Managing Employee’s Health and Wellness – A Better Way

August 22, 2019

A notebook about employee wellness programs surrounded with office tools
Jeanine Joy Geissinger

Companies usually approach wellness with a 4-pronged system that includes diet, exercise, smoking cessation, and early detection of disease. Despite the resources being put into the $8 billion employee wellness industry, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) recently reported that such programs improve some health behaviors, but after 18-months, clinical measures of health, absenteeism, and healthcare spending didn’t improve.  

Most programs focus on early detection of illnesses. In this article, we describe a system that will move the bar because it focuses on preventing illnesses before they occur at the root cause of human thriving.  

What Controllable Factors Contribute to Good Health across the Lifespan?

The factors with the largest influence on health outcomes are:

  • Stress
  • Adequate sleep
  • Good nutrition
  • Exercise
  • Healthy, supportive relationships
  • Optimism
  • Healthy self-esteem
  • Autonomy
  • Early life adversity
  • Gut microbiome

These factors have complex relationships with one another. For example, someone who is optimistic is more likely to believe a diet will help them lose weight which makes it easier for them to stick to their diet. Someone who doesn't get enough sleep is less likely to experience healthy supportive relationships because sleep deprivation makes them focus on the negative aspects of their partner.

Which Factor is Most Important for Employee Wellness?

One factor influences all others and when this factor is well managed people naturally make better decisions about diet and exercise. Stress is that factor.

When stress isn't well managed, the American Psychological Association reports that people are 71% less likely to stick to their diet and 39% less likely to exercise. Also, when someone currently on a diet becomes too stressed, they go off their diet and consume higher fat and higher carb foods then they do when they aren't dieting. Additionally, individuals who acknowledge that exercise helps with stress can't generate the willpower to exercise when they feel too stressed.

There’s also a connection with sleep. 35.2% of Americans suffer from sleep problems like insomnia and chronic sleep deprivation. Inadequate sleep stresses the mind and body. Psychological stress often interferes with the ability to go to sleep and to stay asleep. Sleep deprivation contributes to workplace accidents, errors, and discord.

How Does Stress Impact Health?

Recent animal research shows that stress can turn genetic markers on or off. High stress can trigger genetic risks for illnesses that would have remained dormant without the stress trigger.

Research on humans reveals a strong relationship between stress and health outcomes including the most common costly chronic and disabling illnesses and the number one cause of death – heart disease.

Stress and Diabetes: A 2.4-fold increase in the odds of developing diabetes over a three-year period occurred under moderate to high stress levels in women with impaired glucose metabolism.  

Stress and Functional Somatic Syndrome (FSS) Illnesses:  Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Fibromyalgia Syndrome, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) are stress-related disorders.

Stress and Heart Disease: Stress and heart disease are related. The most useful information is that changing one’s habits of thought can reduce the risk. For example, brooding increases the risk of developing heart disease.

Stress and Sleep: The bottom line is that  reduces sleep quality and duration.

Stress and Pain: Researchers routinely report that increases in perceived psychological stress and stress from not getting enough sleep increase pain levels. These results have been reported following surgery, from fibromyalgia, and chronic low back pain. Healthy individuals whose sleep is limited in research studies begin experiencing fibromyalgia-like pain symptoms within a few days.

Stress and Mental Health: Mental illnesses, from depression and anxiety to Schizophrenia and psychosis are preceded by chronic stress. Healthy stress management skills protect against mental illnesses.

Both the United Nations and the World Health Organization consider stress a worldwide epidemic.

Does Stress Interfere with Healthy Behaviors?

Psychological stress and stress from sleep deprivation both:

  • Reduce self-control - This reduces pro-health behaviors such as choosing healthy foods and exercise
  • Lead to more negative thinking - This reduces relationship health and can lead to increased financial stress because it also interferes with career success by decreasing productivity and increasing errors
  • Interfere with healthy relationships - Unhealthy relationships contribute to other unhealthy behaviors including abusing alcohol and drugs

Education Isn’t Very Helpful

Many employee wellness programs focus on education – how much weight is too much, why employees should quit smoking, and the benefits of exercise. Most employees know they should exercise, maintain a healthy weight, and not smoke.

Most employees who are overweight want to lose weight, most smokers want to quit smoking, and people who don’t eat well wish they would eat better. Stress is the most frequent reason they don’t do it. It isn’t a knowledge gap. The gap is a lack of skills and time that facilitate goal achievement.

Can Employee Wellness Programs Address Stress?

Wellness programs often include an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), but employees resist using them because of privacy concerns and stigma associated with mental health. Stress management is a skill that employees can learn that will also improve the bottom line.

Stress Reduction Is the Basis of an Effective Employee Wellness Program

Teaching employees how to skillfully manage stress causes natural improvements in sleep quality and duration, relationship health, pro-health decisions like diet and exercise, and it improves biochemical functions that effect inflammation, immune function, mental health, gut microbiome, and epigenetic changes.

The purpose of emotions was redefined in an article published in Personality and Social Psychology Review in 2007. Based on the new, scientific definition of emotions, negative emotion communicates that the thought you are thinking is not serving you. If emotions were words, the negative emotion says, “You’re looking at this wrong. Find a perspective that feels better. The better it feels, the closer the thought is to your truth.”

Individuals who routinely interpret emotions the scientific way find perspectives that are less stressful quickly and easily. With experience, they know that a thought is bogus as soon as they feel the hit of negative emotion that comes on the heels of the thought. Stress inducing thoughts can’t take root when you know they aren’t your truth.

An understanding of the new scientific definition of emotions eases anxiety and stops negative rumination that can cause insomnia.

Because employees use the skills in the privacy of their own minds, stigma isn’t an issue.

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