Workplace wellness programs consist of screenings for health risks and disease states. Programs largely consist of lectures on illness prevention and managing stress, exercising, eating healthier foods and other offerings, the intent of which is to reduce medical utilization and sickness.
Little or no attention is devoted to quality of life enhancement. This is curious, since that is what wellness was designed to promote. This quality of life concept was first described by Halbert L. Dunn in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Wellness was not envisioned by Dunn, by myself or by any of the initial popularizers of Dunn’s concepts as a medical endeavor, or as a strategy for business to contain employee insurance costs. Instead, wellness was introduced as a positive mindset and lifestyle for the inherent pleasures, satisfactions and other benefits associated with this philosophy. It was a way of living well beyond the prevailing normal (i.e., mediocre) standard of well-being. The latter is little more than non-sickness. Wellness was designed to raise that bar - toward thriving, toward ebullient states of human functioning.
Yet, for the past three decades or more, corporate wellness programs have been designed and assessed in terms of saving money on worker sick care expenses. The test of programs billed as wellness has been nothing more than whether they mitigated corporate expenditures for employee medical insurance.
Notable if few exceptions were activities that promoted exercise and improved nutritional regimens for other than disease prevention or weight loss purposes. The closest most companies came to wellness might have been culture reforms designed to render the workplace more conducive to good health. The latter took the form of healthier menu choices in company cafeterias and vending machines, the provision of on-campus fitness facilities, walking paths and like environmental embellishments that boost quality of life for the work force.
Time for Change
If you have any influence on worksite wellness, pay attention to the differences between REAL wellness and the mediocrity of normalcy. Do what you can to encourage worksite wellness designers to address only topics that bear on boosting quality of life. Insist that medical testing and risk reduction issues be addressed separately by company medical departments.
Worksite wellness is an oxymoron.
Wellbeing at work depends on many factors, including how tasks and role relationships are structured. It’s also affected by the congruence of qualifications for jobs, effort-reward-balance, job-demand-control, social relationships, leadership and company cultures. Unfortunately, the amount of knowledge required to flourish at the worksite is rarely possessed by employees.
What happens beyond the workplace matters a great deal in shaping how people think, feel and act on the job. If the worker’s life outside the factory, office or other job site does not feel safe, if in the larger world she is not appreciated, how likely is she to grow and prosper mentally during the workday, even at the best of worksites? Life during off hours can be and usually is the greatest worksite health hazard.
To some degree, work can render added meaning and structure to existence and be a source for self-esteem and positive relationships. Yet, the larger, nobler returns are more likely to follow will follow life quality boosts beyond the job.
Assume with me for the moment that this is the case, and then consider a new focus: Educating employees on the job about effective living when the work day is done.
A Suggested New Focus: Four Skills for More Effective Living
REAL wellness has four dimensions: reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty, as in R-E-A-L. Within each dimension, countless skills can be identified and taught that boost personal effectiveness and promote enhanced human functioning and wellbeing.
Many skill building initiatives would render worksite programs less medically focused on problems. Four examples can be identified to illustrate the nature of this shift toward REAL wellness.
1. Promote reason. Besides religion and all the irrationality associated with its varied forms (e.g., prayer, a utopian or hellish afterlife, miracles, saints, a magic ark that held two of all earth’s creatures), large numbers of Americans believe in other evidence-free superstitions. These include but are far from limited to belief in:
- psychics, telepathy and ESP;
- ghosts and haunted houses, saints and occasional apparitions of the Virgin Mary on cupcakes, walls, sky formations and so on;
- truth in advertising;
- astrology, tarot cards, etc;
- apricot pit cures for cancer;
- homeopathy and other forms of alternative or complementary medicine;
- Bigfoot, Altantis, mystery in the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, Area 51 and government conspiracies involving aliens and fake moon landings;
- get-rich-quick schemes;
- anti-vaccine and other forms of hysteria; and
- "the-end-is-near” prophesies and countless other forms of irrational lunacy.
There is a serious disconnect between what is known by science and what the general public accepts. For instance, 96 percent of scientists have no doubts about the validity of evolution. Yet, only 65 percent of the general public accepts this reality. Other dichotomies between scientists and the public exist: according to established polling surveys, there are gaps of this kind regarding climate change due to human activity (87 versus 50 percent) and the safety of genetically modified foods (88 versus 57 percent).
Worksite wellness education need not confront workers about irrational forms of thinking. Instead, simply providing critical thinking lessons and an upgraded education in science and the scientific method would empower employees with much better mental tools with which they could make wiser choices. Such insights would encourage more respect for the benefits of doubt and initial skepticism about unfounded claims. It would promote the likelihood that employees would be better protected against film flam artists, scams and irrational nonsense. Bottom line - REAL wellness programs will encourage a critical examination of evidence, to the end that more citizens will deal with the vital policy issues facing society in ways that promote more reasoned decision making.
2. Promote exuberance. Bring in experts to explain to employees the science of happiness, thereby assisting all regardless of education to better recognize those approaches to happiness that do and those that do not result in more of it. Promote the health benefits and the guilt-free values of positive, constructive and effective ways to experience more joy in all its forms, large and small. Happiness and joy take an amazing variety of forms, and our language has a wide variety of terms that express the emotion, such as humor, energy, vitality, enthusiasm, excitement, pep, animation, vigor, zest, eagerness, buoyancy, vivacity, exhilaration, cheerfulness, brio, ebullience, liveliness, effervescence, sprightliness, abundance, richness, profusion, plenitude, lushness, superabundance, lavishness and copiousness. There - I hope that gets the point across. Happiness is good, as is whatever brings conscious awareness that this life is to be enjoyed. The wise pursuit of happiness is too important for health to postpone or reserve for weekends, holidays or other special occasions. What’s more, some things about exuberance are too important to leave to chance. For example, every employees should be told what happiness researchers have found, such as this: the three best predictors of happiness are a sense of optimism, good social support and a tendency to see difficult or stressful situations as challenges to overcome, not barriers that defeat desired possibilities.
3. Promote more exuberance. It’s hard to overdose. Get yourself “awed” as often as possible, every day in little ways and in larger ways, whenever possible. Consider what researchers have found - people improve their lives by doing things that “inspire awe,” which seems to have the power to “take them out of their own heads.” (See Elizabeth Bernstein, “Feeling Awesome: Studies Find An Emotion Has Myriad Benefits,” Wall Street Journal, February 24, 2015, p.D3.) Grant Donovan and I wrote a book about awes, which we call “wellness orgasms,” subtitled “The Fun Way to Live Well and Die Healthy.” The payoffs of wellness orgasms (or awes) are impressive, as noted in the article cited above. Ms. Bernstein rhetorically asks, “Want to improve your life?” Her recommendation? “Go do something awesome.” The benefits of awes, citing several studies, seem to range from “stronger health to improved relationships,” specifically:
- an increase in pre-social behaviors, making us more generous and more humble;
- an increase in ability to reduce inflammation and fight depression;
- an increase in empathic accuracy - improved ability to recognize another person’s emotional expression and respond with concern; and
- an increase in willingness to engage, trust and connect with others.
4. Boost the chances for employees to develop a better relationship with reality. Be frank in recognizing unpleasant truths, beginning with the fact that most cantdoit! “Cantdoit” means, sadly, that REAL wellness is not possible for most people, even for the few who come to learn about it and wish to live out their lives with such a mindset and lifestyle. It’s just too hard to sustain. The larger culture does not support it, the social networks for most do not encourage it, the environments in which most find themselves are not conducive to it and it’s too demanding in terms of time, skills and resources. Despite this fact, worker prospects for improved quality of life are increased for those who make incremental advances in thinking and acting in sensible ways.
Ultimately, worksite wellness from a REAL wellness perspective will promote individuality. The individuality ideal was well expressed by 19th century master orator Robert Green Ingersoll in a speech on this quality. An excerpt from that speech might be of interest:
“In my judgment, every human being should take a road of his own. Every mind should be true to itself—should think, investigate and conclude for itself. This is a duty alike incumbent upon pauper and prince. Every soul should repel dictation and tyranny, no matter from what source they come—from earth or heaven, from men or gods. Besides, every traveler upon this vast plain should give to every other traveler his best idea as to the road that should be taken. Each is entitled to the honest opinion of all. And there is but one way to get an honest opinion upon any subject whatever. The person giving the opinion must be free from fear. The merchant must not fear to lose his custom, the doctor his practice, nor the preacher his pulpit There can be no advance without liberty. Suppression of honest inquiry is retrogression, and must end in intellectual night.” (Robert Green Ingersoll, “Individuality,” 1873.)
Honest inquiry requires the kind of wellbeing skills not on offer under the now oxymoronic phrase “worksite wellness,” but will be when the switch is made to positive REAL wellness explicitly fashioned to promote enhancements in happiness, joy and exuberance in many forms, improved rationality, exceptional physical and mental fitness and enriched quality of life.
All good wishes and be well.