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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 New Face Of Worksite Wellness - Promoting Positive Mental Health

Saturday August 23, 2008

The evidence of a solid return on investments in worksite wellness efforts nationwide is well established. However, the focus of such endeavors is limited. It seems to me that greater returns without a broadened focus are quite unlikely. I believe the time has come for corporate leaders to consider something new and different, namely, adding positive quality of life issues to worksite wellness. Such programming might be called positive mental health wellness.

Such wellness would promote employee awareness and skill development in important life areas. These include effective decision-making, the experience of exuberance in life (as opposed to just striving for less sickness) and explorations in expanded liberty or personal freedoms. The phrase "REAL wellness" might be used to distinguish this orientation toward positive states of mental health grounded from the current prevention and treatment model.

For at least three decades, organizational wellness efforts have helped moderate if not quite control ever-rising health care or medical insurance costs. The new agenda would mitigate risks, as well, but would concentrate upon life-enhancing training and culture shaping initiatives. Specifically, programming elements would guide employees to recognize the dynamics of happiness (positive mental health psychology), paths to increased meaning and purpose, critical thinking skills and an acute awareness of effective relationships, the common decencies and elements of global stewardship - for starters. There might also be trainings in ethics as applied to specific worksite/industry dynamics and a systematic exposure to the great ideas of Western and other civilizations via a study of philosophers and other influential thinkers. All this would promote a better educated, more creative and engaged workforce and render more attractive the established preventive elements of worksite wellness.

American companies have promoted healthy lifestyles since the mid 1970's. At present, 81% of American businesses with 50 or more employees have some form of wellness program -- the most popular being exercise, smoking cessation, back care and stress management classes. Such initiatives are often called "health promotion."

Companies can little afford NOT to take creative steps to make worksite wellness more appealing. Business spends more on health care than competitors in other industrialized nations. A high percentage of employees are stressed out and sedentary, overweight tobacco users who drink too much alcohol and suffer from chronic health problems. No wonder we spend so much on medical care. We need more than medically dominated activities at the workplace to engage these workers and their families. We need to create learning environments that support personal responsibility and self-directed excellence and well-being.

Medical costs consume half of corporate profits - or more. Positive mental health-directed wellness efforts would supplement cost sharing, managed care, risk-rating and cash-based incentives.The long term, big picture strategy must be one that guides employees to stay well in the first place.

Fortunately, much of the illness seen in our area and throughout the nation is preventable. Estimates are that 95 percent of medical spending goes for diagnosis and treatment of illness after it occurs. The so-called leading factors that cause high mortality and morbidity are tobacco use, poor diet and alcohol abuse. I believe these are symptoms -- the leading cause of death is insufficient fitness and, even deeper than that, a malaise that leads employees not to adopt and sustain high quality lifestyles! Fit people rarely smoke, eat poorly or abuse alcohol, suffer depression and endure symptoms that lead to premature demise.

How might the workplace itself be designed as an environment conducive to positive mental health? The process of involvement in such an objective would likely compel the best efforts of employees over time. Perhaps less so in our area, but the workplace contributes to un-wellness in many ways, including stressful commutes, long hours, sleep deficits, unrealistic productivity expectations, pressures to conform and so on.

There are many paths to positive mental health-directed worksite wellness. No single approach is required. Let the workforce brainstorm possible agendas and ways to approach positive lifestyle programming. The goal is clear: Expand corporate wellness from individual medical concerns of some to life quality interests of all, including families. The menu possibilities are wide-ranging and attractive to most.

One criticism of worksite wellness is that it might seem self-indulgent to some, given the focus on personal well-being. The embrace of positive mental health areas, such as environmental consciousness for example, might address this dubious complaint. In addition to personal well-being and higher life quality, positive mental health seekers might identify global priorities. Imagine worksite discussions about carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases, ways to embrace new energy technologies and how to curb energy use. It's almost as exciting as exploring the relevance to contemporary issues of the best ideas of esteemed thinkers, including Socrates, Democritus, Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus, Protagoras, Lucretius and Epictetus. Of course, there's no reason to overlook Spinoza, Hobbes, Burke, Erasmus, Hume, Voltaire, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Rousseau, Russell, Dewey, Ingersoll, Paine, Diderot, Clemons (Twain), Eliot, Darwin, Edison, Darrow, Murray, Schweitzer and Einstein.

Compared with risk assessments, medical checks and varied screenings, I suspect you can sense the possibilities for boosting interest in worksite wellness by adding a good dose of positive mental health programming.

Let's make worksite wellness more about quality of life and get everyone involved. Let us also be sure the new forms of worksite wellness are made enjoyable and an integral part of organizational success.

Be well. Always look on the bright side of life.

Domain: purpose
Subdomain: applied wellness

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