Wellness in the Workplace

(This is a transcript from a conference presentation I gave last year on wellness.)

The topic of my discussion today is Wellness…or more specifically wellness in the workplace.  It is indeed one of the great subjects of our time and I’m thrilled to share some of my insights and experiences.

When I found out that I was speaking in the afternoon right after lunch I thought “Hey, way to set a guy up for failure, being forced to overcome the post-lunch drowsiness syndrome”.  While 15 minutes is not a long time when you are trying to present a lot of factual information and make a case, it’s a very long time if you are boring someone to death or putting them to sleep!  So I decided to ditch the slides and do my best to inspire and entertain you.  Which brings us to sleep.  No discussion on wellness would be complete without talking about sleep. It makes up about a third of our existence and is the critical time when our bodies undergo most of the recovery and repair we do on a daily basis.  So while I don’t want to put you to sleep right now, let’s look at sleep as a crucial component of wellness.

Sleeping at least 7 hours per night has been correlated with decreased risk of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, and increased longevity, productivity, and happiness.  Wow!  I won’t go into the various stages of sleep or any complexity, but If we look at sleep very generally, it is during sleep that we secrete most of our human growth hormone, and when testosterone in males and estrogen in females peaks.    If our sleep is impaired, the hormone cortisol is increased, and this is linked to a variety of maladies including weight gain, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and various diseases and cancers.

If you want to improve your sleep, there are a number of things you can do.  Increase the protein in your evening meal, develop an evening relaxation ritual, avoid spending the last two hours with a communication device, gradually dim the lights and avoid “blue” lighting, sleep in a cool and darkened room, and consider white noise such as nature sounds in the background.  Get aerobic exercise of 20 minutes or more duration on a daily basis (brisk walking is sufficient).  Even if you get nothing out of the rest of my talk, take this pearl with you.  Sleep matters!  It’s not an expense, it’s an investment toward your success every day.

So 30 years ago I find myself in my first professional role as a corporate fitness director.  My job was to run a fitness center at a company with approximately 400 employees and to conduct exercise testing and prescription on those individuals.  At the time, it was thought that most of wellness was attained through being more fit, and that exercise training would enhance the health of the workforce.  This was “The Era of Doing it (Wellness) to the Worker”.  I had just completed specific training in this area and utilized the seminal text “Health Promotion in the Workplace”, by O’Donnell and Ainsworth.  In that role, I worked with a visiting nurse and collected quarterly data on the employees including such things as blood profiles, bodyweight, body composition, anthropometric measures (waist circumference, etc.), blood pressure, resting heart rate, maximal oxygen uptake, stress tests results, etc.  I managed a dynamic document known as a cost-benefit analysis and our goal was of course to maximize the return on investment for employee fitness/wellness programming.  Our intention was to decrease absenteeism and turnover while increasing productivity and performance.  Additionally, we targeted being able to lower health and life insurance premiums by presenting our data on healthier, fitter employees to insurers and negotiating for decreased rates.

While I was only at that company for a couple of years, we did show improvement amongst those measures in the employee population, and we were able to utilize that data in reducing insurance costs.  Interestingly, after several years, we showed improvement in the health and fitness status in 37% of the employee population.  Being an optimist, I’d say that was progress and I can’t comment on more long-term results because I was only in that role briefly.  However, I like to look at both sides of the coin.  I had one of the executives on the examination table one day, and I was measuring his hamstring flexibility via the straight leg raise test.  This is a simple maneuver where the subject lies on his/her back and the examiner lifts the straight leg into the air until resistance is met.  It is the “gold standard” for assessing hamstring and posterior leg mobility.  I was taught, and many still believe today, that deficiencies in hamstring flexibility are the root of all evil, orthopedic and otherwise.  It has also been a commonly held belief that the most valuable thing you can do in life is hamstring stretching, and it can enhance just about anything, including well-being and marital harmony.  Interestingly, hundreds of studies have been done that have shown that hamstring flexibility correlates poorly to just about everything, including injury risk or the capacity for sports performance, and that hamstring stretching may be one of the poorest uses of our exercise time.  Anyway, back to the point.  As I raised the executive’s leg into the air, I stated that (in terms of degrees) he was at about a “45”, with the goal being 90 degrees.  He pauses, then says “Those were my math grades”.  In our culture, that constitutes failure.  And in some ways, I viewed that 37% success as a 63% failure.

Moving on, after a stint in graduate school and a couple more jobs, I’m running my own business, which was a physical therapy clinic with a multidisciplinary emphasis in sports training and rehabilitation.  I did this for nearly 20 years in downtown Bozeman, and loved every minute of it.  A substantial part of my work outside the clinic was in consulting with industry regarding workplace wellness. This was “The Era of Doing it (Wellness) for the Worker”.  Our emphasis now was in trying to make the work tasks better fit the worker, and also making the worker more fit for the work.  The idea of “reasonable accommodation” had come along and employers were trying to reduce injury, increase safety, and ultimately avoid worker compensation claims at the same time they were lowering work comp insurance premiums.  So I found myself doing a lot of worksite analyses and writing reports regarding observed risks and corrective recommendations.  Additionally, I gave presentations on optimizing worker behavior to avoid pain/injury and also to enhance job-specific function.  These services had become extremely sought-after and I had the opportunity to work with some outstanding employers around the country for several years.

So I happen to be at ErgoCon2000, a major conference in the Bay Area on the subject of ergonomics (the study of people’s efficiency in their working environments), and you can guess the year.  As I began to feel the pain and boredom of a number of presentations (hopefully that is not happening to you NOW), I found my way to the exhibit hall and perused the various offerings from vendors that were designed to enhance workplace comfort and safety.  I came across an interesting “chair”, which was comprised of a cast iron disk that was attached to a heavy industrial coil spring, and upon which sat a large suede leather “mushroom cap” (available in earth tones and several bright colors).  I sat on the device and immediately the salesperson came over to visit with me.  I commented on how the chair felt dynamic and fostered mobility, as well as how it was active and required light muscle recruitment to maintain good sitting posture.  I also stated that it felt almost identical to sitting on the $15 stability ball that you can get at virtually any department store and that I frequently recommend to clients.  The salesperson then leaned in and whispered “I know, but I can sell these for $700 apiece!”

And that brings us to today, and what I’ve come to describe over the past several years as “The Era of Doing it (Wellness) With the Worker”.  As vast amounts of new information have accumulated on human function and performance, I became passionate about delivering this information in ways that could make a contribution to as many lives as possible.  Consequently, I started a new business, “The Lifetime Body”, which allows me to focus on doing high-quality work with individuals and groups but at the same time investing a large portion of my time into creating written works and related projects to reach more people with these valuable messages.  My major goal at this time is completing a book on optimizing the body’s performance capacities through the lifespan, and also on developing an individualized online exercise prescription tool.

Now I’d like to offer some definitions for wellness.

From Dictionary.com:

the quality or state of being healthy in body and mind, especially as the result of deliberate effort, an approach to healthcare that emphasizes preventing illness and prolonging life, as opposed to emphasizing treating diseases.

From the National Wellness Institute:

Wellness is an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.

What I want to add to these definitions is the concept of HAPPINESS.  To be maximally well, you have to be happy, and that may be something that occurs more as a by-product of many things in our environment than something we forcefully create.

In Tom Rath’s excellent book “Are you Fully Charged?”, he notes that the pursuit of meaning- not happiness- is what makes life worthwhile.  His research suggests that the odds of being completely engaged in your job increase by more than 250 percent if you spend a lot of time doing meaningful work (i.e. that which benefits others), throughout the day.  It is this engagement, and consequently, intrinsic motivation to do meaningful work, that really empowers workers to devote creative energy and enthusiasm to their jobs.  So, you actually get happy by not pursuing happiness, but by striving to do meaningful work.  I think we’ve all experienced this phenomenon.

Rath also cites a recent Gallup study on the views U.S. workers have about their job’s contributions to their lives (and wellness).  “When asked if they were better off because of the organization they worked for, a mere 12 percent claimed that their lives were significantly better.  The vast majority of employees felt their company was a detriment to their overall health and well-being.”

Our challenge is obvious. We are recognizing that wellness is way more than just fitness or ergonomics.  Those things are important, but wellness in the workplace is affected by many things.  It is not really a program, it is a culture.  Of course we need more than just access to healthcare for our colleagues.  In fact, the healthcare system in the U.S. struggles to promote wellness and primarily emphasizes intervention after the onset of illness, disability, or disease.  Where we have great potential to make the most progress is at work, where most of us spend at least another third (remember sleep?) of our existence.

We now have amazing data on the benefits of activity, and the perils of inactivity, throughout our workday.  We are learning about high-intensity interval training, and how that model can be applied to most of work and life.  We have a myriad of systems for fitness, team-building, continuing education, training, conflict resolution, and that list goes on for quite a long time.  How we apply these tools can make or break whether our employees think they are better off because they work at our organizations.  Without doubt, what is good for the employee is good for the business!

If our workplace environments can foster autonomy, creativity, positive relationships, and meaningfulness, and if we openly value health, fitness, WELLNESS…we don’t have to push employees into programs to do anything.  They will naturally be pulled into a culture of wellness.  Every organization needs some means to encourage activity, exercise, safety, and healthy behavior.  Each is different and there are good examples both in this room and around the world.  I can’t and won’t give you a cookie-cutter model that is one-size-fits-all.  We have to collaborate and examine our workplaces and our principles so that we can determine the model that works best for each.  And that model should be constantly evolving.  Work should be additive to our health.  Naturally that has many benefits in business, but in the end, maximizing workplace wellness is just the right thing to do.

Share a comment or question!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.