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Press Release: Interview with Dr Arien

Proactive workplace wellness programmes no longer optional nice-to-haves but a sound return on investment

While globally organisations are increasingly implementing workplace wellness programmes to improve their bottom line, profit margin, employee loyalty and organisational growth, Dr Arien van der Merwe, a leading local expert on workplace wellness and stress management, believes that comparatively speaking, South African organisations are lagging behind.

“More and more companies are starting to realise that each employee is their most important asset. This sees them adopting a mutually beneficial approach by assisting employees improve the quality of their lives and their sense of wellbeing, while at the same time still taking care of the bottom line through increased productivity and creativity, decreased accidents, sick leave and absenteeism,” she comments.

Considering chronic diseases of lifestyle are responsible for 37% of all deaths in South Africa, Dr van der Merwe believes it is concerning that many local organisations are not taking the impact of wellness on the workplace seriously enough.

“The most common chronic lifestyle diseases include heart disease (including strokes, heart attacks, high blood pressure, high blood fats); as well as diabetes mellitus; cancer; depression; asthma and lung disease.

“Deaths related to these conditions come second only to HIV/Aids which accounts for 39% of local deaths, however this statistic 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,” she explains.

With many of these chronic lifestyle diseases being mostly preventable, Dr van der Merwe believes this is even more motive for organisations to abandon the traditional reactive approach in favour of proactively implemented measures to protect employees and employers, against the negative effects of stress and lifestyle diseases. However here she cautions against rushing out and implementing wellness interventions without a clear strategy and buy-in from the organisation’s executive committee.
“It is very important to consider wellness interventions as a sound business strategy. In other words you will need to prepare a comprehensive business plan to present to your executive committee. The plan will need to be aligned to the HR and overall organisational strategy, have clear goals based on statistics and should also include a vision, project plan and time lines.

“It’s also advisable to establish a wellness committee ideally from all layers of the workforce such as employee, union, HR, occupational health, line management, and top management representatives,” she comments.

And while one manifestation of unwellness and illness is increased absenteeism, Dr van der Merwe says that another phenomenon referred to as ‘presenteeism’ is increasingly rearing its ugly head.

“Presenteeism is when people are at work but are not optimally healthy or well. For instance they may have high blood pressure, be depressed, sleep deprived, have lower back pain, headaches or feel overwhelmed by stress. All of these impact on their work performance.

“We continue to mistakenly believe that all human beings are naturally competitive and adversarial, but we also always have the free will to choose creative environments that are nurturing, supportive, harmonious and joyous.

“To organisations, big or small, the wellness of the people working there, ultimately makes a big difference to the bottom line profit margin, employee loyalty and company growth, something local organisations should no longer be considering as an optional nice-to-have,” she concludes.