Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Employees tough to budge on workplace health

I was recently interviewed by an Australian organization called Return to Work Matters. It is directed by leaders in occupational medicine, return to work facilitation, policy development and support for professional networks. They have an interesting and informative web site at http://www.rtwmatters.org/index.php. Following is a copy of the interview, which also appears on the rtwmatters.org web site.

Who is least likely to participate in workplace health and wellbeing programs and why?

People who ignore or deny their health problems and risks are least likely to participate. That’s often because they have psychological “blocks” that drain their energy and willingness to focus on self-care and self-improvement. The blocks may be due, for example, to underlying depression. This depression, in turn, causes people to:

  • Sleep too little or too much
  • Be unable to concentrate
  • Feel worthless and hopeless
  • Lose their appetite or be unable to stop eating
  • Have low frustration tolerance
  • Become easily irritated and angry
  • Even have self-destructive thoughts that they’d be better off dead.

For others, it may be anxiety and self-doubt, which leads to them denying that they have a problem. That’s because many people tend to convince themselves they don’t have a problem if they feel anxious thinking about it, or if they doubt they can improve the situation. While this coping strategy can relieve the anxiety temporarily, it is maladaptive because it does nothing to improve their situation and actually leads to worsening health by failing to manage the problem effectively.

People hampered by these psychological blocks are also less likely to be motivated by rewards and punishments because their failure to participate in a workplace health program is not due to laziness. These examples evidence a strong mind-body connection when it comes to self-managing one’s phsycial health and emotional wellbeing.

Here’s another thing to consider. Improving employees’ health and wellbeing requires lifestyle and psychosocial factors. Examples of psychosocial factors that affect return to work area include developing healthier behaviours (e.g. eating, exercising, sleeping and following doctors’ orders for managing existing conditions), as well as more adaptive emotions, rational thinking and effective coping skills.

That means employees must be able to continue making the positive changes after they leave work. As such, they must have the time, money, transportation and social support necessary to buy healthy foods, exercise adequately, get enough sleep, take required medications, control their stress and deal with personal problems.

What are the key things employers need to consider when planning and implementing a workplace health program?

In addition to health education, employers ought to have in place adequate resources—tools and people—to assess and deal with the psychological blocks I just mentioned. These resources include good mind-body health status assessments, as well as wellness coaches and counsellors. In addition, it can be beneficial to get the family of a resistant employee involved in the program as a means of social support. It’s also important to measure the program’s effectiveness in terms of enrollment and drop-out rates, as well as progress toward meeting participants’ health goals. And it’s important to measure a program’s performance and have a plan for continually improving its efficiency and effectiveness.

What do employers tend to forget about in terms of workplace health?

Employers tend to forget that punishments, incentives and threats do not work for everyone. Many people need compassionate counselling and a flexible program that addresses both their physical AND psychological needs.

What are the most effective methods for motivating employees who seem to have no interest in health and wellbeing?

They need a powerful reason to change their lifestyle despite the psychological blocks. Research has shown, for example, that ‘joy of living’ is a much more powerful motivator than ‘fear of illness and death’. Likewise, having self-confidence, being hopeful, alleviating depression and anxiety, learning to handle stress effectively and thinking rationally are factors associated with motivation.

Counselling is the best way to emerge these positive psychological characteristics in people lacking them by guiding changes in the way they think, feel and behave.

What suggestions do you have for organisations which lack the budget for health counselors?

One possibility is for employees with psychological blocks to receive psychotherapy outside the workplace, which has health motivation as a primary goal. Another possibility is to use cognitive-behavioural therapy self-help software, web sites and books.

In fact, I’m developing a holistic personal health record with a self-help component that incorporates cognitive-behavioral counselling and structured problem solving. This interactive software application helps guide a person to deal with health and other personal problems by understanding and changing their maladaptive thoughts, emotions and behaviours, which develops more effective coping skills.

Please tell us a bit about what keeps you passionate about workplace health.

My life mission is to help people across the globe lead healthier, happier and more productive lives. Workplace wellness programs have an important role to play in realising this goal.

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