Wellness — June 5, 2019 at 5:38 pm

Wellness in the Workplace

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By Sharron Richardson, VP, Broker Services

Employers know how important it is to have healthy, motivated workers. This leads to a more productive and positive workplace for everyone. There are a number of factors that can chip away at a healthy workplace environment: the physical facilities, working conditions, even time of year (cold and flu season anyone?) Studies show, however, that the factor most common for workplace illness and absenteeism is a group of illnesses identified as NCDs, or noncommunicable diseases. Until recently, NCDs have been grouped into four categories: cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and stroke, chronic respiratory diseases such COPD and cystic fibrosis, cancer, and diabetes. In November 2018, the World Health Organization, responsible for leading global health responses on behalf of the United Nations, added a fifth category of NCD: mental illness. This is no small addition. Not only does mental illness now exist in a category of its own but it is also recognized as affecting – or being affected by – the other four categories as well. Recognizing mental illness as part of the bigger picture of workplace wellness is a progressive step forward in creating and maintaining places of employment that enrich rather than diminish employees’ lives. It’s just common sense that a healthy employee is a more productive employee.

Places of employment in the developed world are expected to follow a standard referred to as duty of care. This means that their workers’ health must be considered when making policies and procedures. For example, duty of care would mean restricting travel for pregnant employees to areas where they may be exposed to the Zika virus. Or it could mean ensuring the work facilities are a safe environment for all employees and contain appropriate equipment for special needs employees. Since adding mental illness to the roster of NCDs, duty of care may now also include considerations for mental health. This might include policies to reduce travel to a reasonable and safe amount or providing employees with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) many of which offer confidential support for mental health and well-being.

While appropriate policies and procedures are important, equally important is the workplace culture as it relates to mental wellness. A workplace that celebrates differences, that positions workers for success, that promotes empathy and support for all, is one where employees can thrive. This culture of wellness must come from the top down, where leaders set the tone and expectations for all.

A 2014 study conducted by the University of Toronto, Canada’s largest university, revealed some alarming data about individuals who would be entering the workforce in the next few years. Over 50% admitted feeling overwhelming anxiety and/or depression. Even more alarming, 10% had seriously considered suicide, just under 10% intentionally self-harmed, and 2% attempted suicide. While university, by its very nature, can be stressful, transitioning from a student to an employee can be an exciting but stressful time as well. And then adjusting to a new job with a new peer group and being “the new kid on the block” can all contribute to continuing the cycle of anxiety and depression.

Failing to recognize the impact mental illness can have on a company is irresponsible, not just from a duty of care perspective but from a business perspective as well. Employees who feel valued and whose work is well-suited to their strengths and interests simply work harder. They care more, they’re invested. Workers who feel devalued and demoralized, workers who feel their efforts go unnoticed or unappreciated, often devolve into a state of presenteeism where they are physically present but mentally checked out. Presenteeism leads to human error, lack of production, inefficiencies, and perhaps worst of all, can insidiously work its way through vulnerable employees until the company culture is significantly damaged. This can then lead to more employee dis-ease (leading to NCDs), and it becomes a vicious cycle.

An engaged, enthusiastic, and healthy employee is a company’s most valuable asset. A company which recognizes and respects the importance of mental health, one which takes care to position each employee to actively utilize their individual talents, is a company which will create a culture of longevity and loyalty. It’s a huge step in the right direction that the world’s leading health authority recognizes that mental health is as important as physical health, and that the two are interrelated. Adopting a holistic approach to employee health and wellness will benefit us all.

The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by Health Canada or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. None of the information presented is intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.

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