Corporate wellness

I have just completed close to 400 individual health counseling sessions in follow-up to Health Risk Appraisals at three local companies. I am convinced that we are not doing a great job at helping people understand what it is that makes them sick.
There are those who believe that illness is just bad luck, or that germs are out there lurking, waiting to attack. Some understand that health problems occur as a result of lifestyle choices such as poor nutrition, lack of exercise and tobacco use.
To most, it never occurs that if we are experiencing stressful relationships, financial problems, dissatisfying work or a joyless life that lacks purpose and meaning we are most likely going to get sick. Add these life experiences to our genetic make up, environmental influences and poor lifestyle choices over a period of years, and we develop "chronic disease."
Despite the billions of dollars spent on insurance and health care, the United States is far from the healthiest nation. Yes, we are living longer, but we are not living healthier. The Centers for Disease Control reports that both chronic and infectious disease is on the rise. The latest statistics show that:
* One in six people will become diabetic.
* One in three will develop cancer.
* One in two will develop cardiovascular disease.
* One of six couples will experience unexplained fertility.
* One in seven women will develop breast cancer.
A growing number of local companies are responding proactively to these health care concerns with workplace wellness initiatives. This movement to employer-sponsored health promotion is showing a significant return on investment for companies who have made the commitment.
Most of these programs focus on activities related to "healthy lifestyle choices." However, we are missing the boat if we think of lifestyle choices as those related only to what we can measure in biomedical markers such as cholesterol, blood pressure and body fat percentage.
Healthy lifestyle choices are not limited to exercise, quitting smoking and eating the right foods. Choices related to quality relationships, emotional awareness and management, spirituality, social connectedness and job satisfaction are equally important in building our resistance to disease.
We are moving into a new understanding of health and medicine by giving more attention to the connection between the mind and body. In her fascinating book, Rethinking Pasteur’s Germ Theory, Nancy Appleton talks about who gets sick and who stays healthy.
She explains that for a long time, Western medicine was dominated by Louis Pasteur’s belief that if a germ invades the body, we will get sick. If we can manage to avoid germs, we will stay healthy. Why is it then that many people will die during a plague and others survive? Why doesn’t everyone who is exposed to the AIDS virus become HIV positive? Or why don’t all who become HIV positive get full-blown AIDS?"
The answer, Appleton goes on to say, is simply the efficiency of the body’s systems. Most specifically, our immune system. What we eat, think about, feel, as well as other lifestyle habits such as exercise and stress all contribute to the strength or weakness of our immune system.
When our immune system and other body systems are healthy and strong, our body is able to meet trauma, resist infection, stop and reverse degeneration and heal itself. For many, the immune system has lost its ability to heal because of poor diet, negative thinking and inability to cope with stress.
Since most adults spend the majority of their waking hours at work, job stress is a major contributor to poor health. Dr. Larry Dossey, a Texas physician and internationally influential advocate for the role of the mind in health, contends that the "joyless striving" that people experience when their job goals and objectives are not matched with their purpose and meaning in life causes more heart attacks than does high cholesterol and unhealthy diets.
What can companies do within their organizations to reduce job-related stress and help employees build strong immune systems?
* Conduct an annual job satisfaction survey.
Have the disciple to "Confront the Brutal Facts," as Jim Collins says in his best selling book Good to Great. Getting honest feedback from employees about what in the organizational culture might be changed to make work more satisfying will result in healthier employees who are more productive.
* Build a work environment of communication and support.
Workplace studies document that people who experience supportive relationships at work have lower incidence of health problems. When people are supported by their supervisors, they are higher producers and have a lower absenteeism rate.
* Provide flexibility within job descriptions.
Finding purpose and meaning in work does not necessarily require changing jobs. Allow opportunities for employees to be involved in changing aspects of their jobs that are not satisfying.
* Encourage the use of your employee assistance program.
I have said it in previous articles, and I will say it again. Company sponsored employee assistance programs are drastically underutilized. EAPs can be an inexpensive resource for employees who are experiencing financial, social, family or emotional difficulties. Encourage the use of your EAP as a component of your wellness program.

Connie Roethel, RN, MSH, is president of Complementary Health & Healing Partners (CHHP), a corporate wellness and health promotion services company with offices in Mequon. She can be reached at (262) 241-9947.

June11, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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