Mind and body

In the July 10 issue of The Economist, I read an article about the expansion of company wellness programs written by the noted Austrian Joseph Schumpeter. He described organizations with wellness programs ranging from those that only have an exercise room, then various firms somewhere in the middle (maybe a fitness center, smoking cessation classes) all the way to companies with more comprehensive programs emerging from simultaneous developments in health care and management theory.

Schumpeter wrote about a new business discipline called neuroleadership that will, or hopes to, use brain science to improve senior management. Positive Health Strategies, a London firm, promotes typical wellness initiatives like exercise, but also screens people for psychological well-being and offers consulting services that lean into the area of psychotherapy. And this all takes place in the workplace.

Hmmmm, I thought. Then Dick Tillmar’s name popped into my mind. If there is anyone I know who can offer insight into these ideas, it is Dick Tillmar, owner of Tillmar Connect LLC.

If you do business in the Milwaukee area you probably know Dick as he has a long history in the health care and insurance business. He’s committed to community service as well and it would take the rest of this column to list his impressive history of leadership positions in non-profit organizations. Tillmar Connect LLC grew out of Dick’s artistry in relationship building. His firm helps corporate customers turn great ideas into action.

I asked Dick about his overall response to Schumpeter’s article.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “The idea of mind over matter and using your head to get well – those have been around since the ’80s. I hadn’t heard the term neuroleadership, but it makes sense to me that the trend is to go after the high-earning executives as they are usually more stressed. CEOs are seeing that helping people process emotional reactions such as anxiety, distress and fear will increase productivity.”

Tillmar’s data indicates that 80 percent of health care money spent in the U.S. goes toward treatment of chronic diseases – diseases often preventable, often the result of smoking, obesity and sedentary lifestyles. He is concerned that much of health care reform fails to address these systemic factors, that there are no incentives for living healthier lifestyles.

I asked Tillmar about trends in the Midwest. Was he seeing a rapid expansion of corporate wellness programs?

“It used to be that the CEO wanted immediate return on investment in wellness,” he said. “If the organization initiated one or two silos, for example only a fitness room, they might be discouraged by the reduction in employment costs. It might have been one or two percent. In the past three or four years, they have become more savvy and realize it is worth a few bucks to have a healthy program. They’ve graduated past that hump.”

Tillmar described effective wellness programs as having these elements: health risk assessments, blood draws, a coaching or counseling element, plus incentives and rewards. A reward might be a change in deductible. Perhaps an employee has a $2,500 deductible. After attending a smoking cessation class her deductible might be reduced to $2,000, for example.

Tillmar believes labor unions now understand that constant increases in health care costs make it more difficult to negotiate for pay raises so unions are interested in rewarding behavioral changes that result in healthier lifestyles.

You very likely aren’t familiar with the term neuroleadership. The first time I saw it was in the Schumpeter article. Schumpeter himself, Tillmar and I all have questions about the promotion of psychological wellness in the workplace. Of course the mind-body connection is powerful and cannot be dismissed. Still, if this new business discipline called neuroleadership provides training to managers, training intended to help them spot problems with a worker’s mental well-being, I see many danger signs. Confidentiality and privacy may well be threatened. The science supporting a relationship between productivity and a positive mental attitude is thin.

As Schumpeter says, “Should companies pry into people’s emotional lives?”

I’ve always been interested in wellness issues, long before we called them that. In the mid-’80s my consulting firm offered stress management classes in the workplace. We coached business leaders in prevention of burnout and the like. We didn’t find high receptivity among the decision-makers, and made a successful transition into more nuts-and-bolts management consulting.

So Schumpeter’s article describes a trend very satisfying to me. And, of course, we need to be sure any movement – wellness or whatever – improves conditions for our employees and contributes to an open, trustworthy environment. In health care decisions, as any other management decisions, we need to be sure we are respecting the slippery line between our associates’ personal and private lives.

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display