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Chronic diseases of lifestyle are responsible for 37% of deaths in South Africa, second only to HIV/AIDS (39%)
– The 2003 / 4 SA Health Review

Work-related stress doubles the risk of dying from heart disease.
– Research published in the British Medical Journal in 2002.
What does Lifestyle deseases do to a company’s profit margin, a society’s wellbeing and an individual’s health?
The above reports as well as an abundance of other compelling evidence, show that 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 (such as heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer, diabetes, lung and nervous system disorders) that are mostly avoidable, 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:

Start with a needs assessment by considering the figures: absenteeism, presenteeism*, accidents, disability, sick leave. Know the needs, culture, and requirements of the target population the wellness interventions would be aimed at.

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.

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)
  • reparation (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).

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.

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!

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, 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.

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.

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.

Workplace wellness is also about taking care of the worried well before they become the truly sick!

Modern companies and wellness

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.

Contemporary, more aware 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 sick leave and absenteeism. Doing it from a wellness drive rather than from a purely profit driven one, changes the whole mind-set of a company to one of care of the human beings that make the company work. It changes the predisposition of the company to one of caring for the very people who make the company successful and optimally functioning. That of course, would be the soulful way of ensuring good return on investment. This is true social and spiritual intelligence!

Work-life balance is key. A life and work involved being is the true professional that knows the importance of work, experiencing work as part of his/her life’s purpose, but also knowing there’s more to life than work: quality leisure time, time with family and friends, attending to other interests, exploring all facets of humanity, including quiet time and silent pursuits, integrating right and left brain function for effective, life enriching, full self-actualising whole brain functioning.

Return on investment: Tangible economic benefits of wellness programs

Studies show marked declines in disability days, disability and annual medical costs, workers’ compensation, sick leave and healthcare costs, once wellness programmes are implemented. A report from the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (American Business Publishing 2002) showed that for every dollar invested in wellness, there was a $5-$7 saving or increased return for the company, a 66% decline in absenteeism among those offered company sponsored support programs, and a 37% reduction in sick leave.

Return on investment: Intangible economic benefits of wellness programs

The intangible benefits are probably more important than the tangible ones for an organisation’s general health and wellbeing. Increased productivity is one of the most important benefits for operating a business with fit, healthy employees. Healthy and fit would also imply fewer accidents and abuse of sick leave allowance. Wellness programmes in America have become an attractive tool to recruit and retain the most effective, productive employees. Morale is another benefit of wellness interventions. They are relatively inexpensive ways to show employees that the organisation is interested in them as whole human beings, not only a means to increase company profit margins. At a time of reduced job security and uncertainty, wellness programmes provide a glow of goodwill and support and encourage the important message of self-responsibility. Company wellness programmes improve workplace disposition, ambiance, mind-set and ensure a sense of wellbeing.

People at grassroots level are desperate for information and knowledge. Working with the core blue collar employee, the response they radiate and express are clear: feelings of goodwill and gratefulness for being regarded and treated as human beings, as having value for the company, as being real. This leads to mutual respect and understanding between management and employee, acknowledgment and loyalty – of inestimable benefit to any company!

The goals of a company wellness program:
  • To reduce medical aid claims
  • To reduce absenteeism and sick leave
  • To motivate pro-active health & well care
  • To increase productivity & creativity
  • To increase awareness of own control over health, and encourage self-responsibility through learning and understanding
  • To ensure a sense of wellbeing, quality of life, improved morale, employee loyalty
The most popular wellness programmes in companies of all sizes
  • Health screenings and health risk assessments with meaningful incentives for participation
  • Stress management
  • Nutrition and natural, complementary health options on the following topics: heart, immune system and hormonal health; executive wellness; HIV/Aids, menopause, depression; basic nutrition, ergonomics, workplace enhancement.
  • High blood pressure and cholesterol control
  • Fitness programs

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