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

Sustainability, Contentment & Worksite Wellness: A Business School Professor Hints At A Need For REAL Wellness

Monday June 22, 2009

For years, I've described the nature of needed worksite wellness programming. The new educational topics would be part of the concept of REAL wellness for quality of life enrichment. The three-part focus for REAL wellness, as the acronym REAL suggests, is reason, exuberance and liberty. This shift from avoidance of negative developments (e.g., illness, disability and ruinous costs) to the pursuit of positive outcomes (e.g., enhancing employee quality of life and corporate prospects of higher productivity) would, I believe, have exceptional payoffs for employees and society.

In my view, existing worksite wellness programs have been over-hyped even as they under-perform. With a quality of life, REAL wellness model, educational opportunities for life skills development would be on offer. These might include a dynamic understanding of the nature and best approaches to increased happiness, critical thinking, ethics, meaning and environmental awareness. The goal of worksite wellness would no longer be prevention. While still offering current testing and all manner of prevention, the new emphasis would add promotion to the mix. "Promotion of what," some might ask? Promotion of the good, examined life for all.

By ignoring the bright or positive side of wellness, which of course is what wellness was designed to address in the first place, worksite wellness programs have been underachievers. Despite of the unquestioned success and favorable, though modest, returns from offerings to date, the health status problems of employees (nearly everyone else in the US) continue to grow. Thus, a shift of priorities is as or more urgent than ever before.

Putting aside the bright side of REAL wellness for just a moment, there is a very large problem associated with the worksite itself. This problem also augurs for a shift of emphasis toward positive programming. That problem resides in the very nature of the workplace.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at the Stanford Business School, is one of the leading advocates for the view that corporations are inherently toxic. He claims corporate practices are adverse in the extreme, not just on polar bears and wetlands but also on the Homo sapiens employed in typical organizations. The professor observes that while many companies tout worksite programs, they also "raise rates of disease and mortality by paying too little attention to the most pressing needs of their employees." (Jeffrey Pfeffer, "Time to Detox the Work Environment," Stanford GBS News, April 2009.)

As a REAL wellness advocate, I find this view unsurprising. How ironic that corporations spend so much on tests and check-ups but shy away (so far) from an educational agenda of REAL wellness. The latter would entail multiple efforts to assist employees to gain full understanding of happiness, applied ethics, critical thinking, environmentalism and alternate paths to added meaning. These and other REAL wellness missions might slow the spread of the very illnesses now assessed and treated.

Professor Pfeffer suggests that businesses "must wake up to the fact that if they don't do well by their employees, chances are they won't do well, period." While he does not expressly advocate a REAL wellness agenda to address the crisis of toxic worksites, he does favor measures that complement such worksite wellness, including:

The professor suggests a broader definition of sustainability beyond concern for the environment and resource conservation. He wants quality of life for workers factored into sustainability. Is the organization itself good for the environment in which people work? A "yes" response requires more than a prevention-focused worksite wellness effort, desirable though this is. He recommends humane" offerings that represent what amount to "generous benefits."

There are many reasons why companies might want to shift emphasis toward REAL wellness and other quality-of-life enhancing features. One is the claim, in this case supported by Professor Pfeffer, that evidence links such steps to greater profitability. The professor's examples are Southwest Airlines, Kimberly-Clark and DaVita Company. No doubt other examples could be cited of organizations that have gained from injecting human elements into new initiatives toward sustainability.

I wonder what Professor Pfeffer would say about Swiss writer Alain de Botton's new book entitled, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. The title is a bit tongue-in-cheek, as the author's studies of two multinational companies led him to wonder "if today's jobs deliver real meaning or just keep us out of trouble." Mr. de Botton questions the notion of a contented worker, terming such a thing an erratic and anomalous event. (Source: Francis X. Rocca, "It's Only A Job, Or Is It?" Bookshelf: The Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2009.)

On an existential note, de Botton sounds a bit like Ecclesiastes: "There is something absurd about the energy and anxiety that we pour into our jobs, given that even our most glorious deeds are destined to oblivion. Work has no greater value than as a lifelong distraction from the fact of our inevitable demise. Having allowed us to put a roof over our heads, work is finally a way of keeping us out of greater trouble."

I think we can forget contentment. A little happiness, a bit of exuberance and a dash of liberty, however, might be just the thing.

Be well—look on the bright side.

Domain: purpose
Subdomain: applied wellness

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