Work – The Unsung Hero of a Healthy Life
It’s true. I know you don’t believe it but for about 30% of us, work is a life enhancing, health generating experience. For 7 out of 10 us however, work is that part of life that turns us into a zombie, makes us feel numb, checked out, half dead, not vitally alive, and not robustly healthy. Gallup research of 11 million people, for the past 11 years has consistently reported that 70% of employees, all sectors and industries included, are disengaged and unhappy at work. See the “State of the American Workplace” by Gallup at the following link.
The multi-billion dollar question is, how can work become health generating for ALL of us, not just 30%? This is a multi-billion dollar question because work that is an unhealthy and unfulfilling experience has a massive individual, social and economic cost. We all pay a lot for this very unfortunate and unnecessary current reality.
Here’s how those multi-billion dollars add up.
The first chunk of dollars is spent because of lost personal health and vitality hence high cost of sick care (aka “healthcare”). We all know the high, and getting higher, cost of that. When you consider that 80% of our epidemic level diseases (heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression) are preventable and that lack of workplace health is a huge contributor to those epidemic levels of disease, you start to get the picture. Check out Dr. D Katz book Disease Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well to get the story about prevention of these diseases in detail. Suffice it to say that the research is unequivocal. These diseases can be prevented, they come from how we live our lives, work is half or more of our lives and for 7 out of 10 people, work promotessickness. Work forces things like sedentary lifestyle, also know as office work, exposure to toxic chemicals also known as stress (chronic stress causes high levels of toxic adrenalin and cortisol in the blood) and daily pain from repetitive actions like computer use or factory-type, robotic tasks.
The second chunk of dollars is spent in greatly reduced business and organizational effectiveness. When workplaces are staffed by 7 out of 10 people who don’t want to be there, that is a workplace crisis, and it is the norm at most workplaces. The cost of this fact to all employers is enormous. It plays out in expensive ways like high turnover, lost customers, lower sales, absenteeism, presenteeism and more.
The third chunk of dollars lost to this multi-billion problem is the social cost. Work that is unrewarding and unhealthy forces people to shut down and check out in order to survive. When people come home from work half dead, and then have kids, chores, school committees, grocery shopping, etc. there is very little human energy left to invest in the social fabric of our communities. The outcome is loss of community, people who don’t know their neighbors, social isolation, uninformed voters, lack of voting, general sense of “don’t know, don’t care” about the larger social, environmental and political world we are all embedded in. The social cost is incalculable, leaving politics to lobbyist and small interest groups rather than an engaged, participatory democracy.
This looks grim but actually it is not. The utter exquisiteness of this ghoulish-looking problem is that it is eminently solvable, and by all of us. We don’t need a whole host of experts, expensive technology, years of planning or any other “out of reach” solution. Here’s what it takes.
- Make people matteri.e. make workplace choices that say “You matter” to employees
- Create work processes that are clear, consistent and cause no harm
- Create a healthy physical environment – good food, fresh air, plenty of movement, freedom from toxicity, control stress
- Make work meaningful
All four of these elements are both logical and intuitive. They all have massive amounts of literature available in the popular press about them. If people put their heads together to create these health and life generating circumstances, they create community at work as well as health. Some examples of each one might grease the mental wheels however. Read on!
- Make people matter.
The best way to start on this one is to ask people what ways they feel discounted under current practices. It might be hiring and firing policy, decision-making patterns (does anyone get a say in what happens or does everything happen via edict from the top?), response to good ideas from staff (are they encouraged/accepted/acted on?) or attitudes toward socializing at work. There are many misconceptions about what makes a work environment effective, and one of them is that people should not be social or emotional at work. Reality is just the opposite: workplaces that encourage social interaction and welcome normal emotions like friendship, caring and thoughtfulness are known to be more effective at getting work done. What’s more, happy people are healthier people. Check out the Gallup publication 12: The Elements of Great Managing for detail on this important subject.
- Create work processes that are clear, consistent and cause no harm.
To achieve this critically important health-creating element of work, it is essential to ask the people who do the work. Process improvement experts are unanimous that the people who do the work know every way that it doesn’t work well. They are the ones who have to find work-arounds all day long in order to get the job done. They know, for sure! Seek and ye shall find! Give them the latitude to re-design, along with some basic principles of good process design (again, readily available in popular literature, workshops, etc.) and efficiency will emerge. By giving people the opportunity to make their own work processes work better, they have greater ownership of the work, their interest level goes up, their brain power grows, their self-esteem is enhanced, work satisfaction improves, they will be in less pain and from all that, they will be healthier and happier. How’s that for a win/win opportunity!
- Create a healthy physical environment.
Work culture creates the health or otherwise of the physical environment. People in groups eat, drink, exercise, etc. in patterns and these are maintained by group norms. If donuts and coffee, pizza and beer on Friday, candy at the front desk, are the norm, understand that other norms are also possible. The really great news is that the alternatives are actually fabulous. Healthy food got some bad rap, mostly by broccoli-forcing parents and fat-free, artificially sweetened cardboard snacks. But change has come. Healthy foodies all agree taste, fun and appeal are not lost when nutrition and quality are top criteria.https://wellbeing-support.com/healthy-protein-bars-get-organic-get-real/. Attitude is all. The same applies to exercise and movement at work. Many workplaces normatively chain people to desks, not so much by choice as by habit. When questioned, and the door opened to free movement, people come up with many ways to move all day, even with “desk” jobs. Examples are desks that raise and lower, treadmills at a high desk, walking phone calls, meetings in the park, stairs to lunch and most importantly, the attitude that people still get their work done even if they move around a lot all day. The essential piece is the willingness to look at the norms that fill the day, and to open up to trial periods to demonstrate better work outcomes from healthier environments. Try it.You’ll like it! Just a final note about stress: it isn’t necessary or essential. We create much of the stress of our workdays by how we set up and manage those days. Stress management techniques abound, are easy to learn and work really well, especially in groups. Check out this link for tips https://wellbeing-support.com/stress-affecting-performance-5-tips-managing-stress-levels-work/ orcheck out the Institute of HeartMath for some very effective techniques and thorough research www.heartmath.org/.
- Make work meaningful
Meaning very often gets lost in doing work. Yet it is a deeply human attribute to need meaning in order to have a life worth living. Meaning gets lost but it can be re-discovered. Virtually all businesses create mission and vision statements that define the meaning of the work. These statements can become empty platitudes with little or no relationship to employees or the actual functioning day. It is a key role of leadership to bring meaning to the forefront on a regular basis and do the reality checks that vision is relevant, pertinent and an actual true north. When vision and meaning are lost, so are motivators, persistence, values and ethics. If expediency replaces vision and meaning, there is real trouble for any undertaking. Conversely, as social ventures readily demonstrate, where meaning is central, people consistently go above and beyond.
Truly, work can be life-giving and health enhancing. It should be. For 30% of us, it is. For the rest of us, we can make it so. But if you’ve tried and been stymied in generating health at work, then get out your resume and starting looking around because you’re wasting yourself, your life and your vitality. That is a waste that we as a nation cannot afford.
Kim Adams is a registered nurse with post-graduate education in both information systems and human systems analysis and design. She works with organizations of all kinds to create health-generating workplaces. She is currently writing a book that will be a key resource to employees of all descriptions, to find their way out of “zombiehood at work”. Check out her Kickstarter at .