We Should be Talking about Worker Well-Being, Not Worker Health
I had the privilege of spending a few days in Los Angeles recently for the Work, Stress and Health Conference. I had the opportunity to interact with some outstanding professionals, some of which I have known for several years and some I met for the first time at the conference.
I learned a great deal from those who presented, and much of what I learned will be integrated into my own future initiatives and projects. But one thing that left me scratching my head a bit was the repeated emphasis on worker health. Wikipedia defines health as “the level of functional or metabolic efficiency of a living being.” When we think of health, we typically think of good health as the absence of illness or disease (either chronic or acute). When an illness or disease is present (either physically or mentally), someone could be considered to be in “poor health.”
Yet, when occupational health psychologists discuss the issue of “health,” they are referring to so much more than the presence or absence of disease. They are referring to what would be defined as well-being, “a good or satisfactory condition of existence; a state characterized by health, happiness, and prosperity.” High levels of well-being include, by definition, general levels of health, but it also includes emotional health (happiness) and even success or financial health (prosperity).
I might sound like I’m playing semantics (and maybe I am), but when organizational leaders hear the experts speak of improving worker health, they often assume that means the traditional conceptualization of health, such as weight loss, exercise and nutrition. In other words, they conclude that the best way to improve their bottom line is to offer a wellness program.
Though they can be effective tools for improving bottom line results, wellness programs and even establishing a “culture of health” (often defined as having healthy foods in vending machines, walking meetings and other such health-focused initiatives) are not strategies. They are tactics for improving the physical health of workers.
But here’s the struggle. Wellness programs do little to help workers who exist under the oppressive rule of an abusive supervisor. They are inadequate when it comes to helping workers manage work overload, especially when their work demands interfere with their ability to effectively participate in other aspects of their lives. They do little to help workers feel valued for their contributions to organizational success. And they seldom result in promotions and career advancement.
So, while a wellness program may be a great tactic for targeting worker health, that program will fall miserably short of improving an individual’s overall well-being, which involves so much more.
For organizations, this means you have to have a strategy, one emphasizing the development of a workplace that fosters (or at least does not detract from) overall worker well-being. It should not start with the implementation of a wellness program; it should start by taking a long hard look at the culture, structure and business practices of the organization to identify where those important contextual factors are enhancing or detracting from worker well-being. It should include an assessment of a range of well-being factors (including health). And it should result in a multi-faceted approach that leverages a host of psychologically healthy workplace practices to effectively improve worker well-being.
Exercise can be a good way to relieve stress that we experience from an abusive supervisor, work-life conflict or poor working conditions. But wouldn’t the organization and its employees reap greater rewards if abusive supervision, work-life conflict and poor working conditions were eliminated? Then, exercise could be used to enhance health rather than to simply maintain it (or keep it from deteriorating even more).
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