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Wellness: a Sound Return on Investment (HR Future Mag)

Chronic diseases of lifestyle (e.g. heart disease, incl. stroke, heart attack, high blood pressure, high blood fats; diabetes mellitus; cancer; depression; asthma and lung disease) are responsible for 37% of deaths in South Africa, second only to HIV / AIDS (39%). Added, these are responsible for 76% of deaths in our country! This does not even take into consideration the morbidity and loss of optimal health, sense of wellbeing and productivity where people are chronically ill or unwell due to these same chronic diseases or health challenges.


What does this do to a company’s profit margin, a society’s wellbeing and an individual’s health?

The ever increasing demands of the competitive and stressful workplace environment, personal relationships, time constraints and lack of a work-life balance, are slowly but surely taking its toll on people’s physical, emotional, spiritual and mental health and wellness, as well as claiming its share of company profits and shareholder compliance and satisfaction. The chronic diseases of lifestyle that are mostly preventable, come at significant cost to the individual and the employer, as do HIV/Aids. The traditional reactive approach is not working any longer. Companies cannot afford to wait until the long term effects of distress manifests in physical disease. A more proactive approach is essential. This would mean putting measures in place to protect employees and employers alike against the negative effects of stress and the lifestyle diseases. To be able to do this, here are a few basic guidelines:

  1. Start with a needs assessment by considering the figures: medical station visits and reasons, absenteeism, presenteeism*, accidents, disability, sick leave. Know the needs, culture, and requirements of the target population the wellness interventions would be aimed at.
  2. It is important, at every stage of the wellness path, to bear in mind that wellness cannot be enforced and that people will be at different stages of readiness. It would save a wellness practitioner lots of heartache and despondency to realise that not everyone will be ready to participate in the interventions, and to accept that.
  3. Consider the stages of readiness for change while developing any wellness intervention:
    • pre-contemplation (not yet even considering a wellness lifestyle)
    • contemplation (considering it, but not ready to do anything about it)
    • preparation (preparing and getting into the right mind-set for the change to a wellness lifestyle)
    • action (doing what needs to be done for a wellness lifestyle)
    • maintenance (sustained behaviour change).
  4. It is also important to know that most workplace wellness interventions start and stop with awareness programs (e.g. newsletters, HRA’s, brochures, information sharing sessions, lectures, talks, e-mail messages, SMS’s, etc.) and have no continuing programs for behaviour change or to ensure a supportive culture or work environment.
  5. Create awareness around the planned wellness program, in the work population through brochures, posters, newsletters, notes behind toilet doors, etc. but do not stop there!
  6. Encourage employees to participate in a thorough health risk assessment or appraisal, either at work, through their family practitioners or external vendors. After assessing these reports, plan the wellness interventions to address the risks identified and results from the HRA’s. The shock of realising that one is at risk for, or already has, any of the chronic lifestyle diseases or health challenges, is often enough to encourage people to move from the awareness stage, to the behaviour change stage. Then regular information sessions, practical tools and techniques to address the problems identified, workshops, incentives, encouraged participation, etc. can be used to encourage employees to change behaviour. It takes at least 6 months of behaviour change before people reach the maintenance stage where the healthy wellness behaviour forms part of their very being.
  7. Focus on the environmental or systems conditions that can be modified to improve wellness and quality of life. Here one would also consider a supportive workplace culture, e.g. canteen food, chill rooms, regular lunchtime events, management participation, peer group and wellness champion assistance, etc. These are aimed at behaviour change, but also sustained change and motivation.
  8. Before rushing out to implement wellness interventions, it is very important to consider wellness interventions as a sound business strategy. Prepare a comprehensive business plan to present to your executive committee. This should include a mission and vision in line with company and HR mission. Have clear goals based on statistics. Design a project plan with time lines. Assemble a wellness committee ideally from all layers of the workforce: employee and union representatives, HR, occupational health, line management, top management, etc. Consider peer group training as an essential part of your wellness program.

When companies invest in wellness initiatives their employees are happier, healthier and more loyal, and return on investment increases. An important part of work-life balance is to make time to also do enjoyable things. Give people inner resources and they can deal with a lot of external stress triggers. One manifestation of unwellness and illness is increased absenteeism, but another phenomenon called ‘presenteeism’ is also very important.

* ‘Presenteeism’ is when people are at work but aren’t optimally healthy or well. They may have high blood pressure, be depressed, sleep deprived, have lower back pain, headaches or feel overwhelmed by stress. Ultimately, this impacts on their work performance.

There has been a paradigm shift regarding mutual support in the workplace. We mistakenly believe that all human beings are naturally competitive and adversarial, but we always have the free will to also choose creative environments that are nurturing, supportive, harmonious and joyous. To businesses, big or small, the wellness of the people working there, will make all the difference to the bottom line profit margin, employee loyalty and company growth.

Most companies are starting to realise that each employee is their most important asset, wanting to assist them in improving the quality of their lives and their sense of wellbeing, while still taking care of the bottom line: increased productivity and creativity, decreased accidents, sick leave and absenteeism.

Dr Arien van der Merwe

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