four times greater than actual medical costs; and 2) The true costs of poor health are driven by other, lifestyle-related factors. The latter were listed as "productivity conditions"; ten were highlighted:

  1. Fatigue.
  2. Depression.
  3. Back/neck pain.
  4. Sleeping problem.
  5. Other chronic pain.
  6. Arthritis.
  7. Hypertension.
  8. Obesity.
  9. High cholesterol.
  10. Anxiety.

This finding led researchers to urge "integrated health and productivity enhancement strategies." I interpret this suggestion as consistent with the idea of introducing REAL wellness (critical thinking, happiness, a deeper understanding of science, meaning and purpose and ethics) to worksite wellness programming in order to boost both individual worker and company performance, along with quality of life for everyone. 

From a manager's perspective, traditional worksite wellness as a medically-based endeavor for risk reduction seems a safe bet. Who would oppose early detection, disease management and the other preventive-type initiatives designed to encourage the work force to behave less badly while learning more about the existence and treatment of health problems? Given the added attraction of evidence that worksite efforts enable positive returns on investments over time in lower medical costs and ancillary gains, support for such seems a no-brainer. Prevention does some good, costs relatively little and does not stir up waves (controversies, in other words.)

But, what about the average worker, particularly one who does not feel a need for classes in weight loss, smoking cessation or other remedial problem areas? How about the employee who finds health hazard appraisals boring if not a time-waster? What about the physically active employee who practices a sensible lifestyle, engages in no risky behaviors and does not need classes in disease-oriented subjects (as in the ten-point list given above)? He or she will not find traditional worksite wellness of much use. If the company offers a wellness center with excellent sports facilities, that's an attraction, of course, but the rest of the prevention-dominated corporate "wellness" menu has little appeal. What can a concerned employee do in such a situation?

Lobby, campaign, plot, connive, demand or otherwise work to encourage your company to move worksite wellness to the next level - to REAL wellness designed for quality of life enhancement. This is the kind of agenda most likely to boost the twin goals of worksite REAL wellness that improve employee health and organizational productivity.

I have described a number of quality of life areas that I think one can never know too much about -- any of these and other areas pertinent to a more closely examined life could make worksite wellness appealing to everyone, including those already engaged in the medical/preventive aspects. For starters, a wellness program manager could be encouraged to invite local experts who could engage workers in thinking about the following non-medical, quality of life issues:

Addressing such issues as part of worksite wellness would require greater creativity than the traditional offerings, would be subject to less black and white outcomes or resolution certainties and could even lead to heated discussions. These are all arguments FOR introducing such matters and others like them, with skilled facilitators, the better to involve everyone in a REAL wellness agenda that highlights the choices that truly shape the quality of our lives. 

What's your take on REAL wellness in general and as a next step in the expansion of the wellness movement on a global basis?

Be well. Look on the bright side of life.

Domain: purpose
Subdomain: applied wellness

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