Understanding Health in the Workplace Part 1
This blog series was created from a talk Dr. Gus Vickery, MD gave at the Asheville Chamber of Commerce regarding creating healthy work environments.
I don’t think it’s any secret that we’re living in a time where poor health is becoming an epidemic. This matters to all of us individually, because we all want to feel good. But health is also important in the workplace. We don’t want our workplace to become an onerous environment that saps our health and requires us to escape if we hope to become healthy. We can develop an overall pattern of habits in the workplace that supports our best health.
I think everyone understands how vitally important it is for the members of our organizations to be truly healthy. We’re talking about physical health, mental health, and emotional health. Anyone sponsoring a health plan knows what the cost of poor health is doing to our organizations. These health plans provide access to healthcare services, but they do not supply access to the resources that support our best health.
This issue is exceedingly important, and the statistics suggest it’s getting worse. When it comes to longevity and healthspan, the CDC is reporting reductions in how long we live (lifespan), and the portion of our life we experience good health (healthspan). Chronic obesity, diabetes, fatty liver, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s, and many other forms of chronic disease are increasing in prevalence in our adult population. And now, many of these chronic conditions are affecting our children. The cost of these conditions is impacting the cost of our company health plans in addition to affecting the performance of those impacted by these conditions.
We have to deal with this issue. It’s not being dealt with right now through our health insurers—they’re risk managers, they’re providing a risk management product—and it’s really not being dealt with through all the other interventions that have been proposed to try and turn this around. I know that because I see it every single day in my clinics, and I follow the statistics about population health. Employers and employees must work together to develop a culture of health and a working environment that supports organizational health if this issue is to improve.
Do We Care About Our Own Health?
First, we have to care deeply about our own health and what it means to be healthy. We need to begin to properly value health and be honest about what it will take to become healthy. Because when you begin to optimize your health—when you begin to experience what your body and mind are capable of giving you—the experience of your life changes in such a positive way that you don’t look back. You never leave a habit behind that was stealing your health and well-being and say, “I want to go back to that. That was serving me.” People regress, but generally speaking, in my experience, when people are able to have a true experience of good health, they don’t go back because feeling that way can be quite enjoyable.
We have to 1) want that for ourselves, and 2) engineer our environments, habits, and structures to allow ourselves to experience this.
Who’s Fault Is Our Poor Health?
Many people want to blame the end users of the health system for their health issues. We tend to want to say, “If these people would clean up their act, if they would stop smoking, if they would stop eating so much, if they would have more willpower, if they would do what I do, then maybe they would reverse these diseases and get healthy.” But that’s not answering the real question here. That’s not a right understanding of human behavior and how habits develop.
Casting blame isn’t producing any real results for us. We have to get past the mantra that this is simply an issue of self-control and people cleaning up their acts. It’s about putting the right target in front of people and helping them engineer environments that support moving towards that target.
I believe we all want the healthcare system to work. We want families, our workplaces, and our communities to be healthy. But we are seeing the problem of poor health through a distorted lens which causes us to misunderstand the true root causes of chronic poor health.
If you apply the teachings and action steps discussed throughout this series, you will feel better throughout your workday. If you are an employer, and you apply these teachings to your workplace, you will begin to cultivate a healthier, more energized workforce and perhaps reduce the cost of your health plan.
Are we just frail? Are we sickly, frail creatures that poor health would just be the expected norm by age 30, 40, or 50? Is that typical? Are we not well-suited to life on this earth, and that’s why this is all happening and why we feel so bad?
The answer to that, of course, is no.
There’s no way that we became the dominant, most prolific species on this planet if we weren’t well-suited to life on this earth. Something else has changed. Something else has happened to impact this. Now, I’ll often hear, “Well, yeah, but we live a lot longer lifespans than those of Paleolithic and Neolithic periods.” That is a true statement. Yes, we live longer, because their infant mortality rates, accident rates, and unpredictable causes of death rates were much higher than ours.
Now we have good sanitation, public health interventions, injury prevention, and medical interventions that can save our lives when accidents happen. Life is less volatile and less risky from a lifespan standpoint. But our healthspan, our ability to experience our longest, healthiest life is reduced from that of our distant ancestors.
Do We Not Want to Live Long and Healthy Lives?
If we focused on giving each person the solutions to the root causes of why they feel bad, and then provided them the resources and the environmental support to deploy these solutions, then many of the chronic diseases that are costing us so much would be reversed and prevented. So many of the conditions being medically managed—chronic depression and anxiety, headaches, high blood pressure, insomnia, chronic weight gain, chronic pain, and many others—would likely resolve.
You want to feel good, and your employees or team members also want to feel good. Humans are designed well and can flourish. We’ve been given everything we need in our bodies. But we’re still stuck in this place where chronic poor health has become the norm for so many of us.
There has to be a solution to this. As we go through the next several blogs, you’re going to know learn about those solutions.
As infinitely and amazingly complex as our bodies are, the solutions to our poor health are actually quite simple. Simple—but not easy.
We tend to define health by the wrong standards. When some people hear “healthy” they think 6-pack abs, looking good in your bathing suit, losing 30 pounds in 6 weeks, or achieving physical heroic feats, all of which can be good or potentially healthy (other than the 30 pounds in 6 weeks, right?), but they’re missing the main point.
Do not wait on your health plan to fix this problem for you or your company. It’s not going to do that any time soon. We have to fix this problem ourselves.
Giving Your Body the Right Information
Our body works by taking in information that comes from our food, beverages, stress, sleep, light exposure, technology exposure, culture, thinking states, emotional states—all of it. That is all processed by your body and then interpreted as your experience of life, mind, emotions, feelings, and body.
All the body can do is take the information it receives and then work with that information to try and provide you with your healthiest life experience. That’s all it can do, and that’s what the body will do regardless of what you do to it. It will keep trying to create for you the healthiest state of being possible. It will keep trying to find a way to manage processes so that you survive and stay alive. It will only be able to work with the information it is provided.
So if your body is receiving too much harmful information, you will overwhelm your body’s resources and become sick. Or if you’re not getting enough of the right information, then your body doesn’t have a chance to thrive.
If you give your body the right information, it will work for you. Give your body the right information by focusing on the following five things. We will discuss how we can focus on these in our working environments in this blog series.
Our Nutrition: The types of foods we’re getting, the amount of nutrients, the amount of fiber, and the amount of minerals in our beverages and our food are different than they used to be. In addition, there are many harmful elements in our foods that we’ll get into later on in this series.
Our Hydration: Water used to have minerals and other pieces of information for our bodies that purified water no longer has. So, now we’re lacking that information.
Our Sleep Patterns: Circadian rhythm function, exposure to natural light versus exposure to concentrated, unnatural light—those patterns have changed.
Our Movement Patterns: The physical use of our bodies every day has changed, too.
Our Stress Responses: Historically, life was stressful. Survival was in question potentially every single day. Your fight or flight system was well-designed to deal with acute, serious stress, but it was not designed for chronic, uncontrolled stress that’s not life-threatening at all. Our bodies do not physiologically do well with a constant state of unease. We’re supposed to be able to deal with an acute stress, and then move into a pattern of rest, recovery, and other activity.
Our society has made it very easy to escape bad feelings by exposing ourselves to substances and behaviors that actually take well-being from us rather than restore it. That's what we’re dealing with, and that’s what our children are dealing with. The modern marketplace is often offering the wrong solutions to our health conundrum. I discuss this in detail in some of my other blog series.
In the next blog, we will begin to discuss what we can start doing to imprint these five important factors into the culture of our workplaces and our lives.